Perhaps some things in life shouldn’t be cheaper by the dozen. A North Carolina chef takes a look at the real cost of food—and flavor.
Last summer at a raucous farmers market in Santa Cruz, California (dueling drum circles), I was thrilled to discover the most expensive eggs I had ever seen—six dollars a dozen. I was thrilled because farmers I know in North Carolina often struggle to convince new customers to pay four or five dollars a dozen, even though that price barely covers their costs.
Chickens and eggs raised on small, sustainable farms seem relatively expensive because their production requires what economists call market inefficiencies: fair wages and working conditions for farm workers; humane standards for the animals, including reliance on more flavorful heritage breeds that can thrive outside cages; locally grown grain to supplement their forage that is less dependent on fossil fuels and grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides; and the labor-intensive gathering of eggs by hand. But these “inefficiencies,” which reflect the real cost of rational food production, are at the heart of a farming system that should work for us instead of against us.
Price aside, most skeptical buyers are converts from the first egg sandwich. Demand for eggs from chickens raised the old-fashioned way—outdoors on pasture—is at an all-time high as we start to recognize that supporting local food production is the most practical solution for many of the problems inherent in agriculture today. There is also more than one way to calculate value: You can argue, for instance, that real farm eggs are actually cheaper than their factory cousins if considered from a nutritional standpoint: To get the amount of beta-carotene present in one pastured egg, for instance, you would have to eat seven from a factory farm*, according to the 2007 Mother Earth News egg testing project.
But eggs from the farmers at my local market, in Carrboro, North Carolina, usually sell out by eight o’clock in the morning for a simpler reason: They taste like nothing else—rich, herbal, and earthy, all at once. A couple of real farm eggs have the power to become a satisfying instant meal with the addition of a few other ingredients or just a pat of butter and a thin slice of crisp toast. And as we hand over our four, five, or six dollars for a dozen eggs to the person who raised them, we don’t just help support and feed the farmers and their hens, but also their land and the place we live. Now that’s a bargain.
*For every one egg you eat from a pastured hen, you would also have to eat three factory eggs to get the same amount of vitamin E and five for as much vitamin D. All the while, each additional conventional egg you eat will be giving you one third more cholesterol.