My first attempts at marketing Tiny Forest eggs have met with interesting if unexpected results. If anything they will make good stories of the “good ‘ol days” when these become the good ol’ days but they also immediately offer unique insights into human nature. The realization that led me to leave academia so many years ago came in a blast, (or was it a slap?) inside my classroom when I realized that communication isn’t as easy as we tend to think it is.
The sort of communication we think we are engaged in depends entirely on an agreement of meaning. If we all agreed, for instance, that night is that period of time when the sun does not shine down its light upon our surroundings because it is not “above us” due to the Earth’s rotation, we can all understand when we see or read the word “night”. And we will all agree that night is not day, that period of time when the sun does shine down upon our surroundings. But after that it gets murky. Dawn, for instance is not so well defined. Is it sunrise? Is it twilight? Is it civil twilight? Is it even a moment instead of a series of effects caused by a rising sun? No doubt if you were raised on an ocean vessel it would be different for you than for someone raised in a rainforest or a mountain top or the east coast of a country compared to the west coast. We have different understandings in part due to the influence of our culture and upbringing but it goes deeper than that.
A word is not a thing; it is not the thing itself. A word is merely a convention. If in my classroom I spoke about the lovely oak in my backyard, each one of my students would have a unique inner visualization of that lovely oak tree, if they were paying attention. Search on Google for the answer to how many different oak trees there are and you will have a better appreciation of this statement. Depending on where you seek an answer, there can be as few as 60 oak trees or as many as 600 oak trees. So what oak tree do you visualize when you read the word “oak”? Or do you see a piece of furniture? Or a paint stain? Even if I were to specify the lovely oak tree is a Quercus palustris or pin oak, there would be a spectrum of meaning given to the pronouncement. Why? Because a word is not the thing it tries to convey. A word is merely a sign. And it is of signs that I began this post today, yard signs in fact.
My first sign announcing the sale of Tiny Forest eggs was double-sided but a little small. It announced “Fresh Fertile Eggs”: $3.00 for eating or hatching. I thought that announcing they were fertile would give them a distinguishing touch for my rural community where many people remember their good ol days included egg-gathering from their own flock of chickens. For me, it also had a connotation of having a rooster with the hens which is a more balanced or pastoral view of a flock of hens. I hoped that teachers or parents would be able to provide children with a memorable experience hatching eggs and raising their own backyard flock. Needless to say, the emphasis generated unforeseen situations. For instance, people wanted purebred fertile eggs and not the mixed flock of Light Brahma and Buff Orpington hens at Tiny Forest that are guarded over by a Light Brahma roo. The month before Easter was a busy month answering phone calls from people who wanted a hundred dozen or more. No doubt there was much disappointment not only in that they were not pure bred – I had no Buff Orpington roo and the hens laid communally, so there was no telling which eggs were form which hens – but also my small flock only produced about five dozen eggs per week.I was disappointed too. Gathering and keeping so many hatching eggs at the right temperature was not as easy as gathering and storing for eating.
Emphasizing fertility was not a good marketing strategy. I decided that I would emphasize that my hens free- ranged and I ordered another sign: “Free Range Eggs”, along with my phone number. This sign was about twice as large as the first one and also double-sided. I was so pleased when only half an hour after putting it up by the road, a truck stopped in front and I went to see if I could help them. Yes indeed I could help, the lady who was older and had visible symptoms of having had a stroke at some point, asked me what were “range eggs”? Well, it didn’t dawn on me quickly enough but rural folks in this area have their ways of speech and I am not a native. I answered the hens were free to roam during the day. Did I gather them daily, she asked? Yes, I gather the eggs every day. Well, she said, “I’d like to try some.”
As I walked back to the house I thought that I would offer these eggs for free. It was a gesture as much for the future business of this first customer as it was a show of compassion for the medical and physical hardships I thought she might suffer. So I went back to the house, took out a dozen eggs from the fridge and walked back to her. I handed over the carton of eggs, telling her they were yesterday’s eggs. She thanked me and got in her truck and said she lived down the road. I thought it was odd she hadn’t asked how much they would cost and that she didn’t offer to pay me anything at all, even though I would have declined and told her that they were “on the house” so to speak. It was the word “free” she had not mentioned with “range eggs”. And it is more than semantics. It is where our attention is placed. It is our upbringing and our expectations. Surely if she saw the phrase “Free Roaming Eggs” on a carton at the grocery store she wouldn’t ask the clerk what were “roaming eggs” and she wouldn’t put the carton into her purse and leave the store without paying, at least not successfully.
I would venture to say that she never reads the words on the cartons; she only looks at the prices and that she may not be very well- read on agricultural topics such as confined animal feeding operations (CAFO) or open air manure lagoons, or antibiotic resistance. My neighborhood is a lower working class area. Price might be the only factor when making a purchase. Not everyone considers the health and well-being of the animals producing food for human consumption. Some people in fact consider animals are just “things” to be used for human benefit. She would have not stopped if the price had clarified that the word “free” qualified range and not eggs. I placed a hyphen between Free and Range this morning. Semantics. It may or may not help.But I do care about the way the animals are treated. I do care about climate change, antibiotic resistance, water pollution due to factory farming run off and the suffering of all of us animal, human and planet.Supermarkets do not charge the true price of eggs. Those prices are based on subsidies and they are based on ignoring the effect of factory farming.
The following has been edited since first written. It has been revised based on consideration of feed and care costs and supermarket prices for inferior.
My approach and belief system regarding food is based on community agriculture, humane treatment of animals and sustainable practices. Pricing eggs at $3.00/ dozen, I can break even during the heaviest laying times of the year- in summer. Supermarket prices for “cage-free” eggs are $3.00/ dozen. I have thought about lowering my egg prices but the fact is I can’t afford to. When I am fortunate, I break even. But the planet is winning anyway. the animals are winning anyway. With these perks, not to mention my own supply of fresh, delicious cruelty-free eggs, I can wait a little longer to see a profit.