LE — Bob Harrison’s chickens aren’t just pets, they are spoiled pets. It might be better to call them pampered rather than spoiled because spoiled suggests they might be poorly behaved or ill-tempered, which isn’t the case.
Neither are they demanding or overbearing. In fact, spoiled gets less at their demeanor and more at Harrison’s devotion to their comfort and their wellbeing.
If you’ve ever shopped at the Berlin Farmers’ Market or the Getting Healthy Farmers’ Market by Atlantic General Hospital, you will almost certainly recognize Harrison as “the egg man.” The crew cut he used to wear is long gone, replaced by a much longer set of locks that, when combined with his beard and his barely-shaded glasses, paint him more ex-hippie than farmer.
Along with his wife, or as he would put it, under the direction of his wife, he runs Gloria’s Garden a vegetable stand on Shepard’s Crossing Road when he’s not selling fresh organic eggs at the various markets.
While he is one of the few, if not the only, organic egg farmers in Worcester County, his tenure in the chicken business has been relatively short. He transitioned into it after an accident forced him to give up the landscaping and irrigation business he ran for more than three decades.
There is nearly no end to the challenges a small-scale organic egg farmer faces but one of the most notable is that he has to import his birds’ feed from North Carolina, such is the slack demand among local producers for certified organic grain.
It is more important to Harrison and his regular customers that the birds get organic feed rather than locally grown feed, as his chickens’ health and well-being outweighs other considerations.
Coming to the business later in life has had its advantages for him as well as for his birds. He has enough chickens to meet the demand that has grown from four dozen to more than 100 dozen eggs per week.
When he first got into the business his wife, Gloria, who is without question the boss, said that he could only raise chickens if he could guarantee that she would never smell them. The section of Shepard’s Crossing Road the Harrison’s live on is less than a half mile from several production chicken houses but the only way to know there are any chickens on his property is to be invited in back to see what his regular customers call the Taj Mahal of chicken houses.
This is where the spoiling starts.
A fact likely to shock anyone who has ever driven past a chicken farm or behind a chicken truck is that chickens do not have to reek. It takes planning and care to ensure that the birds’ droppings and their living quarters don’t go sour.
Harrison’s original coop — the one in which he keeps the 20 or so chickens that have dominion over his backyard — is a repurposed tobacco drying shed. The back wall is fitted with pre-fab aluminum nesting boxes and each of the boxes, as well as the floor of the coop is covered with sawdust rather than straw.
He plays talk radio quietly at night, as much to discourage predators as to soothe the chickens and the coop is significantly cooler than any other, comparatively. Not only did Harrison insulate it as one might a house, but he provides fans to keep the coop well aired and cooled.
“If she ever throws me out,” he said indicating Gloria. “At least I know I’ll find a cool place to stay.”
During the recent heat wave, the outside temperature was 102 degrees, while inside the coop it was 70.
Harrison has rigged two five-gallon buckets, one with organic feed and the other with water, so the chickens can always get to them. The side of the coop has a small door that lets the chickens have near-total access to the backyard, which is more than can be said even of Gloria.
The small dooryard just off the coop is a chickens-only zone. Harrison only goes in in the morning, when he throws them whichever vegetables he feels aren’t up to standard for the market or the stand and in the evening when he cleans up whatever food they leave uneaten.
Beyond their immediate dooryard, the chickens have as much right to the Harrison’s back yard as do the family dog and cats. The animals get along famously and that, Harrison claims, is the trade secret for producing quality eggs.
One of the things his regular customers at the various markets miss out on is the pleasure of hanging out with the Harrison’s and their chickens. Harrison expects that the coming months will witness him walking his leash-trained chicken around the farmers’ markets as people walk their dogs. The notion of a trained chicken might seem a bit ludicrous until you witness him commanding his chickens and getting them to obey.
People who go to his farm stand, especially families with children, are often allowed to pet the chickens. Watching Harrison, a larger man by any standard, catch them is a particular treat. He doesn’t chase them or use a net. Instead he walks near enough to one to pick one up and says, “Squat.”
At that command the chicken sits and waits to be picked up. By sight, those who don’t know Harrison might consider his a gruff demeanor which makes the sight of him nuzzling a chicken as one might a cat or dog, all the more pleasing.
This kind of relationship building between the farmer and his flock, Harrison said, was one of the more difficult parts of transitioning into the business. While it is obvious to say that birds aren’t like cats or dogs, what is less obvious is how much time and attention it takes to understand not only a bird’s psyche — such as it is — but also its needs.
Beyond keeping an eye out for sickness, Harrison had to learn to identify what might be best described as fowl discontent in order to make sure he was never surprised by the flock taking an unexpected downturn in attitude, which is easily followed by an unexpected downturn in health.
Additionally, he had to make sure that taking care of his flock they way he saw fit was compatible with the rules laid out by the various health and licensing agencies that check, or can check, on his operation.
Harrison holds 12 licenses but needs a mere six of them to operate his farm and off-farm sales. Much of the regulatory process concerned his facilities. Finding the balance between the way his flock had to be cared for and they way he wanted to care for took a little doing. It is a combination, he says, of his treatment of the chickens and his sanitary practices that have made his business grow 400 percent over the last three years.
The only problem with fresh eggs, if it can be called a problem, is that they tend to make store-bought eggs an unattractive option. When Harrison sells a dozen eggs, they are less than two days old. White eggs may be as many as three weeks old when they reach the supermarket and the process by which they are produced — as well as shipped and stored — has a profound affect on the eggs’ flavor and their potential safety.
This is why as a small-scale producer with less than 3,000 laying hens, Harrison is subjected to significantly less regulation than mass producers.
There are only two real factors in the possibility of salmonella in eggs. The first is age and storage temperature, the second is living conditions. Having the first more than taken care of, Harrison tries to stay ahead of the curve on the second.
Shipped eggs might have a temperature variance during their long storage periods that allows bacteria to take hold. When Harrison collects his hens’ eggs, he washes and sorts them and then stores them at no more than 41 degrees. He said state regulations require they be stored at 45 degrees but the regulation will soon change to 41 and he wants to be ahead of the curve.
The fact that there is no danger in sunny-side up eggs or real eggnog, which calls for uncooked eggs, are good enough reasons to prefer two-day-old eggs over three-week-old ones. In fact, Harrison’s daily breakfast is a hind of ad hoc eggnog — three-raw eggs, some sugar, vanilla and milk — but the taste of a fresh egg is something that cannot compare.
And that, in short, is at the center of the Local Challenge’s mission, point and success. While he certainly takes money for the sale of his eggs, Harrison is like most if not all local producers. They feel the responsibility that comes with feeding their neighbors. Success is one thing, but the satisfaction of knowing that a person would rather have your produce, or dairy, or eggs than their often less-expensive shipped-in counterparts is often a point of pride.
Because of this pride, local producers believe it’s a point of honor that they hold themselves to a higher standard than their factory-farm counterparts.