Fast and flexible, eggs are a busy mother's mealtime savior. Breakfast, lunch or dinner, no one in my family will turn down poached eggs on buttery francese or scrambled eggs with gooey cheddar and tomato. But it's estimated that more than 90 percent of the eggs produced in the United States come from hens confined to tiny cages in which they can barely turn around. So when I heard about humanely produced eggs at a local farm, I was eager to learn more.

When I pull into the farm, I immediately see fanciful chicken coops marching along the hillside in vibrant shades of purple, pink, yellow and blue. It looks like an avian Club Med with chickens scratching in the dust or enjoying an afternoon sunbath. Sunlight glints off emerald green feathers, rich red combs and shimmering wings of orange, tan, cream and brown. It's clear that these are no ordinary chickens.

There's Arthur the alpha rooster, Heather, Bianca, Stella, Buttercup and 150 of their feathered friends. They have breed names as beautiful as their plumage — light brahma, Rhode Island red, buff orpington and black australorp. These are the beloved inhabitants of Black Hen Farm, and once I got to know them, I'll never think about chickens or eggs in the same way again.

"They're charming and personable and a lot more intelligent than people realize," says owner Cheryl Potter. "All of the chickens have names, and if you say a bird's name three times they know it."

A dog owner myself, I smile indulgently, sympathetic with Potter's inflated view of her animals' talents. But sure enough, as we tour the three-acre farm, birds seem to respond to their monikers, strutting over to be stroked and admired. Admire I do. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't these glorious, exotic-looking birds, happily clucking and roaming in spacious pens.

"Some people think all chickens are white," Potter explains. "A state poultry vet who came here didn't recognize my breeds, even though some are common backyard breeds. It says something about the lack of poultry diversity today. There are hundreds of breeds that are excluded from commercial agriculture and possess abilities that make them hardy in backyard settings, such as the ability to forage, fly, or fight off disease. When I hear that an entire country has killed off their poultry population out of fear of some disease, I think of these rare breeds and how many of them, who existed for thousands of years, could go extinct."

It's impassioned talk from a woman who never intended to run an egg farm. A freelance technical and marketing writer, Potter was just looking for a quiet place to work. The property she bought had a flock of chickens, so she learned how to care for them.

"I found out that there was a need for people to rescue chickens in our area," Potter continues. "There are a huge number of pet chickens in Santa Cruz that people have to give up for various reasons."

Along with abandoned pets, Potter started taking in "spent hens" those past their laying prime from commercial egg farms and roosters from animal control that would otherwise be euthanized. While most egg production happens before chickens are 2 years old, they can live up to 25 years and continue to lay, though with fewer eggs, and Potter wanted the birds to live out happy, healthy lives, she says. Before she knew it, she had more than 100 birds and people began to ask about the eggs.

"I'm vegan but my family isn't, so I was thrilled to find a cruelty-free source of eggs," enthuses customer Jennifer Trovato. "They were laying eggs whether Cheryl did anything with them or not. Now it's a great way for her to support the chickens and reduces in some small way the amount of suffering out there."

Let me assure you, these animals are living the good life. On the day I visit, they're enjoying organic cauliflower cuttings, part of a diet that includes organic feed, herbal supplements, yogurt, kelp and fresh produce such as melons and tomatoes. Potter often goes to farmers markets and exchanges eggs for leftover produce or compost.

"We always save things for her," says Danny Lazzarini of Happy Boy Farms. "It's great how well she cares for her animals. Everything we grow is certified organic, so I know they eat well."

Still, Potter's birds will never be certified organic because that requires chickens be on organic feed from hatch, and Potter doesn't know what the chickens were eating before they came to her.

I compliment the rainbow of tidy hen houses, and Potter explains that she's been working hard to build "biosecure" housing. She says that while most commercial farms are prepared for bird flu, most small, free-range farmers are not. She worries that should bird flu arrive in California, many free-range farmers will either stop producing eggs or could be put out of business altogether due to USDA policies on culling for several miles around any case of bird flu in wild or domestic birds.

"Developments in Europe and Asia are worrisome," she says. "There are some countries where it's illegal for anyone to have chickens except a commercial producer." Potter finds this ironic, believing that bird flu most likely resulted from intensive, inhumane treatment of animals crammed together in environments ideal for a virus to spread.

Taking the initiative, Potter built new enclosures that meet UC Davis guidelines for preventing bird flu. We walk through one airy 15-by-35 foot enclosure. Guava, mango and papaya trees provide shade and visual interest for the birds. The wire sides exclude predators such as coyotes and foxes as well as rodents that can carry disease and parasites. The clear polycarbonate roof keeps out wild birds and contamination from their feces. Potter also follows careful sanitation procedures and space guidelines.

"It's almost impossible to make any facility entirely biosecure," Potter admits. "But this is certainly better than a commercial facility with animals stacked on top of one another."

We visit the white leghorns Potter recently rescued from a commercial farm, and compared to Potter's other birds, these look thin and bedraggled. Potter tells me that when she got them, they were covered in feces and half their feathers were missing. But that's not all.

"Their beaks were cut off to avoid hurting one another in close confinement," Potter says with a sigh. "Now they can't keep themselves as clean as they should, and they can only eat very soft foods like cooked pumpkin and soft melons."

We pass through an insulated hen house where the birds sleep and lay their eggs.

I'm delighted to see the still-warm eggs blushing impossibly soft shades of yellow, blue, green and brown. Potter explains that different breeds of chickens lay different colors of eggs, while most commercial laying chickens are standard white leghorns, which produce familiar white eggs. It can vary within breed as well, and sometimes the same chicken lays eggs that are lighter or darker over time.

I eagerly accept a half-dozen samples to take home. Having seen these beautiful birds, heard their contented clucking and witnessed Potter's tender care, I'll be more than happy to pay $5 to $6.50 a dozen next time.

You can do the same at the Los Gatos farmers market or arrange for pick-up at the farm off Branciforte Drive. Potter has also applied for a spot at the Santa Cruz Farmers Market. Check the Web site for up-to-date location information and prices.

"I primarily chose the name Black Hen Farm because of a black australorp hen named Hazel, an excellent mother who hatched several batches of chicks," Potter concludes. "But Black Hen could symbolize the opposite of commercial agriculture. Maybe even the chicken version of the black sheep, since I do things so differently from intensive production facilities."

She laughs and wipes her hands on her dusty blue jeans. "When there's a chicken in need it's hard for me to say no."

Tara Leonard is a local health writer and mother of two. Contact her at svreeken@santacruzsentinel.com.

More Information

Prices on a dozen eggs will vary from $5 to $6.50.

For more information, visit www.blackhenfarm.com or call 459-7568.

Baked Egg with Fresh Herbs and Parmesan

Add fresh fruit salad, baguettes with sweet butter and raspberry jam and fresh Italian coffee and you're in heaven!

For each serving:

1 humanely produced egg

1 Tbsps. fresh chopped mixed herbs, such as basil, parsley, oregano and marjoram

2 Tbsps. freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Olive oil

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Well oil an oven-proof single-serving custard dish or souffle dish with olive oil. Break the egg into the dish. (The egg should be about ½-inch tall in the dish. If it doesn't fill the dish enough, add another egg and increase the other ingredients accordingly.) Evenly distribute the herbs over the egg. Top with Parmesan. Bake for about 10 minutes or until lightly browned. Watch it carefully, as you don't want to overcook or undercook the egg and cooking times can vary.

Breakfast Sandwich

From Cheryl Potter

A healthier version of the breakfast sandwich served at fast-food restaurants. The lightly cooked tomato adds moisture.

1 humanely produced egg

1 whole wheat English muffin

1 slice (or more) vegetarian ham (nonmeat product)

Handful of torn greens, such as spinach, mild dandelion, chard or sorrel

1 thick slice tomato

Garlic-infused olive oil

Toast the English muffin until it is lightly toasted but not crisp. Add about 1 Tbsp. olive oil to a large nonstick frying pan. Heat the pan over medium heat. Break the egg into one side of the pan. Tear the greens into small pieces and place them on another side of the pan. Saute as needed. Place the veggie ham on another side of the pan. Place the tomato slice on the remaining side of the pan. Turn over each item as needed until it is cooked. The egg should have a solid yolk; the tomato should be lightly warmed; the greens should be cooked but not browned; the veggie ham should be heated through. Have a large plate next to the stove. Place the English muffin on the plate and assemble the items on top as they finish cooking. Top with the second English muffin half.

Popovers

2 humanely produced eggs

1 cup milk, soy milk, or rice milk

¼ tsp. sea salt (optional)

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour

Cooking oil

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Oil muffin tins. (Optionally heat the tins before filling for higher-rising popovers.) Put the eggs, milk and salt in a blender and blend on medium speed to mix. Sift flour into the blender as it mixes. When the mixture is completely blended, fill the muffin tins half full. (Do not add too much or they won't rise properly.) Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake 35 minutes longer or until lightly browned and done. To serve, fill with butter, jam, honey, ice cream or sweetened whipped cream.