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Egg Lady: Fresher by the Dozen

Egg-stravagent local eggs add to country atmosphere.

Laura Nichols’ fresh eggs have developed a near cult following over the years. She collects the eggs daily from the chickens that have a posh setup on her Great Falls estate and brings them to Falls Hardware, where residents have been known to fight like roosters over the last dozen.

There are several aspects of the eggs that have made them so sought after. Certainly people appreciate the healthful aspects of fresh eggs from free-range chickens, but the allure of Hidden Springs eggs go deeper into the community’s unconscious.

Scott Hommel, Falls Hardware’s owner, has been a “conduit” for the fresh eggs for four years. “We don’t sell them here, but people get them here. She puts them up on the counter, and there’s an egg jar that people put the money in,” said Hommel. Nichols collects the cash when she comes in to restock.

“People have an image of this as a country store. Having the eggs here goes right along with that,” Hommel said. “The eggs are extremely popular. They are practically gone before they get here. People call ahead to reserve a dozen, and people can get really miffed when they aren’t here,” said Hommel.

“It does seem odd to get your eggs at the hardware store, but historically the hardware store was the center of town,” said Nichols. “A lot of people in Great Falls like to think they live in the country. Getting the eggs there makes it feel that way.”

Nichols has been in the egg business for more than 30 years. Presently she keeps 90 hens in the barn and in a turn-out area on her property. The mixed flock is made up of Barren Rock, Black Sex Link, Brown Sex Link and Araucana chickens. The hen house has one rooster that has lost all his feathers on his rear because the hens chase after him and pull the feathers off with their beaks. “Talk about henpecked,” said Nichols.

THE ROOSTER IS very busy, as all the eggs sold are fertile, which reportedly can make them lower in cholesterol. The chickens are also fed a flaxseed diet for Omega-3 and are turned out on nice days to eat insects in the yard.

The Araucana chickens lay the pink, green and blue eggs. In each carton Nichols puts together she includes one blue egg. “The blue eggs are fun. It’s a different way of looking at things, I guess. I hope people take them out of the carton and put them in a bowl on the counter. They’re so pretty,” said Nichols.

She got the idea for the surprise egg from the book “Future Shock.” “It was the first book I remember where they printed the cover in different colors. That threw people; they wondered if it was the same book,” said Nichols.

The Black and Brown Sex Links are Nichols’ “egg-laying machines,” which produce an average of 1 1/3 eggs a day. She is able to collect about four dozen eggs each day from her hens. The eggs go straight up to Falls Hardware, except for Tuesdays, when Nichols’ entire stock is bought up by agents at Long and Foster.

Mary Anderson, a Long and Foster agent, looks forward to the eggs each week. “They [the chickens] are not fed anything untoward, and the [eggs] have a much better flavor. I grew up in Scotland, where we had fresh produce. It’s reminiscent of that,” said Anderson.

The price of a dozen of Nichols eggs recently went up to $4 to reflect the increase in the price of flaxseed. It hasn’t slowed sales, according to Hommel. Anderson said, “They are well worth it.”

“If you bake with them, the difference is amazing. Things will be so much higher. The difference really is incredible. They turn into custard, like that,” said Hommel snapping his fingers.

While demand is high for the eggs, Nichols has had to fight nature a time or two to keep the flock safe. She recently lost some chickens, including a few chicks, to a brazen daylight raid by a fox. After turning the chickens and chicks out into a fenced area, Nichols heard the attack from inside her house. By the time she raced to the scene, the damage had been done, and she was able to save only a few chicks.

The orphans are kept in a special coop and are recovering from the attack. One of the chicks that survived, Betty, was previously introduced to Nichols’ customers.

EACH WEEK NICHOLS updates her egg purchasers with an insert she calls “News from the Coop.” In her introduction of Betty, before the skirmish with the fox, she said, “She was hatched on her due date (June 9) with her four siblings. However, one of her legs doesn’t work so well. She is showing amazing comprehension of her situation. She does what she can and sits down when the others go beyond her ability. She manages the ramp in and out of the chick house. Her mom broods her admirably. All chicks are not born equal. The fact that she is growing gives me hope.”

Betty’s mother did not survive the fox attack.

In addition to wily foxes that try to dig under the wire fencing into the chicken enclosure, Nichols has to be wary of raccoons, too. “They can climb the fence so we put [the flock] in a night,” said Nichols. “Everybody loves chicken.”

When her hens get old or stop producing, they don’t have to fear the soup pot at Nichols’ farm — though it would undoubtedly be a lovely vessel, considering Nichols is an established potter, who sells her pieces locally. She lets the birds “retire” in peace and live out their lives with the rest of the brood in a special retirement coop.

The daily feeding and caring for the chickens and collecting the eggs are all done with a positive attitude, according to Nichols. She enjoys the menagerie of animals she has on the property, including horses, dogs and a peacock, and the symbiotic relationship that has developed between her and the creatures.

“I enjoy doing this. People get such a huge kick out of it. It’s fun to sell something that people love,” said Nichols.

The eggs at Falls Hardware sit on the counter for a very short time. Any that don’t sell right away, Nichols picks up and uses herself. “Some people get a little freaked out by them not being refrigerated, but it’s really OK,” said Nichols. She offers a fail-proof test for anyone wondering how fresh the store-bought eggs are. “Drop ‘em in water. If it sinks, they’re fine. If it floats, it’s not fresh,” advises Nichols. Or, just buy her eggs which are marked with the day they were laid, usually the day they are bought, on the top of the carton.