Maryland chickens lay nearly 71 million dozen eggs each year, about 1 million fewer dozen than Maryland residents consume.
While most of these eggs come from nine Maryland growers with flocks of more than 3,000 chickens, 800,000 dozen come from 500 small operators whose eggs can be found in local grocery stores and farmers markets all around the state.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture enforces the Maryland Egg Law, which requires all eggs sold in Maryland to meet standards for safety, quality, labeling and weight. It also prohibits the sale of ungraded, dirty, cracked or old eggs. May is National Egg Month.
“Eggs are a commodity that can work for both large- and small-scale producers,” said Agriculture Secretary Buddy Hance. “We’re very proud of our farmers, large and small, who produce nutritious eggs to help meet the demand in our state.”
Like many who are new to farming, Kim Collier of A Sign From Above Farm near Mardela Springs, Md., started out by growing flowers in her yard and gradually expanded to grow vegetables for her family. Finding it enjoyable, she wanted to expand. Now she sells much of what she grows at her local farmers market. For the last four years she has been setting up her booth on the shores of the Wicomico River in Salisbury with other local farmers, large and small, spring through fall.
“My greatest joy is that I plant the seed, harvest it and I hand it to the customer,” she said. Collier likes to be able to tell them how it was grown and harvested and she is always glad to see interested folks come out to the farm to see how things work.
“I’m a very small egg producer,” she explained. “It’s not the main thing.”
She raises both chickens and ducks on her farm for egg production. In the winter, she takes her eggs to an organic market in Berlin, but, during the summer, she sells them at the farmers market in Salisbury. Her eggs come from several breeds of chickens, mostly Rhode Island Reds and hybrid chickens bred from different species specifically for egg production - these birds lay an egg almost every day.
Her biggest crop, are apples and Asian pears but they don’t come in until early fall. So she keeps busy during the summer with Asian salad greens such as bok choy, Japanese spinach, mizuna (a type of mustard green) and other vegetables.
Even before she and her family bought the 5-acre farm six years ago, she grew Asian salad greens for them in the backyard. She enjoyed it so much that she wanted to expand and grow more things.
The land they bought had an established orchard. The Colliers were unprepared for the bountiful crop of apples the first year. Kim Collier had to find some way to dispose of all of them so she took them to a farmers market. Now she makes apple butter and apple sauce, jams, jellies and relish from the produce she grows, and she sells these at the market as well.
The farm operation is her “summer” job. She uses her small hoop house to grow salad mix and spinach for her family during the winter and to start her vegetable seedlings early. During the school year she is a sign language interpreter for local students.
Greg Zaczkiewicz, who came to the area from New York City, is a “gentleman” farmer at Sharp’s Creek Farm, a 3-acre farm located between Salisbury and Fruitland. He also sells chicken eggs at the farmers market but his chickens are also an important and reliable source of farm labor.
His goal was to operate a sustainable farm and growing chickens is part of the sustainability project. He keeps his chickens in moveable chicken houses, sometimes called “chicken tractors,” that hold approximately 10 chickens. The chickens have most of the benefits of free-range, pastured poultry, but their activities are guided in a way that benefits food crops.
Chickens scratching the soil and devouring weeds and insects gives Zaczkiewicz the benefit of excellent soil preparation by simply relocating the moveable coop every week or so. He rotates the chickens along a 4-foot-wide grid that alternates walkways and garden beds. He rotates the location of the chickens down one side of his field and then up the other. When all those areas have been “cleared” and “tilled” by the chickens, he turns them onto the walkways. It takes two to three months for them to weed, debug and fertilize his small farm.
He plants behind the chickens and keeps a journal. That way he can harvest produce from sections that have been chicken free for at least 90 days to remove the danger of contamination of any kind. He top dresses these areas with 3-year-old compost and direct seeds his crop into the rich organic mixture.
After he retired and moved south, he worked with a group of other volunteers trying to develop a small farming operation that a disabled vet — not severely disabled — could manage as a way to feed his family and earn some income. His initial project did not work out but he hasn’t given up.
He’s still working to refine it and testing out his ideas on the farm.
The land he acquired near Salisbury in October of 2012 had not been farmed for at least 10 years, just bushwhacked occasionally. It was not nutrient rich. He had soil tests done before and after the chickens worked on the soil preparation. His nutrient level went up and the pH leveled out. Now the nutrient levels are top of the line. All he had to add was boron to grow spinach and beets.
After coming south, he first farmed 15 acres near Mt. Vernon, Somerset County, right on the Wicomico River. Superstorm Sandy did a number on him and his neighbors. Zaczkiewicz was able to rescue chickens belonging to other area residents who could not maintain them after the storm. At present he has 50 mixed-breed chickens, 30 laying hens, seven roosters and a coop of 13 replacement chickens, raised from biddies, who won’t be ready to lay until fall. Production averages two-dozen eggs per day. Each layer produces between 280 to 320 eggs per year. He brings eight dozen eggs to market and uses the rest in value-added products he sells at the farmers market and for his own use. He routinely sells homemade pasta and focaccia bread and his wife makes a different kind of muffin each week to sell. His main product is value-added baked goods — high quality ingredients make all the difference and eggs are critical.
“I could sell many more eggs at market, but the farm can handle 50 to 100 chickens, no more,” he said. “At this level, there is no worry of nutrient run-off.” Since the objective is sustainability, that’s important. He does have to dispose of excess roosters and has ethnic customers who prefer roosters’ meat so he occasionally has meat chickens, but they don’t go to the farmers market.
He also grows Asian greens, arugula, spinach, beets, heirloom tomatoes and asparagus. He has purple asparagus on the land near Mt. Vernon. Luckily salt water from Sandy did not damage it. The asparagus season will be longer this year because of the cool weather; it hasn’t come up as fast. The purple variety is ahead of the green.
He also supplies local restaurants, such as Plaza Deli, with basil. And he makes roasted tomatoes by drying and fire-roasting plum tomatoes, seasoned with garlic and fresh herbs. He said he puts a few spoonfuls of the roasted tomato on fresh pasta and adds a little pasta water to make the sauce.
Overall, the United States produces about 75 billion eggs a year or about 10 percent of the world supply.
Eggs are also no longer considered something that must be severely restricted as part of your diet. New USDA research shows that eggs have 12 percent less cholesterol and 64 percent more Vitamin D than previously thought. Check out the MDA’s “Maryland’s Best” website (www.marylandsbest.net) for egg recipes, links to farms which sell eggs directly to consumers and a profile of one of Maryland’s larger producers which supplies grocery stores. Consumers who register at Maryland’s Best by May 30 will be entered into a drawing for egg-related prizes, including aprons, copies of the cookbook “Dishing Up Maryland” and a mini iPad.