A Ramona farm bringing fresh eggs to market—and your home
Luie Nevarez started his life as a poultry rancher when he was 4-years old, pulling one of those little red wagons alongside his dad and filling it up with freshly laid eggs from his grandfather’s farm, the Eben-Haezer Poultry Ranch in Ramona. In 1995, when grandpa retired, dad and mom took over the farm. In 2012, armed with a degree in agriculture and business and new ideas for pasture-raised chickens, Luie began Happy Hens on the fields just below the family’s ranch. His wife, Chloe, interned at Happy Hens, and then Luie hired her. “I decided she was too good to let go, so I married her,” he jokes, as we stand where the cars are parked, waiting to meet up with Chloe, who is busy with “a newborn.”
“Oh, do you have other animals on the ranch?” I ask. But I had heard wrong. Not a newborn. Their newborn, little 2-month-old Abigail, decked out in a protective bonnet and sunglasses, who, held in her mother’s arms, is coming down from the house to join us on a little tour.
Luie opens the gate to the field and an Anatolian shepherd greets us. “He’s there to take care of predators.” I wonder if the dog sees us as predators, but no, he pretty much ignores us. Two big Tom turkeys waddle behind him. “They are there to add a little something extra for the tours,” Chloe says. “They’re puffing out their feathers to scare you.”
The chickens—white leghorns, red sex link and Americana breeds—are wandering about, ignoring us—pretty much in the same vein as the shepherd. There are 5,300 of them scattered throughout the almost-50-acre property. Those here are huddled near a giant gravity feeder, so I assume they are the ones that are too lazy to free feed themselves. Like party-goers that hang out at the table filled with munchies, they’re gathered close to the easy food. “Hens are kind of like people,” Luie explains. “Some of them are good eaters and some aren’t that interested in food. The size of the egg depends on whether the hen is a good eater of high-protein level food.”
We are told that hens lay one egg every 26 hours, which, if I’m doing my math correctly, adds up to more than 5,000 eggs a day that need to be gathered. The color of the eggs, depends on the color of the hen i.e. white leg horns lay white eggs, red sex link lay brown eggs (the red in the name is a misnomer as the hens are brown) and the speckled black-and-white Americana chickens lay, no, not black-and-white eggs, but aqua-colored eggs. And, no, we are told, hens don’t need a rooster to lay eggs. The eggs we get from the store are, for the most part, not fertilized. Oh, yeah. Duh.
“Then why do you bother with roosters?” I ask, looking at two roosters, scratching the ground around the chickens. I know Luie and Chloe aren’t in the breeding business. “They keep the hens happy, so they don’t quarrel with each other” Luie answers. “When the girls are in a bad mood, they take their aggression out on the male and there is less conflict between females.” Hmmm.
There are six red hen houses, which look like cute miniature barns, with lots of perch and nesting space inside as well as easy access to fresh water and organic soy/corn free feed. New chicks (they come in at a day old and a brooder keeps 100 of them for 12 weeks—yikes!) are assigned a house and each house has a number.
“They may change houses to lay their eggs,” Chloe says, “but they always sleep in their own house.” The houses are rotated twice a week to keep the fields—planted with barley, oat and clover in the winter—evenly fertilized. “The hens plow the seed into the ground for us and graze it down the rest of the year.”
After the eggs are hand-gathered, they are brought to a little building above the field (where we are now) and dated. They travel on a conveyer belt, through the candling station (“it’s where a little light comes on and you can see any imperfections,” Chloe explains), over to the grading station for cleaning (“with water only, no detergents”) and dried, and where a kicker on the belt sorts them by size after they’ve been weighed. Then they are hand packed in a Happy Hens container and delivered once a day, Monday through Friday, to the store. Ninety-five percent of their produce is delivered to retail shops like Whole Foods and Frazier Farms (“we’re working on getting Sprouts,” Chloe says) and five percent goes to specialty stores like Ocean Beach People’s Organic Food Market. “And we sometimes get up to 100 people a day, who stop by the farm to buy fresh eggs here,” Luie says.
And, then, of course, there’s Luie. “He eats five to six scrambled eggs every morning,” Chloe says, smiling.
1908A Dye Road, 760-522-9120, happy-hens.com.