Green Eggs and a Plan

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Happy chickens lay better eggs. The owners of Lily's Eggs, a farm near here, are sure of it.

So while the cushy lifestyle of hens and roosters on Diane Tuomey and Robert Tropper's 25-acre farm may not be on a par with the spa experience at, say, the Oaks at Ojai, it isn't bad at Lily's.

A typical day in the life of most laying hens is pretty confining, said Bob Brendler, a retired Ventura County farm advisor. They spend their lives in large chicken houses, sometimes in wire cages, without ever stepping outside.

The food can get boring, too--nothing but chicken feed all day long.

But life is sweeter at Lily's, where the hens roam free and eat all sorts of tasty food, including bugs and grass.

And owners Tuomey and Tropper are reaping the benefits.

Customers for Lily's eggs--which retail for up to $6 a dozen at the Montecito and Santa Barbara farmers' markets--definitely make up the California "A" list. Such tony Los Angeles restaurants as Campanile and the dining room at the Bel Air Hotel feature the green-shelled eggs from the farm, and weightlifters line up for the laid-yesterday fertilized eggs at the Hollywood Farmers Market.

"They like them because fertile eggs . . . inhibit the development of cholesterol," Tropper said.

Closer to home, the Ojai Valley Inn and Seaside Banana Gardens serve or sell eggs from Lily's. The farm features "the best eggs I've ever seen anywhere," said Rex Hale, executive chef at the Ojai Valley Inn. "We use 100 dozen of their eggs per week."

One secret to their success, Tropper says, is the way he and Tuomey coddle their chickens, which collectively lay "a couple thousand dozen eggs a week."

Think of the hot-tub-size hole in the ground as a dry mud bath, consisting of freshly turned loose dirt, into which the chickens can hop.

"They roll around until they've cleaned the oils off" their feathers, Tropper said.

The good life for the hens and roosters doesn't end with the spa. On hot Fillmore afternoons, the hens keep cool under their palapa--a grove of bamboo in the middle of the chicken yards.

Many of the chickens have names. Ivana Trump "came to us with a plastic bracelet on her leg," Tuomey said. Ivana prefers her afternoons under the palapa.

Dennis Rodman, a rooster with a garish red comb, has a son named Rodney.

Tom the rooster is unpopular with the other guys, so at night, an Araucana chicken named Adrian hops on the perch with Tom and puts her wing around him.

And Arthur, an aging rooster, has arthritis.

Tuomey and Tropper have no intention of getting rid of Arthur--or any of his female companions--any time soon.

"We don't eat these laying chickens," Tuomey said. "Some of them are over 8 years old."

Most commercial laying hens don't live nearly as long, she said.

Lily's chickens even have their own mister, similar to sprinklers that keep people cool in long lines at amusement parks. The sprinklers in the pastures also cool the hot tin chicken-coop roofs during those dog-day afternoons.

Since the gals at Lily's aren't cooped up all day, they stroll around their lawn, eating bugs and grass. "Then we give them an afternoon snack of sunflower sprouts," Tuomey said.

"That's why their yolks are beautiful."

Several breeds live at the Fillmore farm. The Araucana chickens, of Chilean origin, lay the light-green-shelled eggs, which the Bel Air Hotel serves in the shell for breakfast, no doubt with ham.

"We're breeding the Araucanas for shades of green--we're working on olive right now," Tuomey said. "But the yolks stay bright yellow."

Rhode Island Reds lay brown eggs, and Tropper and Tuomey don't have to worry about the Reds mingling with the Araucanas.

"The different breeds separate themselves out," Tropper said. "They don't like to sleep together or perch together. So we have a chicken house for green layers and another one for brown layers."

Neither Tuomey nor Tropper grew up as farm kids. Both animal lovers, they met at UCSB while majoring in health and anthropology, respectively, and they jointly developed the egg business.

Chickens aren't the only animals on their Los Padres foothills spread. The Lily in Lily's Eggs is actually a puli dog that acts as a security guard against dreaded chicken hawks.

Turkeys, goats, emus, cats, a donkey named Annie and a pig named Sweet Pea also share the pastures peacefully with the chickens. Annie wears a mesh "beauty mask" in the summertime to keep the flies off.

"She also wears Skin So Soft by Avon," added Tropper. "It also helps keep flies away."

Sure. And chickens lay green eggs.

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