How Blue Heron Farm is Cracking into the Market
The Missouri Ozarks egg farm, which opened in 2015, is providing consumers and chefs alike with hard-to-find duck eggs
Ettie Berneking // May 27, 2016
Photos by Jennifer Silverberg
Standing over a cast-iron skillet, James Boosey waits for a large egg with a bright orange yolk to crisp up around the edges. “These cook differently than regular chicken eggs,” he says. “They get crispy in a better way, and the flavor is more intense.” That’s because they aren’t chicken eggs: These are duck eggs.
Nearly double the size of a chicken egg, porcelain-white duck eggs were hard to find at farmers’ markets in the Missouri Ozarks before the Booseys moved to town. Hailing from the U.K., where duck eggs are a household staple, James grew up scrambling, poaching, soft-boiling and frying duck eggs each morning. When he and his wife, Jennie, relocated to Marshfield, Missouri, they couldn’t find their breakfast favorite anywhere. That void in the market gave them an idea.
Three years later, James and Jennie now run Blue Heron Farm, where they raise around 300 adult chickens, 61 geese (50 of which were added last month) and, of course, ducks – around 240 at last count. On an average morning on the Booseys’ farm, you’ll see ducks roaming the fields and swimming in the small spring-fed pond on their land. It’s a familiar sight for James but a rare one to behold in most of the Midwest.
Before opening Blue Heron in 2015, the Booseys originally planned to start a farm in the Pacific Northwest, but the cost of farmland was too expensive. That’s when they began looking at properties in the Midwest, where prices were good and land was even better.
“I was skeptical about the region [at first],” James says of moving to the Midwest. “[But] if we had been in Seattle, none of this would be as unique.”
When the couple came across 50 acres for sale in Marshfield with a pond and several small barns, they packed their things. They quickly settled into their new home with a brood of chickens and a flock of geese and ducks, and Blue Heron was in business.
At 7am, as the sun just barely creeps over the horizon, orange-beaked geese honk noisily at James as he empties bags of feed into adapted plastic rain gutters lined up on the ground. “These are really cheap and much easier to clean and maintain,” he says.
Scurrying past his feet, tan chickens and plump Muscovy ducks, raised for their meat, rush past in an effort to beat the geese to the piles of grain. Up ahead, three barns surrounded by an English-style yard are home to the farm’s chickens, ducks and geese. During daylight hours the birds have unrestricted access to the 50-acre farm and are free to roam the surrounding pasture, creeks and woodland including the 2-acre spring-fed pond. Around dusk, the birds head to the gated areas in front of the barns before being gently herded inside.
“You’ll want to stand back,” says James, heading toward the chicken barn. Once the doors are opened, a stampede of hungry birds rush past him, and he heads inside. Through the haze of dust and hay, colorful chicken eggs can be seen resting on top of the ground cover, and James quickly gathers armloads of them – some are bright white, others toffee brown or pale blue.
The coveted baby blues are laid by the Araucana chicken and its derivative breeds, the Ameraucana and the appropriately nicknamed Easter Egger. The color of the eggshell doesn’t alter the flavor of the yolk inside, but James says colorful eggs draw more customers, which is why this month he’s adding around 100 Welsummer chickens to his flock. These plump birds lay eggs with a rich, chocolate-brown hue. His brood of chickens also includes Rhode Island Reds, New Hampshires, Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, Silver Laced Wyandottes, Jersey Giants and Cinnamon Queens.
Next door in the duck coop, the larger white duck eggs are harder to find. “ The problem with ducks is they have big, flippy-floppy feet,” James says as he digs into the bed of soft straw and wood shavings. “They use their feet to bury their eggs.”
Sure enough, James pushes back a mound of shavings to reveal three large duck eggs. Despite the game of hide-and-seek, he can gather 30-dozen eggs in just 10 to 20 minutes. That high yield is thanks to the two breeds of ducks he raises at Blue Heron: Indian Runner and Khaki Campbell.
The Khaki Campbell is an efficient bird to rival any farm chicken (these ducks can lay 300 eggs a year as opposed to the average egg-laying hen, which might lay 260), but the Indian Runner isn’t far behind – it can lay up to 180 eggs each year. As its name suggests, these ducks run rather than waddle. With soft white feathers, bright orange beaks and upright postures, the Indian Runners are easy to spot among the sea of birds gathered around the feeders on the farm. Once his trays are filled with eggs, James heads back inside to wash, sort and pack his haul for market.
Complying with state law, James and Jennie inspect each egg before washing and storing them in the fridge. They are careful to keep the bloom intact, which is the wet coating surrounding the egg, which protects it from bacteria.
Eggs are then sorted by size to be graded, packed into labeled cartons and then stored in a refrigerator below 45°F. The entire process can be done in one day, and Blue Heron’s eggs are never more than four days old once they reach market. James opens one fridge to reveal towers of packaged chicken, duck and goose eggs. Grabbing a carton of each, he pulls the fridge door closed and heads into the kitchen.
Eggs Your Way
Fried, poached or scrambled, the Booseys know how to enjoy their eggs. James’ favorite ways to use those giant goose eggs is in fresh pasta dough or soft-boiled with “soldiers” – toasted strips of bread, which he says with British aplomb – to dunk in the rich, creamy yolk.
With one of the pale blue Ameraucana chicken eggs in hand, James cracks the fragile shell against his cast-iron skillet. The deep orange yolk sits up tall and is easier to split – usually a sign of freshness. “An old trick was to feed chickens chile peppers to turn their yolks red,” James says. “It’s a bit of a myth that a deep orange yolk means you have a healthy egg. It can be faked.”
The chicken eggs at Blue Heron range in yolk color from intense orange to lighter yellow – it depends on the year and the bird’s diet. Because the birds have access to pasture, unlike chickens raised on industrial farms, they eat insects, frogs, tadpoles, even rodents and snakes, making their yolks a deep tangerine.
Sprinkled with salt and pepper, the Ameraucana egg has a much richer flavor than its store-bought counterpart. Even the larger yolk, cooked over easy, is thicker and creamier. The same is true for Blue Heron’s duck eggs. Broken into the cast iron, the translucent membrane surrounding the tall orange yolk starts to bubble and crisp up. The egg yolk to whites ratio is much different than a chicken egg, with the yolk much larger and the whites more translucent until cooked.
“People don’t like that gloop,” James says. “They’re easily weirded out.” But with a sprinkle of salt, the duck egg is ready, and then it’s time to crack open a goose egg.
Blue Heron goose eggs are enormous and retail at $3 for a single egg or two for $5. It takes several notches in the shell before James can crack the egg open. What spills out is almost all yolk. “I think what’s interesting is people buy these originally as a novelty,” James says. “Then they discover how delicious they are.”
The goose egg has a much lighter and smoother flavor than chicken or duck eggs. “Nothing compares to these,” James says as he reaches for a spoon and ladles up the pool of creamy yolk that spreads across the plate.
Although Blue Heron has only been in business for two seasons, the farm is doing well – and part of that success is thanks to its full range of offerings. Inside the Booseys’ home, which is now used as dedicated growing space, metal scaffolding holds racks of microgreens, mini vegetables and microherbs just centimeters high. As Jennie heads out the door, she grabs a tray of bright green wheatgrass that will end up in Hy-Vee and MaMa Jean’s Natural Market stores around Springfield, Missouri.
James is hoping that the tiny indoor farm will help Blue Heron further carve out its niche in the Ozarks. After working in restaurants for years, James knows how quickly herbs and greens perish once cut, so by delivering live young shoots to chefs, he and Jennie want to help them reduce waste and extend their greens’ shelf life. Each soft carpet of microgreens, including young pea shoots, parsley, chives or mixed herbs, can be cut as needed, and the rest of the tray can then be put back in a cooler to keep them fresh.
A few shelves over, a tray of Genovese microbasil is headed to The Order at Hotel Vandivort in Springfield, and farther down, pots of edible flowers and low-growing sorrel are still being experimented with, along with trays of hibiscus and 2-inch-long mini carrots.
James and Jennie face the same challenge with their pallets of microgreens and edible flowers as they do with duck and goose eggs: They have to hook customers’ interest and educate them about the flavors of these ingredients and how to cook with them – and it’s working.
The Booseys supply their eggs to several other restaurants around town, including The Golden Girl Rum Club, Farmers Gastropub and Metropolitan Farmer. And as of this year, MaMa Jean’s Natural Market stores have started selling Blue Heron duck eggs – making them the first grocer in the Ozarks to sell duck eggs.
“It’s not easy to convince people to buy local eggs,” James says. The price can seem steep at $4 for a half-dozen duck eggs, and customers are unfamiliar with the flavor, but luckily, chefs have been happily scooping up the eggs – no one more so than chef-owner Andy Hampshire of Farmers Gastropub.
“I think everyone is so used to chicken eggs that they are scared of any other egg,” British-born Hampshire says. “But the French used duck eggs for baking years ago [before the domestication of chickens], which is what convinced me to start using duck eggs.”
Hampshire folds the large and fattier duck yolks into cakes in place of chicken egg yolks for a richer and moister texture, and uses them in the restaurant’s crème brûlée and crème caramel. He also crowns its kale and mushroom risotto with poached duck eggs.
One of the most popular ways Farmers Gastropub is serving the large, flavorful eggs is in a crispy, pork-encased British favorite: the Scotch egg. And down the road, Metropolitan Farmer plates a duck egg and duck confit hash for brunch.
Cracking into the Market
For the past year, James and Jennie have hauled their microgreens and microherbs, as well as dozens of chicken and duck eggs to the Farmers Market of the Ozarks in Springfield each Saturday. Chicken eggs are still the best-seller (nearly 100 dozen are sold at the market each week), and although duck eggs are gaining momentum, only about 20 half-dozen are sold each week. James isn’t deterred, though.
Farmers Gastropub is now exclusively buying duck eggs from the Booseys, which is great news for the couple as they watch local interest in duck eggs slowly grow.
“Honestly, I’m thrilled,” James says, looking out over the birds roaming on his land. “I don’t want to be cliché about this, but I think it’s important to embrace food in all its diversity. And at the end of the day, I just like ducks.”
With that, James hauls his small blue canoe down to the pond to round up the last of the Indian Runner and Khaki Campbell ducks that are happily bobbing up and down at the water’s edge.
Blue Heron Farm, 3783 State Highway J, Marshfield, Missouri, 417.425.4264, facebook.com/blueheronfarmmo
Read the story and see more photos here: http://www.feastmagazine.com/dine/features/article_8ef78f7c-21eb-11e6-b113-d36ffd6339c7.html