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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.”

After graduating from Drake High School, Foehr attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with the idea of becoming a veterinarian but ended up studying agribusiness with a minor in poultry management.

“I wanted to get more scientific explanations of what my grandfather was teaching me,” he said. “Why does calcium make chicken shells harder? How much calcium do they need? Why do egg yolks turn yellow?” (It’s from xanthophyll pigment found in grass, corn and marigolds.)

During college, Foehr learned all about the cage layer methods of commercial egg operations. After graduating in 2003, he took that knowledge and applied it to a mobile chicken coop operation he launched at Marin Sun Farms, a cattle farm near Inverness owned by his cousin, David Evans.

“I learned how to make it work, using commercial operation research about lighting programs, eating habits and stress factors,” he said. After spending a year at Marin Sun Farms, Foehr took a break from the demands of the farm life. But he returned with renewed energy in 2009, starting up Coastal Hill Farm back at his grandfather’s ranch in Nicasio where it all began. At first, he raised and sold chickens for the burgeoning back-yard chicken movement. Then, when pastured egg sales started to go up, he switched over to raising his own flock of laying hens.

In 2014, to keep up with the rising demand for pastured eggs, he started sourcing from a handful of other organic and conventional egg producers in the region to create a steady supply of his Coastal Hill Farm eggs, which can be found at Oliver’s Markets, Community Market in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol and other North Bay outlets.

By sourcing some of his eggs, Foehr is able to make sure there are new birds always coming into production, which allows him to provide a steady supply of eggs. Each farm, including his own, keeps about 2,500 to 3,000 chickens in production for efficiencies of scale.

“By sourcing from other farmers, I can easily plan,” he explained. “I can call and ask them to put in another 500 birds in six months, just pastured eggs. And call another and ask for just organic eggs.”

His Conventional Pasture-Raised dozen cost from $6.99 to $7.99 retail are are all brown. His Organic Pasture-raised dozen ranges from $8.99-$9.99 per dozen, due to the higher cost of organic feed. The organic dozen includes white, green and brown eggs.

“The biggest issue is cost ... but people are starting to understand,” he said. “People’s preferences are starting to change.”

The higher cost of Coastal Hills Farm eggs is due to the labor costs of the hands-on care, the limited number of birds in a mobile coop system and the risks of raising chickens in a more natural environment.

“You are much more beholden to the seasons,” he said. “Chickens have no ability to regulate their temperature. When it’s cold, and then it suddenly gets hot, the chickens won’t eat ... and they lay less eggs.

Predators are also a problem. Foehr keeps his younger chickens inside the coops, to avoid getting picked off by the sparrow hawk that hunts in his yard. At night, he puts all the chickens inside the coops and keeps a guard dog to keep away predators like raccoons.

Providing the chickens with a more natural lifestyle can also make it more difficult to get a consistent product.

“At the grocery store, all the eggs look the same,” he said. “Some of our eggs have pale yolks, and others have deep-yellow yolks, because one chicken eats more grass and lays less eggs.”

As a small farmer with just one delivery truck and a staff of five part-time employees, Foehr delivers within a small distribution area that includes Sonoma and Marin counties as well as San Francisco. But through the years, the farm continues to evolve and grow.

“Three years ago I was working all by myself, but I couldn’t keep up,” he said. “Now we’re providing customers with good quality food, and we’re also trying to help all these farmers stay busy. Now it’s a bigger deal.”

In order to make his farm grow and thrive, Foehr plans to ramp up his egg volume, so that he can start wholesaling to bigger distributors and restaurants. In order to do that, he also has to increase is food safety procedures.

“There’s a lot of paperwork and documentation,” he said. “But you either keep going up, or you stop.”

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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