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Shell Game

Farm fresh eggs from free-range chickens

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The colors in a single carton of Mary VerMeulen's farm eggs range from pure white to speckled brown to a stunning blue-green. The yolks of these organic, free-range eggs are a rich, lustrous yellow-orange and have an intense taste. Once you've had a free-range egg, it is hard to go back to pallid store bought ones. I met Mary VerMeulen at the Matthews Farmers' Market in 2001, the year she began to sell her eggs at the market. Her eggs often sell out within an hour. The combined chorus of farm animals and construction sounds heard at VerMeulen's farm in Marvin seems odd. Ten years ago this land with rolling hills and clear-cut fields was country. Now residential communities with imposing entrances and a spanking new elementary school have sprouted in the area.

Oscar the pig greeted me as I entered the barnyard. He wanted his belly scratched. VerMeulen currently has 30 pigs, primarily pot-bellied, which have been rescued. Four gray guinea fowl stalwartly race up and down the fence line in single file as if on perimeter duty. "They do that all day," VerMeulen says.

VerMeulen began raising chickens five years ago. Today she has over 60 laying hens, 10 roosters, and 20 bantams. A variety of breeds are present in the barnyard such as the small but feisty bantam, black, buff and white cochins that look like large feathered puff balls, and the leghorn, the most common egg-laying breed, prized for their large white eggs.

The breed of the hen determines the color of the egg. Breeds with white feathers and ear lobes lay white eggs while breeds with red feathers and ear lobes lay brown eggs. The greenish blue eggs are from the Araucana, a South American fowl. The speckled eggs come from particular hens.

The size of an egg is primarily determined by the age, weight, and breed of the hen. Older hens lay bigger eggs. Environmental factors such as heat, overcrowding, and poor nutrition also play a part. But the latter is not a factor at VerMeulen's farm where animals have the run of her land and are separated only to protect them.

Yolk color depends on the diet of the hen. Hens that eat yellow-orange plant pigments known as xanthophylls will deposit them in the yolk. VerMeulen's chickens eat grass and bugs as well as feed. Her eggs are also fertilized since the hens and roosters live together.

Fertilized eggs, those which may be incubated and developed into chicks, are not more nutritious than unfertilized eggs, nor is there a visible sign. Some believe blood spots indicate a fertilized egg. But these spots are caused by a blood vessel rupture on the yolk surface during the formation of the egg and can occur equally in unfertilized or fertilized eggs. Another sophism is the ropey strands in egg whites are beginning embryos. But this strand, known as chalaza, is used to anchor the yolk in place in the center and is normal.

Freshly collected eggs may have a cloudy egg white. This is due to the presence of carbon dioxide, which has not had time to escape through the shell. In fact, this cloudiness is the best indication of a fresh egg. Double-yolked eggs are often produced by young hens whose egg production cycles are not fully synchronized, although genetics plays a part as well. Egg yolks contains all the fat and less than half the protein, and vitamins A, D, and E. Eggs are one of the few foods that naturally contain vitamin D.

VerMeulen uses golf balls as nest eggs since hens prefer to lay their eggs in a spot already chosen by another chicken. These nest eggs also encourage a hen to lay there rather than in a secluded place.

"Sometimes a hen will hide her eggs from me," she says. "She'll lay them near the ducks or the pigeon coop." Most of the cross-breeds you see on her farm are the result of a clever hiding spot. Hens require 24 to 26 hours to produce an egg and most lay five eggs per week. The hen house is a noisy place. Chickens percolate as they go through the process of laying an egg and give a loud celebratory squawk after laying the egg.

As a hen ages, the shell size increases but the same amount of shell material is used to cover the egg, thereby producing eggs with a thinner shell. "Some people only keep their hens for a few years and then slaughter them. I don't. They can live out their lives here," VerMeulen, a vegetarian, explains.

Well, not here exactly. When a neighboring farmer sold a large tract to a residential developer, VerMeulen bought 66 acres south of Pageland, SC, and plans to move in late summer. Until then, she will sell her extraordinary eggs at the Matthews Farmers' Market, a market that requires sellers to reside and produce the items they sell within a 50-mile radius of Matthews. Although she still may be within the 50-mile radius after the move, she has not decided her length of tenure in that market. She will, however, and thankfully, continue to take orders from customers.

Eggs from Mary VerMeulen's hens are available at the Matthews Farmers' Market, which opens May 3. Or you can call her at 704-843-3607.

ClarificationTajGate: Artist Rick White called after reading the review of Taj Mahal Indian Cuisine in last week's issue. He said he painted the Taj Mahal mural on the side wall of the Taj Mahal Indian Cuisine restaurant. He said others, including Balvinder, painted some parts, but he had to paint over those parts. Owner Kumar Balvinder said the painting was finished by Jaget Singh and would not comment about White's claim. White stated he planned to sign his mural this weekend. Balvinder said White will not sign the mural.

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