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Sebastopol hens lay rainbow-colored eggs, courtesy of Mother Nature

While families across America engage in the spring ritual of buying cartons of white grocery store eggs and dunking them in bowls of messy dye, Franchesca Duval goes out into the cold of a spring morning to collect eggs that Mother Nature has already lavished with colors not found in the Paas inventory.

Soft greens, subtle blues, deep olives, latte browns, bronze, copper and creams, some dusted with speckles, fill her woven baskets and egg cartons with a tempting rainbow of natural tints pre-dyed right from the hen.

Duval, who goes by the title “Chief Chicken Wrangler” at her little four-acre Alchemist Farm near Sebastopol, makes no bones about the fact that she cares about looks. She goes crazy for beauty, like the striking black Swedish Svart Höna hens, the creamy white Bresse with long feathers, red combs and blue feet. the petite Serama, the world’s smallest chicken, and the Pavlovskaya chickens, with their jaunty, high feather headdresses that resemble mohawk cuts or a 1950s grandma hat.

And she fancies hens that lay beautiful and fertile eggs, which she sells over her fence by appointment to locals and to buyers across the country for hatching and breeding.

She and her husband Ryan Duval and their tiny 3-year-old daughter Trinity are building up a busy breeding business, selling both fertile eggs and chicks, from rare and heritage chickens selected for their appearance, temperament, vitality and productivity.

It started out as a little backyard hobby, with only three laying hens for fresh eggs. Franchesca, who grew up in Santa Cruz where her father always kept several backyard chickens, said she has always been drawn to these engaging birds.

“I just loved them, the noises they made, the sweetness of them following you around the yard, their fluffy little butts,” she said.

She loved them so much she found herself increasingly captivated and finally obsessed. After years of looking for a little plot of land to expand their flock, she and Ryan found the perfect, pocket-sized farm in 2013. It hadn’t been tended in years, so they spent their first year bringing it back and rehabilitating the pastures that had been overtaken with foxtails and weeds and were degraded by overgrazing.

Last year they built chicken coops and fencing and acquired the necessary equipment, then sought out the best breeds and birds from speciality hatchers around the country to build up their own flock for colored eggs and breeding. They did it while engaged in other jobs - Ryan is an acupuncturist and Franchesca teaches hypnotherapy childbirth techniques and natural fertility awareness to moms-to-be.

They now have about 600 chickens in their flock, 100 raised for breeding, 60 in the laying flock and the rest chicks. Their breeding hens produce about 3 dozen eggs a day. The eggs go out within three days on two-day priority delivery for maximum freshness, because they start losing viability after five days.

The Duvals hatch about 80 chicks. Packed with a heated pad and little cups of a combination of food and hydration called Gro-Gel, the chicks huddle together for warmth in the ventilated box and travel safely.

Franchesca, a graduate of Sonoma State in psychology, said the little farm is finally starting to turn a profit which she hopes will eventually be enuogh to at least cover the mortgage.

But raising your own chickens is also a fun family pursuit. Especially when the eggs are so exceptional.

“My first love affair with colored eggs was with the French Black Copper Maran,” Franchesca said, smiling. “They lay deep chocolate eggs. Whenever I give a dozen people just ooh and ahhh.”

And while you can eat them - at a minimum of $5 an egg they make a pricey omelette - they’re ready to become chicks with the right conditions.

One bedroom of the Duvals’ newly renovated 1950s farmhouse is a nursery for baby chicks, to the delight of Trinity.

“I’m going to hold the Pavlovska,” she announced, perfectly articulating each syllable of the tongue-twisting name in a voice almost as tiny as the chirps coming from the outside brooder, where the chicks are kept after they hatch. Franchesca tucked one of the fuzzy soft babies into the hood of the toddler’s fleecy parka. Trinity, schooled in gentleness, often carries the babies like this beside her ear, tilting her head as if to snuggle them closer.

Raising chicks can be “a magical experience” for a child, Franchesca said. And while the Duvals have a larger production incubator and hatchery, it’s something many people could easily do at home, she said. Inexpensive incubators are sold at places like Western Farm Supply in Santa Rosa and online, even at common sites like Amazon. The Duvals recommend springing for one that mechanically replicates the nest experience, keeping the eggs warm at 100 degrees, with some humidity, while automatically rocking and rotating them.

“That keeps the embryo from sticking to the shell and makes it easier for them to hatch,” said Ryan. The whole process takes 21 days like clockwork - 18 days in the incubator and 3 days in the hatcher. Before they hatch, the chicks start to cheep noisily inside their shells.

“You get a new respect for chickens when you see the struggle they have coming out of the eggs,” Franchesca added. “It’s so magical for kids to watch their little beaks pecking out slowly and then they hop out.”

She suggests that a few families pool their money to buy and share the equipment. The Duvals recommend the Hova Bator GQF Genesis 1588 ($189 on Amazon) with LCD display and picture window to observe.

To have your own flock of a half dozen fetching and fertile hens that lay beautifully colored eggs, the Duvals suggest:

Maran, which produces a chocolate-colored egg;

Isbar, a Swedish variety that lays a moss green egg;

Cream Legbar, which lays large sky blue eggs;

Welsummer, a heritage variety that lays dark, speckled eggs;

Ameriocan Bresse, a cream colored egg;

Olive Egger, the offspring of a Little Peddler rooster and Ameraucana hen, which lays a striking olive-colored egg that is blue inside with a bright yellow yolk.

All of the eggs raised and sold by Alchemist Farm are fertile. That doesn’t mean you’ll find a half developed chicken inside, Franchesca said. They won’t start developing until or unless they are incubated.

Alchemist sells all of the above chickens and more rare breeds as either fertile eggs to hatch yourself or as chicks. Eggs start at $5 each and chicks at $25 a piece, with most going for $8 an egg and $25 a chick. Rarer breeds are more expensive. She said they should have both eggs and chicks available for Easter for those who want to the experience of hatching eggs or raising spring chicks. Most cities in the county permit backyard chicken coops, with varying rules and limitations; some jurisdictions don’t allow roosters and most have limits on the number of chickens. People contemplating a backyard brood should check with their City Hall for local rules.

To prevent avian diseases, the Duvals maintain strict standards of cleanliness and testing and are subject to regulations and inspection by the National Poultry Improvement Plan. To kee their flock clean and safe they can’t invite the public onto the farm. But they’re happy to sell eggs and chicks at the gate by appointment (831-334-4244.)

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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