Ever see a dog catch a chicken? Not hurt or kill the chicken; just run after it, corner it, and hold it down. Happens all the time at Spice Acres. Ben Bebenroth calls off the dog, and the chicken heads back toward safer ground with its flockmates.
Bebenroth clearly cares about the animals raised here. “Hi pigs,’’ he calls out as he walks over to them and affectionately scratches several of their heads. But those pigs and chickens and even the dogs aren’t pets — they have a purpose in the food he and his Spice team members produce. The two farm dogs work constantly to keep critters out of gardens and away from the chickens. And those chickens work to keep up with the egg demands of Spice Restaurant, Spice of Life catering, and Bebenroth’s other business ventures. In early March, the mature hens were producing about 120 eggs a day. Other Cuyahoga Valley farms raise chickens to sell as fresh poultry, but Spice’s chickens are fed and tended to produce high-quality eggs. When the hens are older and stop producing, they will move on to another purpose as stewing chickens.
Until then, the chickens roam — which explains the occasional canine encounter. The flock migrates around the farm on a fleet of chicken tractors, portable coops on wheels that are moved every two days. Bebenroth wants them on fresh pasture, where they can eat as many insects — and as little chicken poop — as possible. “This is key because chickens don’t discriminate about what they eat,” Ben says.
Mobile chickens eat better so diners at Spice can do the same. “I want to have the freshest, most nutrient-dense ingredients,” Ben says. Free range chickens aren’t just happier chickens: The more they move, the more insects they eat, and the more protein they get. That kind of high-protein results in bigger and richer yolks. “The richer the yolk, the thinner we can roll the pasta we make,’” says Ben. Spice chef Josh Woo says the higher protein level also gives his pastas a better mouthfeel, and makes richer, eggier sauces, quiches, and custards. (And there’s more: Studies have shown free-range eggs have more beta-carotene, flavonoids, and healthy omega-3 fats.)
“I try and showcase the egg when I cook,” Woo explains. “I want to keep it simple.” One of his favorites is a basic omelet with fresh herbs, a really nice olive oil, and shaved parmesan.
Urban chicken coops have been on the rise for more than a decade (in cities that allow them). Bebenroth started his flock at his house, with several chickens roosting in his yard and trees. Since moving to the farm last year, that number has bloomed to hundreds. The next generation of egg producers are in the barn basement, which has been converted into a brooder, where chicks mature surrounded by hay bales and bathed in warm light. The farm started with 267 chicks this year, but had lost 45 by early March. It’s not unusual for some chicks to huddle so close — despite having plenty of space in the barn — that they suffocate as a result. But Ben was clearly concerned about the loss. He and his farm manager are trying to figure out how to keep it from happening. While his chickens and dogs and pigs are hard at work for Ben, Ben works hard to keep them safe, happy, and healthy. “Agriculture is very labor and time intensive,” he says. And with that, he heads up the basement stairs and back to work.
While Spice Acres has different breeds of chickens, Bebenroth says there’s no difference in the egg flavors of the various breeds, although there is a difference in egg colors.
Golden Buff: This hybrid strain is also called Golden Comet, Cinnamon Queen, and Red Star. It’s a leader in the brown egg market, favored for its large eggs and quiet temperament. Mature hens have a soft, reddish-brown color and roosters are white. Hens typically lay at least five eggs a week, with annual production of about 250.
Rhode Island Red: So named because they were developed in Rhode Island and Massachusetts in the late 1800s, these mahogany-colored hens are the state bird of Rhode Island. Mature birds produce 200 to 280 brown eggs per year.
Plymouth Rock: Also called Barred Rocks — barred refers to the breed’s black-and-white-striped feather pattern. These are very friendly birds, able to withstand cold weather, and happiest when they get to range freely.