More than a century ago one man’s longing to live in the country led to a course in chicken farming offered through Washington State College, laying the groundwork for one of the largest and oldest egg operations in the Pacific Northwest. Along with just a few other large egg companies, the family-run Wilcox Farms is now a pillar in Washington’s 1.9 billion-egg-a-year industry.
In the early 1900s, a Canadian transplant named Judson Wilcox settled in Seattle. He had a home on Queen Anne and a hat shop in Pioneer Square. But city life wasn’t for him. In 1909 he visited a site east of Olympia in the Nisqually River valley. He hiked among the giant trees, rowed on a lake, and fell in love with the area. First using his home as a down payment for the 240-acre farm, he returned to Seattle to break the news to his wife Elizabeth.
Judson and Elizabeth’s grandson Barrie and great-grandson Andy relate this story as we stand in their family home just a few feet from where the founders of the farm once lived. Large picture windows frame Judson’s prized view over a valley of farmland to Hart’s Lake and Mount Rainier beyond. Around us are the historic barns and buildings, and a little further off, modern chicken houses that have recently been converted to cage-free facilities.
The 1900s Wilcoxes built their new life with the help of the Washington State College experiment station in Puyallup. To make their farm profitable, the couple enrolled in a wintertime six-week poultry school led by WSC employee George Shoup and his wife. They took turns attending classes. One would go to Puyallup for a week while the other stayed home to care for the children and manage the farm.
Using Shoup’s plans, they built their first chicken house, a structure with a long open front. They had a rough start, losing about half of their 500 birds that first year. But eventually they managed healthy flocks of laying hens, raised other animals, and maintained a large garden. They sold their eggs and produce to nearby logging camps.
The Wilcoxes were not alone in early chicken ranching. Washington history is enriched with eggs. The 1945 bestseller The Egg and I features a small farm on the Olympic Peninsula. Author Betty MacDonald drew heavily on her misadventures as a young wife in the 1920s on a Chimacum-area chicken ranch.
While she didn’t much love raising chickens, MacDonald enjoyed using their product. “… there was always on my pantry shelf a water bucket of double-yoked and checked eggs to do with as I would… a source of constant delight.” She tried “rich, eggy old fashioned recipes” that she found in an old cookbook: cakes, doughnuts, and cream puffs among them. The Northwest’s egg connection was enhanced a few years later when the book was made into a movie starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray.
While Washington has always had a small piece of the national egg scene, WSU made some key contributions to egg research in the 1960s and ’70s thanks to John V. Spencer ’52, ’54, the first chair of WSU’s food science program, who spent most of his career researching eggs and poultry and examining flavors and shelf life. He looked at things like whether the age of the hen and the fertilization of the egg affected the egg’s level of cholesterol (they don’t) and the hatchability of fertilized eggs held in plastic bags at different temperatures.
Though it no longer has a poultry research program on the Pullman campus, the University still works with poultry and egg farmers throughout the state and maintains the Avian Health and Food Safety Laboratory at WSU Puyallup.
From the time Judson and Elizabeth Wilcox built that first hen house, egg production and consumption in our state have in many ways changed but in some ways stayed the same. For the Wilcoxes change meant dropping the dairy side of their business and moving their egg production from mainstream to more niche categories like cage-free and organic, not unlike the way the original Wilcoxes farmed. People are more interested in how their eggs are produced than they were just 10 years ago, says Andy Wilcox, who runs the business with his brother Brent and cousin Chris Wilcox.
Now Washington has just a few major egg producers like Wilcox and National Food that maintain more than 500,000 laying hens. They are, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, responsible for most of the 6.7 million laying hens in the state.
At the same time, says Chris Benedict, a member of the WSU Small Farms team and WSU Extension, there’s a growing number of very small operations with fewer than 1,000 hens. People want to be closer to their food sources, and be more certain of the conditions in which their food is raised, he says.
Following in the footsteps of those Puyallup extension agents a century ago, Benedict has co-organized several poultry-raising courses. When it is offered, the class always has a waiting list. So many people are interested in raising their own birds, whether just for home consumption or for small-scale farming. “Now nearly every city between Everett and Olympia has its own ordinance dealing with chickens,” he says. “That’s a sign that there’s a change.”
He’s seeing more people, especially in urban areas, add two or three chickens to their home garden. “It’s not that economical,” he says. Building a coop and finding feed requires some effort. “And it can take upwards of six months to get your first eggs.” And it takes two years before the birds reach their peak production of an egg a day. But these folk are keeping the hens as pets, with the benefit of having fresh eggs and maybe teaching their kids about raising animals, says Benedict. “It’s not about the money.”
In more rural areas farmers with a few acres are scaling up from raising eggs just for themselves to selling them off their farms or at farmers markets. “For diversified vegetable farmers, it gives them something to offer year-round,” says Benedict. “It’s about hooking consumers with one more product.”
And what a product. Eggs are an inexpensive source of protein and useful in so many recipes. Just a sampling from some of the menus from WSU’s Feast of the Arts dinners shows the diversity of uses. The egg appears in dough for the Tuscan ravioli, the goat cheese flan, the meringue topping for cherry rhubarb compote, the pumpkin spatzle, the crab cakes, and the cornbread stuffing for quail.
“The egg is probably the main staple in the kitchen,” says Jamie Callison, the executive chef for the WSU School of Hospitality Business Management. “It’s a component in every cuisine and a workhorse in nearly every meal. We just made, for example, pad Thai,” a stir fried dish with rice noodles and scrambled eggs. “We cannot go one day without eggs here. They add richness, they thicken sauces, they work as a binder, they make mayonnaise,” he says. “They’re kind of a bridge item. Without them, things just wouldn’t come out.”
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Home eggs should be collected daily and stored at below 45 degrees. Clean and refrigerated eggs can last for several months. Fresher eggs perform differently than older eggs. The fresher eggs are more flavorful and can offer a fluffier omelet or lofty meringue. Older eggs, once cooked, are easier to peel. Callison teaches his students to look for grade and age. The more expensive eggs are not always the freshest. “It depends on the store,” he says. “In some the costlier organic eggs don’t move as fast.”