These chickens aren’t just free-range or cage-free.
They’re on tour.
Plunked in the middle of a grassy field just outside Sultan, these 250 laying hens can frolic in the sun or enjoy the shade of their portable henhouse on skids.
When it’s time to lay an egg, they simply hop into one of the nesting boxes and let the magic happen.
Lush green pastures and stunning views of countless Cascade peaks are all around. When night falls, they perch on roosts angled up the sides of the henhouse.
Their corral is a portable electric fence. With roughly 25 square feet of roaming space for each bird in the 80-foot-by-80-foot-pen, it’s a life dramatically different from hens in large commercial operations in which huge numbers of white birds, sometimes as many as 1 million, are packed in cages and kept indoors under lights.
But these brown-egg-laying birds, a Barred Rock crossbreed, aren’t just outside for fun.
They’re here to eat grass and lay tasty eggs.
“You won’t find a better egg. We’re convinced,” said Cindy Rappuhn, a former math teacher who has raised grass-fed hens for six years now with her husband, Brent, and their three children. “They are constantly getting the highest quality of grasses and clovers.”
The Rappuhns and their Sky Valley Family Farm operations are part of a growing agricultural movement toward grass farming, a method of small-scale livestock agriculture that relies on rotating animals to new ground instead of overusing select acreage.
Though their hens also eat custom-blended grain-based chicken feed, birds that are “pastured” like these will eat about 25 percent of their diet in grasses and clovers.
“They eat almost all grasses,” said Brent Rappuhn, a third-generation farmer, a former biology teacher and a nuclear medicine technologist for Providence Everett Medical Center. “They like it young and tender.”
Their eggs’ yolks are darker and richer as a result. Their protein-rich whites stand up taller, a sign of a higher quality egg, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Chef Holly Smith at Cafe Juanita in Kirkland uses Sky Valley’s chicken eggs in her Italian kitchen for house-made pasta and gelato base. Not only do the eggs boast a more vibrant color, but they also hold more fat than conventional eggs when used in mayonnaise and other emulsions.
“Overall the quality and freshness cannot be beat,” said Smith, who also buys meat and vegetables from Snohomish County farmers.
Sky Valley hensalso forage for bugs, worms and other natural snacks amid various hayfield grasses, trimmed slightly before their arrival.
After a few days in one spot, they’re moved to a new patch of pasture, right next to the last.
During the hens’ prime grass-feeding season, which runs from April to October, this flock will cover about 2 acres, leaving moderate amounts of waste behind to fertilize the grass and build healthier soil.
“Our goal is the keep them naturally healthy,” Cindy Rappuhn said of the hens. “We do everything we can to keep the hens clean. It’s sustainable, nonpolluting.”
The Rappuhns were inspired in part by Jo Robinson, a Vashon Island proponent of grass-fed animals, as well as Joel Salatin’s pasture-based Polyface farm in Virginia, a model of alternative agriculture featured prominently in the 2006 book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by best-selling author Michael Pollan.
Sylvir Harestad, who works at Sky Deli and Liquor Store in Skykomish, has seen the Rappuhns’ farm and loves how “spoiled” the chickens seem, more like pets than egg factories.
“It’s the cleanest, nicest farm I’ve ever been on,” Harestad said. “They’re just really great, and the eggs – you can literally taste the difference. They’re richer. It’s kind of hard to describe. They’re just more flavorful.”
Her 16-year-old son used to avoid eggs.
“I started buying the Sky Valley eggs,” she said. “He now craves egg salad sandwiches. He says they’re just different.”
Recently, the Rappuhns, both 44, took steps to share their grass-fed revolution with what they hope will be a new generation of grass farmers.
Though they still have 130 laying hens at their 43-acre livestock farm in Startup, they moved 250 hens and 23 ducks here to Sultan, where they are mentoring newlyweds Peter and Molly Wilson.
In early April, the Wilsons brought their first batch of baby chicks – 300 of them – to land at Peter’s grandparents’ 60-acre horse farm.
With help from the Rappuhns they’ve been nursing the birds, now about 8 weeks old, in a custom-made brooder. They’re also in charge of the aforementioned full-size hens and ducks.
“We’re taking a stab at the farming thing,” Peter said. “We’ll see what happens.”
The Wilsons graduated last year from Seattle Pacific University with music degrees – violin performance for her and music composition for him.
They’re still making music, including a CD of folk songs they’re recording together and a choir-directing gig at Morning Star Lutheran Church in Monroe for Peter Wilson.
He also works part time as a teaching assistant at Emerson Elementary in Snohomish. He looks right at home, however, as a farmer with knee-high rubber work boots and a propensity to greet visitors with a humble handshake and an un-ironic “howdy.”
The Rappuhns, who have known the Wilson family for years through church, hope the couple can carry on and perhaps expand their practices of sustainable agriculture.
“It is – and still is – a very steep learning curve,” Cindy Rappuhn said of hen rearing. “All our farming is done out in the field.”
Molly Wilson, 22, wearing a yellow bandana to keep her hair back, tends the horse barns and works the farm by day.
She’s always loved animals, especially as a kid when she raised rabbits, ducks, goats and a horse, Clanci, that she still owns today.
“I never even thought of having a chicken,” she said.
In fact, it’s been stressful, caring for so many birds that seem constantly threatened by wild animals. Eventually, the Wilsons will need to build a large greenhouse to accommodate their new flock this winter.
“It’s a lot of work,” she said. “At times, it’s totally overwhelming.”
Peter Wilson, 23, grew up on a small farm in Gold Bar, where he used to raise chickens for 4-H.
Today he dreams of creating a small sustainable commercial farm of his own, much like Salatin’s successful Virginia operation, which provides grass-fed broiler chickens, beef, turkeys, hogs and rabbits exclusively for local consumers.
“People are returning to integrating different animals. It’s a dream,” he said, lamenting the demise of old-school farming. “You see those ways being leveled for the commercial way of doing things.”
Sustainable farming is the Rappuhns’ dream too.
It’s why, every winter, they give their chickens a break.
During peak season, each chicken lays about two eggs every three days. In winter, instead of shining lights on them all year long as some large commercial operators do, they allow them to decrease their egg production and molt naturally, starting in January. They eat less grass in the winter because it’s too wet for them to go into the fields most days.
Their eggs’ yolks aren’t as dark or rich in winter, but with that down time spent in roomy greenhouses, however, their bodies can produce better eggs in the spring and summer, Brent Rappuhn said.
The Rappuhns also practice flock rotation. Every three years, when the hens stop producing an economically viable number of eggs, they don’t become dog food like many commercially raised chickens.
Instead, the Rappuhns sell them to hobby farmers, city dwellers living on larger lots and specialty cooks who stew the hens, which are not as tender as broiler breeds raised specifically for their meat.
In the spring, the Rappuhns bring in a new crop of chicks by mail order.
“Every flock we raise we try to rotate to a different type of bird,” Cindy Rappuhn said. “We get them as day-old chicks and we raise them from day one.”
Mature chickens are in the Wilsons’ fields now. They produce primarily brown eggs, not the ubiquitous bright-white ones from the super-laying Leghorn breed used in large commercial operations in the United States.
There’s also one Ameraucana chicken that lays Easter-ready blue-green eggs.
“We usually do one per dozen for the kids,” Cindy Rappuhn said of egg packing. “It’s the green-eggs-and-ham thing.”
Such personal touches strike to the heart of what motivates the Wilsons, inspired by Kentucky writer and farmer Wendell Berry, another proponent of environmentally friendly farming.
“He has deep and profound insights on why it’s important to keep farming in the hands of the people and not make it a large, commercial thing,” Peter Wilson said. “I would love to be able to make a living, taking care of God’s creation.”
Reporter Sarah Jackson: 425-339-3037 or sjackson@ heraldnet.com
Cindy Rappuhn and her husband, Brent, and their three children have raised egg-laying hens for about six years at Sky Valley Family Farm in Startup.
She uses this recipe regularly to enjoy their farm-fresh eggs. It comes from “A Taste of Oregon” a cookbook published by the Junior League of Eugene in 1980.
1/3cup butter or margarine
5large or extra-large eggs
1cup flour (whole wheat, spelt or regular all-purpose)
Powdered sugar, syrup and fresh fruit or lemon wedges
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Place butter in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and set in the oven to melt.
While butter is melting, put the eggs in a blender and blend on high for 1 minute. Gradually add milk and then, slowly, the flour; blend for 30 seconds.
Remove the baking dish from the oven and pour the batter into the hot, melted butter. Return the dish to the oven and bake until puffy and nicely browned, about 20 to 25 minutes.
Serve immediately with powdered sugar, syrup, fresh fruit or lemon wedges. Other good sauce accompaniments include fresh strawberries; brown sugar and sour cream; banana or papaya slices sauteed in butter and served with lime wedges; or sauteed apple slices sweetened with cinnamon and sugar and served with sour cream or plain yogurt.
Egg-farmer-in-training Molly Wilson of Sultan shared her family recipe for fresh-baked rolls. It came from her aunt Jackie Tanner, passed on to her from her aunt.
Auntie Pat’s rolls
2packages of active dry yeast
2cups warm water
61/2 cups flour
Dissolve yeast in water. Add sugar, salt and 3 cups flour and beat for 2 minutes. Beat in egg, butter and, gradually, 3 to 31/2 cups flour to correct consistency.
You can use up to half whole-wheat flour if desired. If using 100 percent whole wheat flour, add 1 tablespoon of lecithin, and 2 teaspoons vinegar with the sugar and salt mixture. This keeps it from getting crumbly.
Knead dough and form into rolls. Place on baking sheet, cover and let rise for 2 hours. Bake at 400 degrees for 12 to 14 minutes. Serve warm with butter.
This recipe for zeppole, an Italian-style fried pastry, comes from Cafe Juanita in Kirkland, which uses chicken eggs from Sky Valley Family Farm in Startup.
2/3ounce compressed yeast
1/2cup milk, just warm to touch
4tablespoons softened butter
Olive oil for frying, about 1 quart
In a small bowl, dissolve yeast in warm milk. Mix in 1 cup flour and cover with plastic and let proof until it doubles in size, about 30 minutes. Next, cream butter and sugar together in an electric mixer with the paddle attachment. Add eggs and yolk one at a time. Then add remaining flour and beat until smooth. Add the yeast mixture and beat until smooth and elastic. Cover the dough and let rise until it doubles in size, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
Place dough on a generously floured surface and pat out to about 1/2-inch thick. Cut into small rounds and stretch dough so it is oblong and shaped like a peanut shell. Place pieces on a floured pan and cover to let rest for another 45 minutes until almost doubled. Heat oil to 350 degrees and fry zeppole, three at a time, until deep golden. You may need to turn them once or twice in the oil while they are frying.
Toss warm zeppole in sugar and dust lightly with truffle salt.
The following recipes come from the Puget Sound Fresh Web site (www.pugetsoundfresh.org, an online guide to local farms, farmers markets and community supported agriculture programs. Author and registered dietitian Naomi Kakiuchi with the NuCulinary cooking school in Seattle (www.nuculinary.com) shared her local interpretation of summer potato salad.
Potato salad, farmers market style
1pound white potatoes, cut in 1/2-inch pieces
1cup carrots, cut in 1/2-inch pieces
1cup fennel bulb, cut in 1/2-inch pieces
116-ounce can garbanzo beans, rinsed, drained
1cup red onion, cut in 1/2-inch pieces
17-ounce jar roasted red peppers, drained, chopped
1/2cup fresh parsley, chopped
4tablespoons red wine vinegar
3tablespoons olive oil
1clove garlic, minced
4hard-boiled eggs, peeled
Salt and pepper to taste
Cook potatoes in boiling, salted water for 4 minutes. Add carrots and cook until crisp-tender, about 4 minutes. Drain off hot water, rinse vegetables in cold water and drain. Combine the potatoes and carrots with fennel, beans, onion, red peppers and parsley.
Whisk vinegar, oil and garlic in small bowl. Add to vegetable mixture and toss to coat.
Cut eggs in half lengthwise. Separate yolks from whites. Chop egg whites and two egg yolks; mix into salad. Season with salt and pepper. Place salad in serving bowl. Crumble remaining 2 yolks over salad. Garnish with fennel fronds. Serve at room temperature or cover and chill up to 4 hours.
Serves 4 to 6.
Farmers at Terry’s Berries, an organic berry and produce farm in the Puyallup Valley, offered this recipe for a cheesy frittata, an Italian-style omelet.
Frittata with mustard greens and Fontina cheese
2tablespoons olive oil
2small bunch mustard greens, stems trimmed, leaves cut into 1-inch-wide strips
1tablespoon finely chopped garlic
4large eggs, beaten to blend
1/2cup diced Fontina cheese
Preheat broiler. Heat oil in medium broiler-proof skillet over medium-high heat. Add greens; stir until wilted and tender, about 2 minutes. Add garlic; stir 1 minute. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Pour eggs over greens; stir to blend. Sprinkle with cheese.
Cover skillet; cook until frittata is almost set but top is still runny, about 2 minutes. Place skillet under broiler. Broil until top is set and cheese bubbles, about 1 minute. Cut around frittata to loosen. Slide out onto plate and serve.
Bill Whitbeck with Taylor Shellfish Farms (www.taylorshellfish.com), which has shellfish farms throughout Western Washington, provided this variation on a classic oyster-egg dish, the Hangtown fry.
Oyster Bill’s Hangtown fry frittata
6strips bacon, chopped
1pint extra-small shucked oysters
1/2cup chopped mushrooms
1clove garlic, minced
8large eggs, beaten
1/2cup shredded spinach
Fry the bacon in an ovenproof skillet over medium heat until almost crisp. Add the oysters, mushrooms, shallots and garlic. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until oysters are plumped and mushrooms are tender. Drain the liquid from the mixture and discard. Transfer the oyster-bacon mixture to a bowl and set aside.
Return the skillet to medium heat. Whisk the beaten eggs together with the milk and fold in the shredded spinach. Melt the butter and, when sizzling, add the beaten-egg mixture. When the eggs start to set, top with oyster-bacon mixture, scattering evenly over the eggs. Cook over medium heat until eggs are firm on the bottom. Place the frittata under the broiler to finish cooking.
Divide into 4 portions and serve hot.
Retail prices for Sky Valley Family Farm eggs range from $3.50 to $4.75 per dozen.
Sno-Isle Natural Foods Co-op, 2804 Grand Ave, Everett; www.snoislefoods.coop; 425-259-3798. Sky Deli and Liquor Store, 148 Fifth St., Skykomish; 360-677-2211.
Redmond Saturday Market, 7730 Leary Way, Redmond Town Center; 425-556-0636; www.redmondsaturdaymarket.homestead.com.
Minea Farm, 13404 Woodinville-Redmond Road, Redmond; 425-883-1286.
May is National Egg Month. Learn more at www.aeb.org.
Out to pasture: Find farmers raising pastured animals at www.eatwild.com/products/washington.html.
Cafe Juanita 9702 NE 120th Place Kirkland www.cafejuanita.com 425-823-1505.
Puget Sound Fresh is an online guide to local farms, farmers markets and community supported agriculture programs. Use the search engine to find farmers in Snohomish County that sell farm-direct eggs, meat and produce. See www.pugetsoundfresh.org or call the Cascade Harvest Coalition at 206-632-0606.