Quail eggs are a common street snack in Peru, and often used in Thailand and China. In the US, however, quail eggs are just hitting the food scene. You’ll find them served raw in sushi restaurants, atop a bed of tobiko and wrapped in nori; pickled and served as cocktail snacks; poached and served on tiny toasts; or as a delicate version of scotch eggs.
As with all animal products, it’s important to find out where they come from and how the animals were raised. Many larger farms that raise quail for meat or eggs (sometimes referred to as production quail) keep them indoors in small wire cages, called colony housing or colony cages. They don’t get natural air or sunlight, eat only grain, never get to run around and, perhaps worst of all, living on wire hurts their feet. Quail are considered game birds, and their natural habitat is on the ground rather than in trees.
I visited Little Wing Farm in Petaluma, California, where Molly Myerson raises Free Range quail, along with flowers and vegetables, which she sells to local chefs and at the farmers market.
Little Wing Farm is a micro-farm, a small plot nestled amidst larger farms in the storied agricultural area just north of San Francisco. As Molly showed me around her tiny farm, and inside her quail coop, I learned a lot about what it takes to raise quail humanely and produce high quality, nutritious quail eggs. But as our conversation unfolded, I learned a lot more than that.
Having candid conversations with people who produce food is always moving, and eye opening. Molly talks very openly about her evolving perspectives on slaughtering her birds, as well as the feelings of elation and vulnerability that come from making your living this close to the land.
How long have you been farming, and what did you do before you started farming?
“I was a landscape designer and a school garden teacher. So I’ve been growing food for probably eight years, but not on a large scale and as a living.
“This is my second season. The planted space here is half an acre and I just started up there with another half acre. I brought the quail in a few months after I started farming here. I started by ordering some chicks, like you would with chickens. But since quail are a lot smaller and just more delicate, they really didn’t do well being sent through the mail.”
They come alive in the mail?
“Yes. If you go to the post office during chick season you’ll hear a lot of cheeping. And chickens do pretty well because they’re just a little bit bigger and sturdier. But the quail didn’t do well, and it just broke my heart. The company I bought from offered to replace any ones that didn’t make it, but that wasn’t the point for me. I just didn’t want to kill a bunch of birds in transit.
“I wanted to increase my flock. I think I had thirty birds at the beginning. Dave Evans, whom I think you know, was very kind and leant me his grandfather’s incubator. It’s from the 1950’s or something. I incubated that batch of quail eggs in my house, and I’ve done that twice now. It was just so much better.”
Was incubating eggs hard? I’ve heard you have to turn them every four hours.
“No, it was very easy. This was a very nice incubator in that it turns the eggs for you. There are little shelves and they rotate every three hours. You have to keep water in there to keep the humidity right. The first time I did it, I’d look in there every now and then and think that nothing was happening. I thought for sure this wasn’t going to work, because you can’t tell anything is happening by looking at them. But seventeen days later, and it was really right on the dot from when you start incubating them, I started hearing them peeping inside their shells and could see them moving and start pecking their way out.
“And it was just a miracle of an experience. I know a lot of kids hatch eggs in school, in the third or fourth grade, but I never did that and it was just such a cool experience.”
Did they come out okay?
“Yeah, it was amazing. It was so much better than ordering live chicks. Most of them survived and did really well. And you’ve seen the size of a quail egg, they are really tiny when they hatch. Quail are ground nesting, that’s why their eggs are speckled—they’re supposed to be disguised as rocks. And I think a lot of birds that are ground nesting have to be pretty much able to get up and run around right away. Within an hour or two they fluff up and they can run around, they know how to feed themselves. They don’t need to be fed by their mother.
“They mature in five weeks, so every day they’re twice as big as the day before.”
How many quail do you have now?
“It’s hard to count them because they run around, but I have about a hundred and twenty. It’s kind of amazing, because it doesn’t look like that many.
“These are Coturnix. When I first got my chicks, I got a variety called Pharaoh, and they’re a little bit smaller. But when I hatched my own eggs I got a variety called Jumbo Brown. Most of this flock are Jumbo Browns and they just make nice, big eggs, and they are bigger birds. But I don’t raise them for meat.
“These are almost all females. I’ve kept a few males because I read that it keeps everybody happier, and I end up with fertile eggs. When I first got them, I’d spend time in here just sitting and hanging out, letting them get used to me. They’re pretty funny. They get excited by things and hop around and interact with each other. They have a lot of different vocalizations.”
How long do quail lay eggs?
“I don’t really know. Some of these birds are going on two years. I know with chickens in production situations they usually only keep laying hens around for two years, because after then their egg production goes down. For a business that’s really about profit, they have to get rid of the birds after that point.
“I’ve marked my original birds. As you can see, some of them have a blue band on their legs. In two years I can separate them and see how much they are laying and see what I want to do. When I hatched them, I got half males. I can’t house and feed the males who aren’t giving me something that I can sell, so I did slaughter those and sell them for meat. But I have a hard time doing that.
“There is a market for quail meat. When I go around to local chefs and tell them I have quail eggs, they ask if I have meat, because that’s what they want. But I’m not doing that. I just made a choice for myself. I like to have a relationship of nurture and care, and that feels good to me. And I have harvested them, but I don’t like that, so I’m just not going to do it.
“So we’ll see. I’ll have to make a decision at some point.”
How long do quail live?
“I don’t know. I know chickens that have lived for ten years.”
So when you slaughter them, you do it yourself? I read online that it’s typically done by cutting off their heads with a sharp pair of scissors.
“Right. With those meat scissors that can cut through bone.
“I had never actually killed anything, other than bugs, before. So I had a friend of mine who is a butcher and a local chef, Matt Alias, and he came and helped me slaughter them the first time. He said he’d bring everything, and asked me to be ready with a hot water bath. When he showed up with scissors, I was just like, ‘Wait…what? We’re just going to cut their heads off with scissors?’ But it really was fast and worked out really well.
“It takes two people to do it. One person holds them and the other cuts their head off. It was really quick. My feeling is that it’s something that’s alive, and you don’t want to mess this up, not even one time. And I would recommend having two people. It’s nice to have one person to hold the quail with two hands, because they do flap and move. And then someone who can, in one motion, do the deed.
“I could have given them to somebody else to slaughter, but I wanted to make sure it was done well and that there wasn’t any suffering, and they stayed calm—even though it was hard for me.”
Looking at these birds, well, they don’t look like dinner. Once you get the feathers off, it seems like they are pretty small.
“Yeah, they are. One quail won’t fill you up. So they are often served as appetizers, or for a main dish, there would be two quail.”
What do you feed your quail?
“They need more protein than chickens do, about 20%. My farm is organic, but I haven’t been able to find organic game bird feed. That’s what you feed pheasants and turkeys and quail. So right now I have them on an organic chicken chick feed. Chick feed is usually higher in protein than adult chicken feed. I’m experimenting with that, but I’m not sure that it’s quite enough protein. Although right now I have more eggs than I can manage, so if they’re not laying at top capacity, that’s fine with me. But at some point if I need more eggs, I may go back to the other feed, because I think their production has dropped a little.
“I have a ton of zucchinis on my farm, and if they get too big I give them to the quail, and they really love them. Though, I think they are a little sick of them now. They used to just devour them, but now they kind of peck at them. I give them weeds and other kinds of greens, which provide extra vitamins to give eggs the richly colored yolks. I also give them wild seeds…I just feel like giving them a variety of foods will make them healthier and they’ll produce higher quality eggs.”
I see that they like to burrow in the ground here. You don’t put any bedding material on the ground for them?
“I tried giving them straw to make little nests, but they prefer the dirt. I think that’s because their eggs are designed to blend in with dirt, so they feel more comfortable in dirt. Plus, they dust bathe.
“Most production quail are raised in small wire cages, off the ground. And I’ve read that that’s for disease control. But I think in general, people have a lot of birds and they are probably raised indoors, so you’re looking at a situation that is more likely to breed bacteria and spread germs.
“This soil comes from the farm. What I do on the farm is work to increase all of the bioactivity, and that diversity is your disease prevention. There is really good air circulation here and they have enough space.”
Well, it smells great in here. I’ve been in wonderfully spacious and clean chicken houses, and they still all smell of ammonia. But there is almost no odor in here, just a lot of fresh air.
“I originally wanted to do pastured chickens, but it would be really difficult on this land, since there is such a slope to it. It’s hard to move them on a slope and you need quite a bit of land. I would classify these quail as Free Range. They have access to an outside area. They get sun and lots of fresh air. They’re not in cages and can move around. They have plenty of space, and they can even fly a bit.
“I could have clipped their wings, but that is a lot of work and just too disruptive to the birds. So I built this open air enclosure so I don’t have to worry about raccoons and skunks and all of the predators.
“I’ve given them little nest boxes, which they mostly ignore. I put these little fake wooden quail eggs down to encourage them to lay in certain spots, because as it is, I kind of have to go on an egg hunt every time I come to collect eggs. They have their spots. I’ve learned all the places they like to go.”
You can’t sell your eggs as organic, since you’re not certified.
“That’s right. My farm is not certified organic, but it is registered organic with the county ag commissioner. You can only report making a certain amount of money every year in order to qualify for registration, so it’s for very small farm operations. And it costs very little, as opposed to being certified which costs a lot of money.”
“Just applying for organic certification costs $350 and then you pay for your certification and for someone to come out and audit you. For me, I just can’t do that. And I don’t need to because I sell mostly to local restaurants and have a personal relationship with the chefs. They know what I do and the farmers market is really why I got registered, because at the Point Reyes farmers market everyone has to be certified or registered.”
“The county comes and looks at my seed purchases and makes sure that what I’m selling at the market is organic from seed all the way through.”
You’re a small operation, and certification isn’t for everyone. It’s expensive and if you’re selling to a very local market, most of your business is built on personal relationships and your reputation.
“True. But it does make it hard. I sell my eggs at The Good Earth [grocery store] and they have a policy, I think, that everything that they have has to be organic. So they’re taking a chance on me. They can’t say I’m organic because I’m not certified. At some point, maybe some manager is going to say, ‘We can’t do that. We really have a commitment to organic everything.’ So they would have to remove my product because it doesn’t have that label.”
Do you eat meat?
But you don’t feel comfortable killing your quail.
“Yeah. And I’ve thought about that a lot. I know a lot of people say that if you’re going to eat meat you should be okay killing the animals. And I can say that I have killed animals for meat, and I know what that experience is about. I don’t have any bad feelings towards people who do kill animals for meat. I’m really grateful for them, and thankful especially for the people who do it in a good way.”
“The meat that I eat is all ethical. I know that it’s organic, that it was raised well, and that it was harvested in a good way. That’s my commitment. And I’ve really thought about it, especially with the quail.”
“My relationship with animals is very empathetic. And my experience with slaughtering the quail is that I had to shut down that empathy in myself in order to do it, and I don’t want to do that. I want to maintain my connection to the animals and be able to be attached to them and take care of them and love them, and have somebody else humanely slaughter them. Like my friend Matt, I really trust the way he works with the animals, and he is able to slaughter the birds and remain a happy person because he has a different kind of relationship with animals.”
“There’s a different way of being for men and women. Not that all men can kill things and all women nurture things. But I’ve come to realize that’s kind of a real thing, and I think it’s fine. I think you can eat meat and be in a good relationship with animals and other people can kill them ethically. I think knowing where you want to be in that is fine. I don’t think I’m ignoring or trying not to see the bad side. I’m very aware and awake about what it means to take a life. And I feel okay with the choice to not participate in that.”
What is your advice to people who would like to support small farmers in their communities? Many small local farmers are selling food that is raised to even higher standards than the organic label requires, yet they don’t have any certification. By example, if you were to pick up organic chicken eggs at the market, they would almost certainly not be raised as well as your birds. But how do people chose?
“I think one way is to go to the farmers market. That way you know you are buying from a farmer, as opposed to a large corporation. I think that price is a big indicator. As Americans, I think on average we spend less on our food than people in other countries do.”
That’s very true. In countries like France, they spend quite a bit more on their food, both in time and money.
“We spend money on our cell phones and on our cable TV and on things that really aren’t core to survival. But when we look for our food, we look for the bargains and the deals and the cheapest stuff. And people shopping for organic food are willing to pay a higher price, but within the organic realm they are looking for the deal.”
“I don’t make a lot of money, but I do spend probably more than the average person on my food. And I have to make choices. Things that are really important to me are eggs and milk and any animal products. I was just at The Good Earth and they have a lot of organic eggs, and a lot of them are pasture raised. But if I have a choice between a $4.50 dozen organic egg carton and the $8 ones, I usually choose the $8. I think the price is telling you something about the quality.”
“There is a reason why things are cheap, and there is a compromise somewhere. That compromise is invisible at the supermarket and sometimes at the farmers market, but I know from being on the production side that when something seems like a really good deal, it’s too good to be true. They’re compromising on their feed or the living situation, or something. And it seems like a hard thing to tell people, to always get the most expensive thing.”
I don’t think you are saying people should always buy the most expensive thing, but it is one thing to look at as an indicator of the quality of the food, especially with animal products. When you see a big price difference between two apparently equivalent products, that should raise a flag.
“Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. For me, food feels like a place that I want to effect change. I don’t feel very empowered voting every four years for people who are very removed from the issues that I feel are really important. But when I use my money to benefit things that I really value, I think that’s a very direct way for making change.”
“I know personally that it makes a very big difference for me when people come to the farmers market and buy directly from me, rather than from a middleman. That means I don’t have to pay a middle person a third of my profits and I can actually, maybe, make a living wage. And when I’m at the supermarket and I make the choice to buy something more expensive I feel like I’m sending a message that this is what I value. That message is really powerful when it involves money and when enough people are doing that.”
“I’m sure you see with the work you do, you see how practices in food production have changed dramatically in such a short time because of the people in this area. And that’s something that everybody can do.”
So let’s say we’re at the market and we see eggs that are $4.50 and others that are $8, what indicators other than price should we pay attention to?
“I feel if you are buying a pastured egg—and that’s a chicken or a bird that’s able to eat grass and bugs and scratch around outdoors and lead the most chicken-like life—that you’re going to get a fairly high quality egg. The other thing I look for is where it’s produced. If it’s locally produced, that’s pretty good. Ask yourself how far these eggs have traveled. Also, buying local means your dollars are staying within the community, and the economy is being nurtured locally.”
“But pastured really says it all. They are very likely organic, definitely Free Range, they’re healthy. Obviously if they are organic, they’re not getting antibiotics.”
“Usually pastured birds don’t need antibiotics so much. The fact that they are pastured automatically removes most of the issues that we try to avoid, since most of those issues are caused in the first place by crowded, indoor living conditions, which are not relevant to pasture systems.”
If someone stops by your farmers market stand, what are some questions they should ask you, or any other poultry farmer?
“I think you should ask about their feed. Even in organic egg operations, the birds are only eating grain, and that’s just a lot of corn and soy. And even if that’s all organic, meaning there’s no GMO and pesticides, it’s just a limited diet. An egg is a product of the animal, so whatever goes in, they’re not going to be adding anything that doesn’t come into their body. They should eat greens. And I like to give them some wild foods which are higher in minerals and nutrients. I think that quail, as opposed to chickens, are just a little closer to their wild relatives, so they know what to do with wild forage a little better.”
What’s the biggest challenge that you face these days?
“Obviously it’s a lot of work every day. It’s just very physically demanding, but it’s also very rewarding and feeds me. So I don’t even think that that’s the biggest challenge. I think it’s more psychological. That my livelihood is dependent on something that’s so variable.
“From having a big gopher problem (right now they’re eating half of my winter squash)to…
Is it going to rain in the middle of the summer?
Or get super hot?
Or if I forget to turn on the water…
“I don’t have children, but it feels like what I imagine having a child is like. It’s a constant awareness of this entity that is very dependent on me caring for it, and it’s a high level of interconnection. I’m really dependent on the farm to produce well so I can be supported, and it’s very dependent on me to take care of it so that the plants all live.
“It challenges my creativity, which feels really good. I kind of just have to be infinitely creative in terms of giving nurture—I’m literally creating—and also in terms of thinking about what people are going to want and what’s going to be interesting for restaurants and how to lay out the farm in a way that’s pleasing and functional. So it draws on a lot of the skills that I have as a designer and just knowing how to grow things.”
So what’s the most satisfying thing that’s happened since you started farming?
“I think it was last year. This was just a grassy field when I started farming. And at some point last year I was standing here looking at this little farm and I had a very deep experience of feeling like the farm was such a direct physical manifestation of my internal self. I felt really proud, but also just a deep connection. I had literally created and designed and brought to life everything that I was looking at. It’s beautiful and makes a lot of food and it’s working. It just felt really good.
“Obviously there’s a lot of hard work that’s gone into this and it helped me feel it’s really worth it. Everything is beautiful. The squash come out beautiful and the flowers are beautiful. It is very rewarding to harvest the fruits, because food is beautiful. And it tastes so different from other things in the store, especially things that are out of season or coming from other countries. I get a lot of good feedback at the farmers market. My strawberries, because they were picked the day before when they are actually ripe, they taste way different and way better than the strawberries you’re getting in the plastic packages. The zucchini are not bitter because they are picked young and fresh.
“A lot of people haven’t become awake to the food world, but that’s a big deal.”
It’s confusing because food looks the same. You look at two apples and you think they are equivalent, but they’re not. They’re not even remotely the same. But they seem like equivalent products and so you just start looking at price or convenience to make decisions on what to buy.
“Exactly. But there are studies coming out that look at the nutritional values of conventionally grown vegetables vs. organic and there are more nutrients in organic foods, because the plants have to defend themselves against all the elements in the natural world, and that’s what triggers all those vitamins to be produced. All of those chemicals [phytonutrients] the plants produce to protect themselves are what you need to protect your body against disease and the sun, and everything that we’re protecting ourselves against.”
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Egg Buying Guide: With so many labels out there that both inform and mislead, here’s what you need to know about how to buy healthy, humanely produced eggs.
The Market Gardner: A successful grower’s handbook for small scale organic farming.
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