Home on the Free-Range
By Garry Abrams
Amidst the lemon and orange groves that fill the valley near Fillmore, Calif., Robert Tropper strides across his little piece of utopia armed with a pitchfork. Reaching the spot of his choice, he spears the ground with the pitchfork, turning a chunk of khaki-colored soil, exposing a feast for his friends, his pets, his livelihoodhis chickens. A group of the birds has huddled under a shady shelter nearby, seeking relief from the sun and wind. But a few of the hens, iridescent feathers suddenly sparkling as they move into the golden light, give in to the urge to partake of the buffet Tropper has unearthed, a beak-watering repast of earthworms.
Photos: Pablo Aguilar
Tuomey and Robert Tropper
"You have to really work at keeping them healthy and happy," Tropper says with a grin before heading off to show a visitor another part of his kingdom. The worms are a treat," he adds, explaining that his chickens usually dine on vegetarian delicacies such as fermented wheat sprouts, soybeans, milo, corn and, sometimes, strawberries slightly past their prime. Vitamins and minerals are added to the all-natural mix but no meat by-products like those in commercial feeds.
Neither does Tropper slip his chickens hormones or antibiotics to artificially enhance his brood.
Obviously, Tropper, 42, and his longtime companion Diana Tuomey, are not your average chicken farmers. Well, actually, theyre egg farmers, specializing in the production of eggs by pampered, exotic free-range fowl. Sold at farmers markets and to restaurants in the Los Angeles area under the name Lilys Eggs, the eggs that Tropper and Tuomey harvest are, they contend, as different from regular eggs as diamonds are from rhinestones.
Tropper is out-of-the-ordinary because he is a former fashion photographer and model who says he lived in New York for 10 years and traveled around the world for on-location fashion shoots before coming home to California. Here, where his family has roots in the land, he turned his passion for poultry into a business that employs six full-time workers.
Affable and graced with a ready laugh, Tropper retains a trace of his fashion past in his close-cropped and carefully trimmed beard. The same is true of Tuomey, who wears rubber boots and shorts with a city slickers aplomb. But the pair also exhibit an enthusiasm for natural foods and non-linear thinking that gives them a touch of the 1960s when baby boomers discovered and whole-heartedly embraced all things environmental, including organic farming.
Thus, a walk with Tropper around his Fillmore spread is partly a free association exercise around the general topics of chickens and healthy, no-artificial-ingredients living.
Perhaps the most striking element to emerge in such a ramble is the enthusiasm Tropper and Tuomey have for chickens, which they imbue with qualities not usually attributed to the birds.
For instance, intelligence.
"Chickens are not stupid," Tropper maintains, noting that they are especially sensitive to changes in their surroundings. Moreover, chickens are compulsive gossips, he asserts, passing along information to each other through clucks and squawks. "You move a garbage can and they know it," he says. "Chickens communicate big time." Moreover, he has owned birds that would run to greet him when they saw him coming, he says.
Gesturing around the sheds and coops where chickens saunter in and out, Tropper emphasizes his belief in the free-range concept, the idea that chickens allowed to roam and peck at will produce tastier and, perhaps, healthier eggs. "These chickens are like total stress-free chickens," he says. "One of our eggs tastes like steak and eggs...The yolks of our eggs are like door knobs, they stand up straight...People say an eggs an egg but thats not true."
"Hes the mother and father of all of them," quips Tuomey, referring to Tropper.
Tropper doesnt know exactly why he has this thing about chickens. But he remembers being fascinated when he saw a chicken hatch when he was a child. Then theres the family connection. His ancestors in Austria were chicken farmers, he says, and when the family moved to America, some of them became chicken brokers in Boston.
Whatever the source of his avocation, Tropper has become an expert in the breeding and care of a wide variety of fowl, many of whom live for 10 years or more. (The typical supermarket bird lives only a few weeks before being slaughtered.)
The breeds at his Fillmore operation include Lackenvelders, natives of the Netherlands; Aracunas, natives of Chile and Peru; Australorps from Australia, and Barred Rocks, originally bred in New England. Tropper seems to have chosen these varieties partly for aesthetic reasons.
Each breed sports a multicolored array of feathers. Some of the roosters are especially colorful blends of brown, yellow and black set off by touches of primary colors at the feather tips.
Green Eggs for a Premium Price
Even the eggs have aesthetic aspects. Those produced by the Aracunas are green, for instance, a pale, lustrous shade that matches some of the delicate greens in budding trees.
Customers who want these eggs pay a premium price, $6 per dozen. Tropper says no one knows why the Aracuna eggs are green, but one theory has it that the chickens developed a "green gene" from being exposed to soil with a high mineral content in South America. (Non-green eggs go for $2 a dozen and fertile eggs, which some contend are extra nutritious, sell for $4 a dozen.)
The prices dont put off Troppers following, he says, with 80 percent of sales to repeat buyers. One reason for the customer loyalty may be the eggs freshness.
"Our big thing is getting these eggs to market within 24 hours," Tropper says, asserting that the sooner an egg is eaten after laying the better it will taste.
Despite his idealism about natural foods, Tropper is a realist about nature. A chicken must be at home in the open and alert to the dangers of country living, he acknowledges. "What we try to come up with here," he says, "is the mustang of chickens."
By that he means a chicken that can head for cover fast when a hawk begins circling overhead, or a coyote comes loping through the neighbors orange groves. Predators take a small but steady toll, he says, calling the attrition "part of the natural course of events."
At Fillmore, another chicken ranch near Santa Barbara and the large family ranch near Piru, Tropper, Tuomey and their extended family produce as many as 250 dozen eggs a day during a peak period. According to their certified producer certificate, a document that all farmers market vendors must file with the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner, Tropper and Tuomey have 1,400 hens producing 25,000 dozen eggs per year. The certificate also says they have 12 ducks and 12 geese which produce 300 dozen eggs each year.
After a struggle with his conscience, Tropper also has begun selling a small number of meat birds, mainly to restaurants where the firmer meat of a free-range bird is appreciated.
"A lot of these fancy chefs want to impart their own taste to the chicken, which means lots of marination and that can make regular chicken meat soft," Tropper says.
Tropper is branching out in other ways too. He recently says he has consulted with a Japanese foreign aid group interested in developing chickens as a cheap protein source in developing countries. And sometime soon he plans to travel to the Philippines to check out the potential of a wild chicken that purportedly is considered sacred by some.
No word on the color of its eggs.
Copyright 1997 In Season