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When when when, little hen hen hen?

My first job as a writer was part time and it was no financial windfall. Still, it was a respectable job at the gate of what I saw then as a long-term career track - and it provided a decent hourly salary. Or so I thought, until someone I shared my news with commented in all good cheer, "Well, that'll give you some egg money!"

"Egg money" didn't set right at the time. I saw my salary as serious income, not petty cash for a farm-kitchen Mason jar. So-called "egg money" seemed less respectable, somehow, than what I was all about. But that was years ago, and I've subsequently grown in unexpected ways. Since I've actually taken up farming, egg money has come to have a whole new meaning.

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Milk is my mainstay, but eggs fill in all kinds of financial nooks and crannies. Our 40 or so free-range hens, of the Australorps breed, are good and steady layers of large, brown, golden-yolked eggs. Their coop boxes and nesting bivouacs in the bay shed, woodpile, and amid odd tufts of grass yield up to three dozen of them daily - enough, once converted to cash, for a small treat, or for any one of the minor needs that regularly arise. We've turned eggs into ice cream, stamps, light bulbs, notepads, work gloves, even low-budget, town-based entertainments. And, of course, the occasional post-milking omelet.

When customers don't stop at the farm, we take seven or eight dozen eggs at a time to Carmella's, a local Italian restaurant, where owner-operator Robin whisks them into rich, custardy pies. In exchange for the eggs we get a pasta lunch and slices of those pies.

As I eye the hen house, contemplating a drive downtown for bakery bread, I suddenly wonder, "How could I ever have scorned the concept of egg money?" On our farm, the first person to find it gets to spend it. We don't obsess about this, but walks down to the barn almost always involve a peek in the old refrigerator we have there. Regular customers know that's where we keep the eggs, and they know to leave payments in its vegetable drawer.

When my son was 6 or 7, I used eggs and their producers for a lesson in responsible moneymaking. I promised Tim that if he fed and watered the hens all week, collected the eggs, and shut the birds safely in their coop each evening, he could keep that week's egg profits. He did his job well, and after a couple of days he had five or six dozen brown eggs in the old fridge and ready to sell. Just no immediate buyers.

I was up at the house when I heard Tim lustily yelling down by the barn; by the time I arrived, breathless, a passing neighbor had pulled into the lower drive and was bent over my son, asking him what had happened - where was the emergency? She told me she'd seen him at the roadside, gesticulating toward the barn and shouting for her to stop. Tim explained, sheepishly by now, "I was only trying to get a customer."

The natural flow of egg sales is uneven enough to try a seven-year-old's patience. But oh, the small pile of bills from a rapid series of sales following a slow spell is sweet to find. Even the glint of four or five quarters in the bottom of the crisper can perk me up, perhaps because we don't count on this money in any structured, budgeted way. It may be spent at will, on whimsy, no strings attached. So it never sees so much as a Mason jar.

Lest we take their efforts for granted, the hens periodically slow production almost to a standstill. It happens when the flock molts, a simple biological rhythm at work. Still, when they all get to clucking together, it's easy to imagine that the birds might actively organize this communal time off. Their leisure catches us up short. No more petty cash for six to eight weeks. We hoard the few brown eggs we find for our own kitchen. Our regular customers sigh and go to the grocery for theirs. Carmella's pies look a little less golden for a time.

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We turn off the old barn fridge and walk about with empty pockets and slightly lowered spirits. By the time the hens are back in full-feathered force, I've come to value and respect egg money more than I'd once thought possible. It's come to be a part of what I'm all about, after all.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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