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Spotlight on Tuv Ha’Aretz: Chickens, Eggs & Bloodspots

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What happens when a group of Jewish CSA members ask a non-Jewish farmer to change her farming practices to accommodate their kashrut needs? In the case of the Tuv Ha’Aretz CSA in Chicago, very good things.

Like many organic family farmers, Vicki Westerhoff at Genesis Growers in Illinois, allowed her rooster and hens to enjoy “free range” of the farm’s chicken coop, side-by-side. The chickens seemed fairly content about the whole situation, but this practice resulted in a higher level of fertilized blood spots in their eggs – a no-no for kosher keepers. This put the CSA coordinators in a tricky position. On the one hand, this is their first season working with Vicki, and they did not want to do anything to jeopardize their farmer/member partnership. On the other hand, the kosher-keeping members of their CSA had to throw out all eggs that contained fertilized spots, which could potentially deter them from purchasing an egg share the following season.

I spoke with Chicago Tuv Ha’Aretz coordinator, Cara Gutstein, about how her CSA worked with their farmer to find a creative solution to the challenge, and strengthened their relationship for the future.

Read the interview below the jump…

When did you first notice the issue?

Well, it is a bit like the story of The City Mouse and The Country Mouse. I decided to sign up for an egg share, as did a number of my friends from Anshe Sholom, but I didn’t really think anything of the kashrut of eggs. But as our deliveries began, I happened to be reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and got to the part about raising chickens for eggs. I read about how [author, Barbara Kingsolver’s] daughter was raising the hens and describing what a natural, free range, routine would be for them. And that routine involved having roosters around to keep the flocks in check.

I started to wonder more about what I would/should be finding in the dozen eggs I was getting each week. And then for the first time, I actually found a fertile egg in my Pyrex mixing bowl. When I did some asking around, to Avi Finegold, a rabbi and core group member [at Chicago’s Tuv Ha’Aretz], and Vicki [our Tuv Ha'Aretz farmer], they explained that the tiny red slivers I was used to seeing in eggs and had always considered marks of fertility really were not. They were normal, signs of activity for the hen.

I started to worry that our wonderful plan of involving religious Jews with high standards of kashrut could be undone.

Now that I had seen what a truly fertile spot looked like (It’s more like a clump – I now understand why vegans don’t eat eggs), I started to worry that our wonderful plan of involving religious Jews with high standards of kashrut could be undone. So, I polled a few friends who were getting eggs to find out how many eggs they were throwing away [per dozen]. I also asked Avi to send me some info on the kashrut of eggs. My friends didn’t seem to be finding too many, but they were all interested in a possible solution.

So how did you go about resolving the issue?

[The idea of] bringing this up with my farmer was inspired by the email I sent to Hazon’s Tuv Ha’Aretz listserve [which goes to other Tuv Ha'Aretz site coordinators and core group members across the country]. I talked to Vicki when she dropped off our produce one week, and she wistfully said, “I wish I had known about that before I introduced a whole flock of new birds!”

I figured the matter was closed and that happy hens needed roosters in their company to be good producers, or at least these hens did since they were already used to having the boys around. But a week later, Vicki arrived with 19 dozen eggs that were from hens she had segregated [from the rooster]. She confessed that it was a bit of an experiment. She wasn’t sure that the hens would be as happy, but they were.

chickens.jpgHow did you keep members updated about this change?

I emailed my little group of kosher gals, and then we publicized it at pick-up. Volunteers explained what the [explanatory] signs meant. I wanted to make sure that the signs didn’t read “Kosher” and “Not-Kosher.” Even though “eggs from segregated hens” and “non-segregated hens” is a little more to understand, it’s much more accurate.

At this point, we get most of our eggs as “segregated” eggs, though some weeks we have a split and offer both kinds, encouraging people for whom kashrut of eggs is not an issue to take the ones that are marked non-segregated. Vicki also told me last week that she has special coolers marked for us and that she washes them at a separate time to make sure they don’t get mixed up.

That is really amazing that your farmer is willing to do this for your Tuv Ha’Aretz group. Is she Jewish herself?

She is not, though she is spiritual. She is very devoted to her CSA members. I think [the fact that this solution happened] was to a large extent about Vicki’s generosity and creativity.

I could never have walked into the grocery store and asked for this.

Have members given any feedback about this? Have there been any interesting discussions about it at vegetable pick ups or via email?

The members who care about kashrut have been very appreciative. I’ve had a number of discussions with people who take both kinds of eggs about what they’ve learned about the halacha. People seem interested in the idea. I have no Jewish learning agenda, but I find it very satisfying to have gotten in some new learning from a very functional perspective.

How does it make you personally feel to have your farmer make this accommodation for your group?

The more I learn about Vicki, the greater my respect and admiration for her becomes. I think the the egg story is one that made very real for me the true benefits of having a relationship with the source of your food. I could never have walked into the grocery store and asked for this, but in a very simple conversation with a generous, open-minded farmer, I did, and the story has a happy ending.

For more information about the kashrut considerations with blood spots in eggs, click here.
(Thanks to Rabbi Avi Finegold for finding and sharing this resource.)

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5 Responses to “Spotlight on Tuv Ha’Aretz: Chickens, Eggs & Bloodspots”

  1. Hannah Lee Says:

    Thank you, Leah, for this interview.
    What a marvelous testamont of cooperation and communication.

  2. Devo K Says:

    I wonder if the commercial or “grocery store eggs” just come from rooster-free coops and so it wouldn’t be an issue. I’m fairly certain that here in Israel, it would be done this way.

  3. Stephanie T Says:

    What an excellent and informative interview! Thanks so much for sharing your experience.

  4. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    we have hens (and a busy rooster) Consequently we check our eggs carefully (and the dogs have shiny coats:)
    when we were producing commercially (“The Heavenly Yolk” was our name) we opted for segregation (partial – otherwise the roosters get a bit too rambunctious)

  5. Rabbi's Wife Says:

    I grew up in farm country and the answer to Devo K is that, yes, most commercial eggs do come from segregated flocks. There is a rooster in a nearby pen, to keep the ladies interested in producing (just like the old foghorn leghorn cartoons), but he doesn’t have access to the egg-producing flock, just the reproducing hens.

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