Wednesday, April 16, 2008

I am the eggman

I grew up surrounded by egg farms and thought this was perfectly normal. You may be surprised, but I thought it unremarkable that all the egg farmers I knew were Jewish. Why shouldn't they be? Nearly everyone we knew in our South Jersey town was a Jewish egg farmer, or had been before they got into something else. My grandfather had a poultry farm, my father and his three partners ran a chicken feed mill, our next-door neighbors the Gingolds had a poultry farm, and so did the Auerbachs, the Eisens, the Fleischers, the Kaufmans, the Mullers and Maiers and Ritters and Wolfs.

For a few decades, from the 1920s through the mid-60s, this odd enclave of Jewish poultry farmers flourished in and around Vineland. At its peak in the 1940s, there were thousands of Jews on the sandy flats, far from the slums of the Lower East Side or the suburbs of Westchester County. The earliest settlements were encouraged by a German-Jewish philanthropist, the Baron Maurice de Hirsch, who thought that the solution to "the Jewish question" was for them (i.e. us) to go back to the land. He planted Jewish agricultural colonies in Turkey, Argentina and New Jersey. One of the first was in Alliance, NJ, still the site of the Jewish cemetery where my father and his parents lie buried.

All the other Jewish kids I met in college and later life grew up in suburbs, or in cities. Nobody knew from farming.

And what odd farming it was! This was not the 4-H life, no storybook menagerie with a quack-quack here and a moo-moo there. It was monoculture: white chickens laying white eggs. There were no tractors, no fields, no growing of animal feed from the soil. Feed was purchased from local mills like my father's, which ground into powder the carloads of grain that came by rail from the Midwest. There were no cows or horses, and certainly no pigs. We did not witness the constant cycle of livestock breeding, birthing and slaughtering which was supposed to teach regular farm children the facts of life. At our farms, day-old fuzzy yellow chicks arrived in cardboard boxes from the hatchery, already peeping, roughly spherical, and ready, within a few months, to start laying eggs. At the time, a hardworking grain-fed chicken was expected to produce about 200 eggs per year.

The hatchery chicks were guaranteed to be nearly 100% female. Rooster chicks, who obviously were never going to lay eggs, were culled at the hatchery by sharp-eyed sexers and thrown into barrels to die. Chicken sexers in that era were always Japanese, a prime example of America's ethnic division of labor, which is always shifting and reshuffling but never entirely disappears. Yesterday we had Jewish lawyers and comedians, Italian singers and organ-grinders, Negro boxers and railroad porters. Today we have Pakistani emergency room doctors, Vietnamese pedicurists, Oaxacan roofers and African-American secretaries of state. But I digress.

It is often said that Americans nowadays, spoiled by supermarkets and plastic packaging, don't even know where food comes from. All sentences containing the word "nowadays" are propaganda on their face and can be safely ignored. And I do know where eggs come from. A few times I accompanied my father, who was his mill's outside man, on his rounds of the poultry farms. The farmers were always glad to see him, because he was funny, and respectful, and spoke a little Yiddish, and knew all about agriculture. They would bring out the limp carcasses of dead birds for him to autopsy. He cut them open with a hunting knife, looking for signs of disease in the flock that could be remedied by adjustments in the feed, or by antibiotics. During one of these field post-mortems he cried out in triumph and lifted something up to show me. It was the dead hen's oviduct, with an already-formed egg visible inside it, patiently waiting to be laid, still unaware of the catastrophe that had overtaken it.

The egg business was shrinking by the 1960s. Like nearly everyone we knew, my father began to make other plans, and in 1965 we moved away from Vineland. More on that in another post.


  1. Great article! Thanks for the wonderful flashback. In my youth (also growing up in Vineland), I remember once "touring" the insides of one of these coops/farms -- and coming out with the prize: the hatchling egg to put in our incubator experiment. This was a great recollection of 1950s/60s Vineland!

  2. Dear David- little did I expect my simple question of end in my so enjoying your whole blog/post! I had no idea about chicken farms and folks (raised in Canada after their families fled either Russia or Poland...we're not sure) were 100% suburbanites! Arriving in CA at the tender age of three....I barely knew what SNOW looked like, tho I well recall Dad saying we came to California because, "I was damn fed up with delivering babies in my galoshes!"
    ...back to YOUR writing. I really loved the way simple information has a wry and delightful under tone, and I could easily visualize...most of what I read. Why not all? I was busy day dreaming about the only, very nasty chicken farm I know about (drove past it on my way to the High School where I taught in Hemet, Ca.With YOUR words I got an image of several farmers hanging around chewing...clearly NOT the fat...but all with beards, tallies and yalmakahs (which spell check never heard of, so..) . OYE! Personally,although I'm sooo secular I boarder on atheism. I love the rich history that comes with your stories of Jewish life..removed from 'the old country' and settling in the states or around the world. So much of that was woven into your writing!! Job well done. PS I'll send a poem that, while rather old, still isn't very effectively edited & puts the reader in the tough stop of needing to be a little familiar with Los Angeles.


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