José Ramirez is as famous for his brilliant smile as he is for his ‘happy chickens.’ As with all our local vendors, it’s a pleasure to see him and to buy from him.
Every day, José enters his chicken runs and feeds his hens: premium quality organic grains, supplemented by vegetables and fruit, the surpluses from Farmers’ Market stalls. For Jose, tending his hens is a labor of love, evidenced not just by what he gives them to eat but by the conditions in which they live. When José’s at the farm, his chickens run free. When he’s not there to protect them, they’re in huge pens whose fences are designed to keep the coyotes and hawks out rather than the chickens in.
On hot days, a misting system keeps everything cool.
What he feeds these cherished hens and their free-ranging living conditions are reflected in the outstanding taste of the eggs José sells at Farmers’ Markets in Ventura, Thousand Oaks and Santa Clarita. A testament to that taste – he sells every egg he produces, and the maximum time from laying to market is three days.
Once you’ve tasted one of Jose’s chickens’ eggs, you’ll understand the care and integrity that goes into his chicken farming. There really is a pay-off to ‘happy chickens’ but if you think this must mean that Jose’s eggs are premium priced, you can easily pay more for “fresh,” “organic,” and “hormone/antibiotic free” in stores and supermarkets.
To understand this exceptional farmer’s attitude and practices, and why his eggs are so radically different from almost any others on the market, consider first the freshness; second the feed and conditions; and, third, the competition.
If a fruit or vegetable, a piece of fish or meat, is long past fresh, it’s fairly obvious to the eye and equally obvious to the feel. You cannot say that about an egg, its truth hidden beneath its ubiquitous shell.
The taste and, just as important, the food values of an egg begin to decline the moment it’s laid and that decline accelerates exponentially. Some fairly rudimentary research shows that 45% of eggs sold in California are between eight and fourteen days old. 16% are between two and three weeks old. 13% are between three and five weeks old and, shockingly, an egg can be 49 days old and still permitted to be sold. (These data are nearly 20 years old and the indications are that, today, the situation is a lot worse. Anecdotally – hard to prove – eggs can be returned by the store to the distributor after two or three weeks, ‘re-polished,’ re-packaged, and returned to the markets.)
Relatively few eggs sold in California actually come from California. Some travel cross-country – apparently more than once.
José Ramirez’s 100% organic, free-range eggs are on his market stalls a maximum of three days after laying. Most of them are sold within 48 hours, at prices that compete with store-bought organic and/or cage-free eggs.
(‘Cage-free,’ like many other Big Agri and Big Store marketing ploys, is quite deceptive and may not be worth the premium price it commands. It may also be no more than a technical term, implying free-range but in fact simply allowing chickens access to a small concrete area adjacent to the pens.)
However, the difference between Jose Ramirez’s and store-bought eggs extends way beyond taste into an area not so many food-shoppers are comfortable entering. Chickens and pigs, even those advertised as organically fed, antibiotic-free, etc., are the most cruelly farmed animals in the world. Regardless of laws and local regulations, quite aside from lives spent in miserable confinement, they are often treated brutally. Those workers or regulators who attempt to whistle-blow or agitate for more humane practices are painted as the real villains of the piece.
We shoppers, farmers, animal-factory owners and workers inure ourselves to this widespread inhumanity to animals in the name of affordable food and, in doing so, we gradually deaden not just our human sensibilities but our taste buds. Factory and processed foods become the norm while fresh and organic becomes exotic – even elitist.
José, who only sells his eggs at Farmers’ Markets, is as far from a factory farmer as it’s possible to be and still walk on two legs. Quite aside from the conditions he creates for them to live in, and the expensive and varied, natural diet, he has a real affection and respect for his animals – whether they’re the chickens he keeps in Acton or the cattle, goats and pigs he farms in Mexico.
When Jose says “They’re my friends,” there’s nothing sentimental about it. It’s a simple statement of truth evidenced by, among other things, the fact that when his chickens stop laying – and he has one still going strong after seven years – he keeps them, feeds them, cares for them until they die naturally.
The majority of the Ramirez hens are Rhode Island Reds but he has some Barbrucks?? , some Leghorns and a few Aracana which produce the blue-green shelled eggs which some buyers swear are better-tasting than any other variety.
Like many Farmer’s Market vendors and growers, José has to deal with some fairly mindless regulations. The same body that permits eggs to sell well beyond any reasonable freshness date, insists that he refrigerate all his eggs – despite the fact that they sell within 48 hours of being laid and that refrigeration accelerates the breakdown of an egg’s food values and taste.
Other than bureaucrats, his opposition appears to be confined to the coyotes that prowl his pens at night, the hawks that overfly hopefully, and the squirrels that raid the chicken feed, filling their cheeks, scuttling to their nests and returning for seconds and thirds, an endless, thieving shuttle service.
Ramirez spends two or three nights a week at the farm, to keep the coyotes honest. At the weekends he rides his quarter horse, Griego, along the endless trails in the area and sometimes to the nearest drive-through. It’s just another affirmation of his attitude to his animals that he doesn’t stable Griego on his own farm but with a local horse ranch. “He is my friend. I don’t want him to be lonely.”
José Ramirez not only sells the best-tasting eggs Poseidon Cooks! has ever experienced, he’s more at peace with himself, his work and his life than anyone we know.
And that, of course, explains the trademark smile.