Whispering Elms Farm in North Scituate, RI chemical-free
Some of what we grow is available year-round.
North Scituate, RI
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We sell both the traditional brown eggs and the blue/green arucana eggs. Maple syrup is available in season, February thru April. We also make hand crafted bottle/wine stoppers and high quality pens made from exotic woods and acrylics. Special orders accepted
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North Scituate, RI - Never let it be said that good, old fashioned egg-money can’t change the world – for North Scituate’s Michael and Helen Dupre it saved the family’s home from foreclosure.
The Dupres still live in Helen’s childhood home, an the 18th century farmhouse surrounded by forest and pasture Michael cleared for animals years ago. Michael grew up in Pawtucket, and when a childhood friend moved to the country Michael took particular joy in visiting so he could help with the animal chores. As an adult he could finally get his own animals, and he filled his adulthood home with a menagerie including emus, a fierce ram someone gave them, assorted poultry and rabbits, and a cow or two they raised for meat.
Unfortunately, Michael began suffering serious back problems, and was forced to give up his work as an auto mechanic and submit to a long series of surgeries. The cost and labor to keep animals was too much to handle with the loss of Michael’s income and ability to do the heavy lifting, and the barnyard gradually emptied out – emus died of mosquito-borne encephalitis, the beef ended up in the freezer, and the chickens dwindled. Helen’s job at the RI Blood Center was their sole source of support until Michael got Social Security benefits, but they aren’t enough to compensate for a good full-time income, and they refinanced the house to get through the hard times. Michael continued looking for something that he could do to contribute to the family’s income without compromising his Social Security, which only permits a supplementary income of under $1000 per month before it gets cancelled.
The barnyard beckoned from out the kitchen window, empty but full of promise. What about eggs? Chickens are small animals, and there isn’t a lot of hard labor as compared with larger livestock. They had small-scale success with hens from their earlier farming experience. Many tasks – watering and feeding, gathering, cleaning, and boxing eggs – are not physically demanding, and suited Michael’s abilities. On Mothers Day, 2007, they invested in their first laying brood – 25 chicks – which they set up in the old barnyard.
As Helen and Michael raised them to maturity, investing time and money in hopes of a future return once the hens began laying, foreclosure hit. “Thank God the state did something to help,” Michael says with a heartfelt shake of his head, and Helen seconds, explaining that their loan had been unambiguously exploitative, and they qualified for the state’s assistance program to get their lives back in order. The reprieve and re-financing allowed them press the reset button on their doomful foreclosure, but of course debts still loomed large.
The hens finally began laying eggs in November, and they began selling them by the roadside. Helen’s co-workers were their primary market in the first months, quickly becoming their number-one promoters. Helen remembers one co-worker asking her how it is that their eggs tasted so much better than those at the grocery store. “Well, our chickens run around outside, eating the bugs and worms and roots that chickens are supposed to be eating,” she responded, only to see a wave of vaguely horrified disgust cross her colleague’s face. That mood quickly passed; “well, they are really good…” she replied, and has continued buying her weekly dozen. Helen’s co-workers are still loyal customers, but their demands are limited, and the Dupres puzzled over how to expand their markets, especially in the winter.
The answer was in the ProJo. Helen read about Farm Fresh RI’s mid-winter Local Food Forum, a networking event for farmers, restaurants, and anyone else interested in growing the options for growing, selling, and eating Rhode Island-grown foods. What jumped out in particular was the mention that Farm Fresh was running a winter farmers’ market, and she contacted the staff immediately about joining. “We had a table at the very next market, February 9, and that really made a difference” in hatching their egg project into a viable business that makes a modest but much-needed contribution to the family’s income. As Helen said, her cheerful face turning serious for a moment, “it may not be a fortune, but it made all the difference.”
For Michael, there are even more benefits. An outgoing guy, he looks forward to market days for the opportunity to get out and talk with people who stop at the table for eggs or the elegant turned wood pens and wine bottle stoppers he also makes for sale at markets. When the winter market gave way to the markets of summer, Whispering Elms chose to set up at Providence’s Downtown (Fridays 11-2) and Armory (Thursdays 4-7) Markets. Of the two, they enjoy Armory most for its shaded park setting, the leisured evening pace of the shoppers, and because it provides a great place for their son Zachary and daughter Alisha to entertain themselves during the market.
Their growing success has required some expansion upon that original brood of 25 chicks. Hens lay one egg per day in their three-year peak of production, so every box of a dozen is the day’s work of twelve chickens. By the start of July 2008, they have 82 hens laying, and another 35 chicks edging toward maturity; another batch of hens is arriving by the end of the month. The flock is a mix of Rhode Island Red, New Hampshire Red, Plymouth Barred Rock, and Aracauna, but most of the new additions are Aracauna.
“It’s all Martha Stewart’s fault,” Helen laughs, noting that the celebrity homemaker’s well-known preference for the pretty pastel blue-green eggs has led to high demand. She adds that the especially fine, eggy flavor of Aracauna eggs also wins over customers, turning the curiosity-seeker into a loyal return customer with their first bite. Offering visibly different kinds of eggs has made Michael curious about the substantive differences in each egg type, and he hopes to send samples of each variety to a lab for comparative nutritional analysis… watch this space for developments!
The cost of a dozen eggs seemed downright cheap as I toured the farm one steamy July morning, learning of the costs, losses, and labor, and time required to fill a box for market. They buy organic, hormone-free grain feed to round out the birds’ diets, but insist that the grain be only supplementary to the chicken’s natural diet of roots and bugs. When they first raised laying hens just for household use, they relied more on grain feed and noticed a tremendous difference in egg quality when the chickens were able to peck and scratch in the yard, so they want to maintain that quality in the eggs they sell. That requires a lot more outdoor space for hens to roam.
As they showed me the newly expanded, shady chicken yard and its fencing to protect their flock from the coyotes and fishercats that run the adjacent woodlands, they told me of the morning they went to feed the chickens only to find 15 carcasses, victims of a fishercat out on a spree. They’ve tightened security since then. Fortunately these predators lay low during the day, and the hens enjoy regular outings to the woods and small pasture area for a change of scene (and a chance to pick juicy, fat worms from the compost pile!)
Chickens come and go from the fenced yard to the barn, which houses a few rows of double-tiered roosting boxes that Michael buys at auction and has a metal-working friend repair for him. Lined with fresh wood shavings, they await the hens that amble in when the urge to lay hits them. While Michael topped off the waterer, I watched one RI Red squawk and cluck gently until she’s free of her day’s project, a warm-hued egg still soft to the touch for several minutes before it hardens in the outside air. Many cubbyholes in the roosting boxes will have three or four eggs by the time of the evening pick-up rounds, a task the family shares. Heavier jobs, like cleaning the sawdust bedding in the roosts and barn floor, fall to Helen, but they have rigged many other tasks so Michael can handle them without further irritating his back.
Sometimes an egg will come out wrinkled, its shell having been compressed as it was being laid and setting that way as the shell hardens. “Wrinkly eggs” rarely make it to the boxes for sale, but buyers will find a variety of egg sizes in the box, because the Dupres don’t sell eggs by officially graded size – they just don’t have the scale of production to be able to. When I asked if customers ever complained about that, Helen and Michael looked at each other and shook their heads. “People are cool with it,” Helen said with a shrug, “and maybe they even like it, because it shows they’re from a real farm.” Cooks just pick a large one and a small one in place of two graded large eggs – though the eggs too big to fit in cartons go into the Dupre’s own fridge for the next day’s breakfast.
Photos from top: Aracauna foreground and Plymouth Barred Rock at right; Helen and Mike; Eggs; NH Red; RI Red; Whispering Elms sign at the farmers' market