free range eggs

Why the Free Range Egg Shortage is a Good Thing

You might have heard that Australia’s experiencing a shortage of free range eggs that’s set to last the next two months.  Most of us will be thinking “bummer!” but in fact the reasons behind it are, for the most part, to be celebrated.

Why’s there a shortage?

For starters, we’re eating more eggs. From the 1970s up until quite recently, we were told to lay off them because they were full of evil cholesterol.  Now we know that the cholesterol in egg yolk has nothing to do with cholesterol in your blood, and acknowledge eggs as brilliant little packs of protein and vitamins.  At the same time, meat’s getting more expensive and we’re realising the health and environmental benefits of swapping meat for other protein like eggs. So, demand is up.

Meanwhile, chickens lay less in the winter – that’s just part of their nature. Free range hens are particularly prone to this, because with greater access to the outdoors, they experience colder temperatures and shorter daylight hours, making the winter drop-off that much more noticeable.

free range chickens on pasture

Low density free range chickens have room to roam and natural pasture to feed on. Photograph CC-BY Mat Fascione.

Factory-farmed hens are kept in heated sheds, under lights, to make them lay year-round. This stresses their bodies and shortens their lives, but gives a steady supply of eggs for supermarkets. But consumers are increasingly demanding better treatment of laying hens: demand for free range eggs has been growing even faster than demand for eggs overall.

The government recently approved regulations to show consumers how densely free range chickens are packed into their paddocks.  The publicity around this, especially from Choice, who pushed for a lower limit for the “free range” label, means far more people are aware of the animal welfare implications when they buy their eggs.  But uncertainty about how the new rules will be implemented means farmers have held off on establishing more free range flocks.

When we spoke to local producers Egg-erton Free Range Eggs from Mt Egerton, just outside Ballarat, they confirmed they’d been getting a lot of questions lately about stocking density.  Their Facebook page talks about “record sales” as well as showing ice frosting over the chickens’ feed buckets, so if you want to buy their eggs you’ll need to get to the market early, or see the stockists listed below.

Celebrate seasonal food – eggs included!

Treating chooks decently is really important, but it’s not the only reason we should be pleased about the egg shortage.

We’ve fallen out of touch with the seasonality of much of our food, and expect to find the same things for sale every week of the year.  But in pre-industrial times, we knew that eggs were rarer in winter.

Consider Easter: although Australia breaks out the chocolate eggs in autumn, Easter eggs were originally a springtime tradition in the northern hemisphere, celebrating the time when the chooks started to lay again.

decorated easter eggs are a celebration of seasonal food

Decorated Easter Eggs, like these from Romania, are a celebration of seasonal food.

If you have backyard poultry, you know you’ll be drowning in cackleberries come September.  If you don’t, make a note that it’s a good time to ask friends for eggs, as they’re sure to be giving some away! Backyard eggs are a great part of the local food barter economy, and there’s no better time for it than Spring.

Let’s take this winter’s free range egg shortage as a reminder to eat with the seasons, care about the way our farm animals are treated, and get creative in the kitchen until the warmer days bring more fresh eggs!

Learn more

Choice Magazine talks about the issues and has a Free Range Egg Buying Guide.

The Sydney Morning Herald has an informative article about more factors affecting the shortage.

Where to get free range eggs in Ballarat

Apart from your own or your friends’ backyard chooks, we recommend the egg vendors at our many local farmers markets, or Green Eggs (raised near Ararat, stocking density 1500/ha) which are available at Wilsons Fruit and Vegetables.  Egg-erton Free Range supply their eggs to Go Vita and the Paleo Cafe on Sturt St, and to Pete’s Butchery on Pleasant St.

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