Saturday, September 28, 2013

Taramasso Ranch - This is How I Want My Chicken Raised

I know. Most of us don't think about it. We just go to the store and pick up our chicken or eggs. But when you do think about it, would you rather have your chicken raised like this...

or this?

I would much rather have my chicken and eggs from happy hens like this...
and this.

These happy hens, about 1,300 of them, live at Taramasso Ranch. The ranch is located on the edge of Napa and I had met the owner, Joan Taramasso, when she was selling the eggs at the Oxbow Market farmers market one Saturday. I was interested in her multi-colored eggs and the photo album of the different breeds of chickens she raises.

Although the Taramasso family has lived on their property for decades, it's only in the last few years that Joan decided to raise chickens to sell their eggs in an expanded capacity. There are sometimes as many as 30 different breeds of heritage chickens and roosters. 

That's a Transylvanian Naked Neck on the right

Yes, there are a few roosters here, and so there's a possibility that some eggs could be fertilized. But the eggs are collected twice a day and are sold to the consumer within 24-72 hours, so you would never know. 

Many of the eggs are now sold to Napa area restaurants. Some are sold at the farmers market and some are sold on the property out of their "vending machine". The eggs, once refrigerated, are good for up to two months from when they were laid. Store bought eggs have shorter life in your frig because they already spent a week(s) or more being processed and transported.

Interesting new fact just discovered - the blue eggs are due to a genetic change in certain breeds caused by a retro-virus. Somewhere back in time, the genetic code was changed by the virus and it causes their eggs to take a blue tinge. Totally safe to eat them. Same with the eggs with blood spots in them. That has nothing to do with them being fertilized, only with how the egg was formed in the chicken. You never see a blood spot in a store-bought egg because over time the blood is absorbed into the egg. So a blood spot means your egg is really fresh!

Another way to tell how fresh your eggs are is by looking at the chalaza, the thick white strand you sometimes see. It anchors the yolk and over time it will also get absorbed by the egg, so the thicker the strand, the fresher the egg. Bakers often remove it with a fork as it doesn't blend well into baked goods.


When a chicken lays an egg it is covered with "bloom". This is a protein coating that dries and seals the egg from pathogens from the outside world. It isn't visible to the naked eye. Big commercial operations wash this off, which actually shortens the shelf life of the eggs. Taramasso washes their eggs, but just enough to get the dirt off yet maintain the bloom to retain its protective qualities. Wash your farm fresh eggs at home before use. 

Taramasso rarely sells chickens for slaughter. They may sell a rooster on occasion, but most of the time, when the time comes, they'll eat the chickens themselves. But it sounded like they are a bit attached to their girls and like to let them live even after they've passed their best laying years.

How long is that? A couple of years. Like everything, they are born with only so many eggs in their ovaries. The size of their eggs will vary due to age, diet, and other factors. Making eggs takes a lot of energy, protein, and water, so hens must be kept healthy for good eggs. But making feathers also takes a lot of protein and energy. Chickens will molt, or change feathers, a few times during their lives (usually in the fall) and so when they are molting they will not lay eggs.  

This last week about 300 more chicks were hatched.  These chicks can grow and start laying eggs in just a few months. After they've molted to feathers versus fluff, they will be set down on the ground and allowed to go outside into this enclosure. It is covered by wire mesh to protect them from crows, ravens, and other predatory birds that can swoop down and grab them.

Taramasso hens live a happy life. They can go in and out of the coop at will. Here, outside, there is currently about 10 square feet per bird, while free range rules allow for just one square foot per bird. (It should be noted that the picture of the factory chicken at the top of this post are considered free range since they have room to roam in that building.)  

The chickens eat chicken feed, but they also eat whatever insects and vegetation they find. Sometimes Joan will come home from the farmers markets with buckets of bad produce that was going to be dumped anyway. She throws it out to the chickens and it will be gone within a few short hours. This varied diet makes tastier, healthier eggs.

taking dust baths

Eggs are laid anywhere, not just in boxes. Sometimes just on the floor.
Inside the coop there are plenty of nesting boxes and roosting structures. When the sun goes down the chickens know it's time to get safely secured inside. Cohan Sculley, the general manager, explains to me that each bird has it's favorite spot(s). The birds do get a bit territorial. When it's time to introduce the young hens (chicks) to the older birds, they'll rearrange the furnishings and feeding/water stations so that the birds get disoriented and have to resettle into a new routine and hierarchy. 

After an hour roaming the ranch I left with a dozen eggs that were laid just a day before. They are so tasty because the chickens have been eating such a good, varied diet. Farm fresh eggs do cost more, but you have the knowledge of knowing that the hens are living in better conditions, eating well, and are happy.  As we close Farm to Fork week, it's important to remember to get to know your farmers. Know what kind of operation they run so that you can feel comfortable with what you are buying and eating. Taramasso Ranch isn't available at Sacramento farmers markets, but there are many other farm eggs being sold at them. Talk to those vendors and find out if they have happy hens too.

For other Farm-to-Fork style stories like this one, click here: Farm-to-Fork
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