Bass, a kindly man of sixty-nine with silver hair and patrician features, told me that he set out to build a better egg after years of adhering to the bad old ways on an industrial-scale egg farm he owned in the 1960s and 1970s in Bogotá, Colombia—packing in thousands of hens to a barn, dosing them heavily with prophylactic antibiotics, and treating them with as many drugs as it took to cure them of the stress-induced respiratory diseases they inevitably contracted. He got the organic gospel when a worker on his ranch died after a mistaken pesticide application on his own garden.
In 1986, eleven years after selling his Bogotá farm and returning to New England, Bass bought a medium-sized egg farm in the central-Massachusetts town of Hubbardston. He ripped out the cages that allowed the three barns to house 15,000 hens (modern methods, he says, would allow the same barns to hold 60,000) and renovated them as high-ceilinged homes for 6,600 birds. He cut long lines of windows into the sides of the barns; they remain open half the year and allow in ample sunlight year-round. When I stepped into one barn I could see right away that these were plump and happy birds—scratching the earth-covered floor, noisily socializing, and feeding at troughs on slatted platforms below which the floor is automatically mucked out twice a day. The barn was breezy and odorless.
“Do you want to hold a chicken?” Bass asked, as he petted one behind the ears. I took the bird by the legs and cradled it on my chest. I had already been sold on the wholesomeness of the birds and their eggs by their topaz color. Breeds that are brown of feather and earlobe (where the coloring predicts egg color) produce brown eggs, the only proper kind in New England. Nutritionists insist that there is no difference between brown and white eggs (or, for that matter, between brown, white, and the pretty pastel eggs from exotic hens whose colors Martha Stewart has trademarked for house paint), and I confess to being unable to distinguish between the two in blind tastings. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that brown is better, and the fact that brown hens are bigger and require more feed (brown eggs cost more) confirms my prejudice.
Bass casually scooped up some feed from the trough and popped it into his mouth, encouraging me to do the same. He mills and blends his own, using grains he buys from midwestern organic farms after visiting them and quizzing the farmers. His theory about the taste of eggs, he later wrote me, is that it “comes from a living, lively organic soil full of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes, just to name a few.” The feed was gold-green, rather than the corn color I had expected, and ground to a medium grit. Bass several times rebuffed my questions as to what the mixture included, insisting on proprietary secrecy. The first flavor I detected was salt; Bass admitted that the feed did contain it. The second was unexpected—vaguely herbaceous, and reminiscent of marijuana. Bass denied adding any herbs to the feed (I didn’t ask about illicit ones), but later revealed that he puts in marigolds for their lutein, which can help to fight macular degeneration. The mixture did not taste fishy, as I had suspected it would. Many poultry farms give fish meal to chickens, resulting in fishy-tasting chicken and eggs. Bass adds ground oyster shells and calcium to strengthen the eggshells and to help the birds, which have no teeth, to digest feed; Country Hen eggs have sturdy shells that make supermarket eggshells seem like paper by comparison. Micalike chips of oyster shell glistened in the dark, loamy stacks of the farm's carefully turned compost, which Bass plans to sell to urban gardeners for a pretty penny. Country Hen eggs, at $2.50 a half dozen, are a good deal more expensive than most supermarket eggs (you can find where they're sold at www.countryhen.com).