Wondering which comes first? The chicken or the egg?
Ask John and Joyce Gasper.
Story & photos by Elizabeth Lehman & George Moon
Joyce Gasper shows off her chicken (left).
In the photo on the door of the West River Market in Galesville, John and Joyce Gasper, ages nine and seven, are looking right into the camera over a pair of handsome hens cradled in their arms. Joyce and Johns eggs are from an open range-fed flock and imported from Harwood, the text above the picture reads.
Their sign lured us to buy a dozen eggs that had no chemicals, toxins or artificial fertilizers used on premises from endangered classic productions breeds as specified by the American Livestock Breeds Conservatory.
Opening our eggs at home, we discovered the egg box contained several blue eggs and a short informative paragraph on the protective membrane the chicken secretes to guard her eggs from bacteria. We have since come to seek out these varied notes in many subsequent cartons as eagerly as if we were breaking open fortune cookies.
And the eggs! Because they are from many breeds, the sturdy shells range from almost white through pale to darker blue, from brown to pinkish tan. The whites are firm and the yolks rich gold. All eggs are graded AA Large and are sold through Arnold Gasper at the West River Market. And they are plumb delicious.
This first sample led us to a visit with the Gaspers, who are licensed (MD 605) egg producers. Their small year-and-a-half-old operation is stocked by some 110 chickens roaming freely in the woods and yard, with a range of about 200 yards from the coop. Food is available at all times by free choice.
Hens like a worm as much as the next bird, but their diet is not all free. For every dozen eggs produced, a hen eats four pounds of food. Laying mash a mix of corn, wheat, milo, barley and oats, mixed with ground limestone, marble or oyster shell costs $10 per 100 pounds. Cartons cost about 14 cents each. Throw in the necessary few roosters (who eat though they do not lay), and it costs Joyce and John about 59 cents to produce a dozen eggs.
John weighs this weeks eggs (right).
Before the school bus comes in the morning, Joyce and John release the chickens, then gather and refrigerate the eggs. Their dad, Arnold, fills the feeders with grain from an Amish-Mennonite mill in St. Marys County. After school, eggs are gathered again, weighed, sorted and put in cartons. They are not washed as this would disturb natures anti-bacterial barrier.
The flock includes Araucana, Barred Plymouth Rock, Brahma, Buff Orington, Rhode Island Red and Wyandotte. Each has its own distinctions. Araucanas lay the blue eggs. Barred Rocks like to roost in trees. Leghorns are great producers, but have poor survival instincts. The Gaspers have none of this breed.
All are penned up at night to keep them from predators. The trees of their woods help foil hawks in the daytime.
Hen house walls, floor and eggs nests are washed down regularly with disinfectant, and day-old chicks are vaccinated.
The chicken business is a small part of John and Joyces regular lives. Besides school and homework, both play baseball, fifth-grade John for the Galesville Pirates.
Joyce, in third grade, likes both English and Western horseback riding. She has a string of prize ribbons, too. Her current favorite mount is named Happy. I used to like Mystery best, but shes too old to ride now, she said.
They admit to a lot of help with the birds from their dad, who also has a regular job.
A hen must be 20 to 26 weeks old to lay. Her best productivity is in her first year, but there have been hens known to lay eggs for 20 years.
The AA grading on cartons means the egg has less than 1/8-inch bubble of air in it, making it the freshest of all.