While waiting for a visitor to Coastal Hill Farm, farmer Bobby Foehr sits on tractor full of zucchini parked inside the egg processing building where his staff washes and packs up to 18,000 eggs a week.
Like the pastured chickens who roam free on his 70-acre ranch during the daylight hours, Foehr prefers to stay under cover and out of the sun. That’s because from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. every day, he is out feeding and watering his flock of Ameraucana and Delaware, Black Australorp and Barred Rock, Gold Sex-link and White Rock laying hens. At mid-day, he gathers eggs, and at dusk, he shuts his feathery flock back in their mobile coops.
“It goes from sun up to sun down,” Foehr said. “From 9 to 11:30 a.m., the chickens talk and argue, because they like to go back to the same box (to lay eggs.) By 1 p.m., there are 600 eggs in each coop.”
On this diversified ranch in Two Rock west of Petaluma, Foehr also raises honeybees to pollinate the vegetables and vegetables to help feed the animals. That keeps the small but growing egg farm in balance, with zero waste.
“It’s a closed circle,” said Foehr, the great-grandson of the dairyman Domenico Grossi, who immigrated from southern Switzerland in the 1890s and founded the historic Grossi Dairy in Novato in 1917. “Anything we’re growing has to complement something else.”
The Coastal Hill eggs are Certified Humane, which is what matters most to the egg farmer and to his customers. Anyone can come out and tour the ranch by appointment and see how the chickens live on the farm, with plenty of fresh air and ventilation, healthy feed, clean water, fresh shavings and space.
That’s why businesses like the Petaluma Pie Co. continue to order the pastured Coastal Hills eggs for their baked goods.
“We’ve been out to visit the farm,” said Angelo Sacerdote, co-owner of the Petaluma Pie Company. “We like that he is doing things on a human scale, like us.”
Foehr is one of the bigger players among a handful of small, family farms pioneering the pastured egg business on the North Coast as an alternative to the indoor cages and crowded floors of commercial chicken operations.
It’s a labor of love, keeping laying hens not only out of cages but outdoors all day — free to run around, forage for insects and dust bathe — while producing eggs that look and taste very different from commercial eggs.
“How does the bird live naturally?” Foehr asked. “They need access to the outdoors. That is the groundwork. The taste will follow, if you focus on what’s good for the chicken.”
Now 36, Foehr started raising chickens at his grandfather’s Nicasio ranch when he was just 8 years old. Using the ranch’s old milking barn and a chicken run, he started with bantams, then added Rhode Island Reds and Sex-Links (a Rhode Island Red crossed with a White Leghorn.)
“I was into animals and all kinds of critters, and I was always fascinated with chickens,” said Foehr, who grew up in San Geronimo between Fairfax and Point Reyes in Marin County. “By age 10, I was selling eggs for $1 a dozen. We’d wash them at the Nicasio ranch, and my dad would drive me around to deliver them.”