Easter baskets may be empty, but chickens are filling up their nest boxes on local farms.
April and May are prime months for farm-fresh eggs in Southern Oregon. Coming in a rainbow of pastel colors, eggs at growers markets don't just look different from store-bought counterparts. Farmers say the taste and nutrition justify prices of up to $7 per dozen.
"Some of them are so big, you can't even close the lid on a jumbo carton," says Teri White of Runnymede Farm near Rogue River.
Sold for $4 per dozen at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market in Ashland and Medford, Runnymede's eggs are from free-range hens, like many local farms'. More unusual, the eggs are fertile because Runnymede keeps roosters, which White says is more natural for the flock.
"People want them because they think they're higher in nutritional value," she says.
That includes a regular contingent of customers who buy them with the intent of eating raw, White says. Whether or not they personally enjoy raw eggs, White and other local egg farmers say they believe the risk of contracting the bacteria salmonella from their product is very low.
"If you have healthy barnyards and healthy animals, you're not going to have that salmonella, E. coli problem," White says.
"People are really confident in what they're buying," says Ken Muller of Rogue Valley Brambles.
Suzanne Willow of Ashland's Willow-Witt Ranch agrees and thinks nothing of tossing a raw egg with pasta or salad. But she always reiterates for inquiring customers the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's stance on raw eggs.
The FDA says eggs should be fully cooked until both the yolks and the whites are firm. Raw or undercooked eggs and products containing them can harbor salmonella, which poses the greatest risk to the very young, very elderly and people.
According the American Egg Board, the risk of an egg being contaminated with salmonella is only about 1 in 20,000. At this rate, an average consumer would encounter a contaminated egg once in 84 years.
Experts agree that the risk of contamination depends heavily on how chickens have been handled. Unhealthy chickens can have salmonella in their reproductive tracts, and the bacteria can end up on egg shells or even inside the eggs. Eggs also can be contaminated by an external source in the barnyard or during handling and shipping, including storage or preparation at a restaurant.
Many chefs, however, insist that purchasing the freshest eggs from reputable sources is the best way to safeguard against salmonella. Farmers like White and Willow also emphasize an egg's own protective coating that can be breached by attempts to sanitize it.
"You actually increase the permeability of the shell," Willow says of washing eggs.
Although customers occasionally ask after eggs' safety, they're far more concerned about getting to the market in time to purchase eggs from about a half-dozen vendors. Whereas eggs can sell out in the market's first hour during summer, spring chickens can supply everyone.
"They're just laying like crazy," Muller says.
Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press contributed to this story.