The Egg Man -June 2014

by: Kimberly Nolan

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

Ray Owen’s egg-delivery business is a throwback to the past. Customers generally leave their houses unlocked for him. He leaves cartons of eggs on card tables and countertops, in mailboxes and on the front seat of a classic Mustang, on washing machines and under window boxes, between glass sliders and screen doors. His delivery route mimics a treasure hunt. He treks unnamed roads to reach unmarked rocks to offload eggs at un-numbered houses to recoup empty cartons, dodging biting dogs and potholes along the way.

Owen has been delivering farm-fresh eggs door to door on Nantucket for 20 years. Monday is delivery day, when his pale-yellow pickup truck zig-zags all over the island. The truck is adorned with bumper stickers that echo Owen’s sentiments: “I Love My Goats” and “Some Good.” Cigar-smoke and faint traces of diesel seep out of the Chevy’s seats, heavy with memories.

“As a little kid I would go with my father to deliver eggs to customers’ houses.”
When Owen was 17 he invited Barbara, a classmate, to the junior prom. The high-school sweethearts married a year after graduation.

“We’ve been married for 57 years,” he said. “I used to deliver eggs to Barbara’s house when I was 10 years old.”

“As a little kid I would go with my father to deliver eggs to customers’ houses,” Owen said. “We had an egg route in Needham until we built the store on our 10-acre farm.”

Owen’s Poultry Farm, west of Boston, is still a thriving chicken and turkey business. Ray and Barbara moved to Nantucket in 1982. He left Needham but didn’t leave behind what he knew. Owen worked as a landscaper and mowed lawns. Eventually, he started raising chickens on his mid-island property.

“I started with a few chickens and got more and more,” Owen said. “People asked me for farm-fresh eggs. I told them I would bring the eggs to their houses. The egg route got started by word of mouth.”

Twice a day, he collects eggs from four different coops on his two-acre farm. Most nights, after supper, he cleans the eggs in his cellar while listening to the Red Sox on the radio. To the average eye, the stacks of eggs all look the same. But Owen has an undetectable system of separation and a masterful eye for noting the differences between them.

Young hens, referred to as pullets, lay smaller eggs. There are variations in older hens’ eggs. Oversized eggs are set aside. Cracked eggs are saved for Owen’s breakfast or given to a neighbor. When questioned about the potential salmonella risk of eating a cracked egg, Owen laughed.

“I’ve been eating cracked eggs my whole life,” he said, radiating a robustness that makes him seem years younger than his age.

On Sunday nights he boxes the eggs into cartons stamped “Berry Patch Farm.” Upwards of 80 dozen eggs are transferred into milk crates and lined up on the cellar floor. Some of them are labeled with cryptic Stickie notes: Lib, last, Con. The notes separate a handful of cartons from the masses to denote certain delivery stops. Owen has his reasons.

The egg route is a loop, incorporating residences and businesses, including chiropractors, dentists, doctors, retail stores and town officials.

“I enjoy the sociability of it and talking to different people,” Owen said.

And the customers enjoy talking to him. Paul Smith Sr., a 95-year-old customer, waits for Owen to arrive every week between 11:15 and 11:30 a.m. Owen sits on the couch with Smith, while patting Angel, Smith’s rescue dog. The aged Welsh Corgi appears to listen while Owen and Smith talk about sports, the weather and current events. Owen emits warmth and compassion, evident when he holds Smith’s hand.

“I save the biggest egg of the week for a girl who lost her mother as a young child,” Owen said. “When she was young she liked to get a double-yolk egg. I still continue to save the double-yolks for her as she grows up. I like to have people get the enjoyment of fresh eggs.”

Owen’s palate is discerning when it comes to eggs.

“What are you going to use the eggs for?” he asked a customer. “If you are going to poach the eggs, I’ll give you ones that were laid today. If you are going to fry them, I’ll give you eggs that are a few days older. If you are going to scramble them, then I’ll give you cracked eggs.”

Fresh eggs are key for poaching and frying. The yolk is more durable and the white is more pronounced, said E.J. Harvey, chef and owner of the SeaGrille restaurant with his wife Robin.

“Fresh eggs are better in baking,” Harvey said. “You can see the difference in how high the yolk sits and how the white is defined. In older baking recipes, if you don’t use fresh eggs the recipe won’t come out right.”

Eggs yolks are one essential ingredient in the fresh pasta at Pi Pizzeria, chef and owner Evan Marley said.

“A fresh, local egg gives a more luxurious, richer, rounder taste to the pasta,” he said. “When you poach a fresh egg, it will shine. If you fry it, the yolk is a yellow-gold color and stands up in the frying pan.”

Marley said fresh poached eggs are a perfect complement to in-season asparagus.

Eggs are not a moneymaking endeavor. Raising
chickens is a hobby, Owen said. It’s something he has always done.

“Some people have chickens in their genes,” he said. “My father got pneumonia after I was born. He was hospitalized for two years. My mother ran the farm. I was raised in a chicken coop.”

For years, Owen has been advising Nantucketers about raising chickens. He said the first step is to determine how many chickens are needed to provide a family with eggs. Six chickens will yield two to three dozen eggs per week, he said.

Heritage breeds are a good choice for someone not reliant on the number of eggs laid. With their kaleidoscope of colors and unusual features, Owen said heritage breeds are often hailed for being more attractive.

Owen has a handful of heritage-breed chickens. Most of his heritage breeds are bantams – easily identified by their small stature. Bantams refer to any chicken of a small breed. The Sebright bantams stand out with their laced black and white plumage, a pattern that replicates a stained-glass window. The Araucanas are known for laying eggs that are a shade of bluish green. The Araucana eggs are highly sought after and sometimes nicknamed Easter eggs.

Each year Owen orders chicks from an off-island hatchery. He brings a selection of heritage-breed hens and roosters to Berry Patch Farm to eventually exhibit and sell at the Island Fair, an annual autumn event. The majority of the chicks he orders are a hybrid cross of Rhode Island Red and White Rock. His hens have a rust-colored, modest appearance. They are not ornate like the Polish breed, known for its rock-star “hairdo,” or the furry-footed Brahma.

Owen prefers hybrids because they are better layers, he said. All chickens lay fewer eggs during the summer heat, which is why he is not taking any additional egg customers.

Raising back-yard chickens is easy, Owen said. He advises new owners to build their own coop.

“A four-by-six-foot house is enough for six to 10 chickens,” Owen said. “Basically, it’s equivalent to an oversized dog house. The yard should be twice the size of the coop, eight-by-10 feet. They need a place to lay their eggs. Don’t feed a chicken the way you feed a dog. They need food and water in front of them 24 hours a day.”

Chickens have few predators on Nantucket, Owen said. Strong wire buried into the ground prevents dogs from getting into the chicken yard and netting over the top is necessary to prevent hawks from preying upon chickens.

Owen recommends starting with chicks. He orders them from Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa and Meyer Hatchery in Polk, Ohio. Both companies have extensive chicken catalogs and ship mail-ordered chicks immediately after hatching, he said.

“It’s better for a family to get the chickens when they’re young so they can grow up with the kids and make pets out of them,” Owen said. “Having chicks allows the family to learn about their stages of growth. Chickens become quite tame if you get them as chicks. A lot of people think you need a rooster to have eggs but you don’t. It’s better not to have a rooster. With such a small flock of hens, a rooster makes the hens nervous. You only need a rooster to make a fertile egg and you only need a fertile egg if you want to hatch a chick.”

The constant need for artificial light is another misconception, Owen said.

“Light factors into egg production,” he said. “Heritage breeds are more light-sensitive, they need 15 hours of light per day. Hybrid chickens don’t need as much light. I grew up giving light to chickens, putting lights on at night for so many hours. Hybrids lay without the extra light.”

The only downside to Owen’s eggs is that the demand outweighs the supply. He has a waiting list and said he cannot take any new customers. His eggs can be purchased at Annye’s Whole Foods located at 14 Amelia Drive. ///

Kimberly Nolan is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket's newspaper since 1821.

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