Little Wing Farm hatches niche in Tomales

Samantha Kimmey
Forty quail that hatched on Little Wing Farm near Tomales now produce an egg a day. Owner Molly Myerson sells them to Saltwater Oyster Depot and Osteria Stellina, where next week patrons will find them mixed with greens and cheese and stuffed in housemade ravioli.  
11/27/2013

When Molly Myerson walks into her quail coop outside Tomales on the hunt for the day’s cache of eggs, she eyes a few of the birds’ favorite spots—a divot where two low wooden beams imperfectly meet in one corner, a blue crate in the back. But the quail are also prone to hunkering down in the dirt somewhere and laying their eggs, just over an inch long and speckled brown, which makes finding them a bit trickier. 

Ms. Myerson’s coternix quail operation kicked off this summer as a unique way to strengthen Little Wing Farm, a vegetable farm she began in February. 

She sells her eggs to local restaurants as well as food-conscious and food-curious individuals. Now that the Point Reyes Farmers Market is over for the season, she hopes to find ways to continue attracting customers who might be interested in purchasing a dozen to boil, fry, poach, pickle or even eat raw over sushi.

Her eggs began with a purchase on eBay. Ms. Myerson, a New York City native who came to West Marin in 2007 after studying permaculture in Bolinas, incubated them in a machine that both maintained a specific humidity and tumbled them for about 18 days. At that point, they begin to break free. 

“You start hearing them inside, peeping. And the eggs are moving and you see little volcanoes erupt where they’ve poked through the shell, and they poke all the way around and this whole little lid comes off, and there’s a whole bird there,” she said.

Because the hatched birds were half male, half female, Ms. Myerson harvested most of the males at about six or seven weeks, after they had reached maturity. She kept a few guys to keep the flock calm, and one because it had two unusual white feathers on its wing. 

“I thought maybe he was the artist, the alternative guy,” she explained. 

She can’t keep more than a few males around; their constant desire to mate—which they do by grabbing a female by her head feathers and furiously copulating for about four seconds—would distress the ladies. But as a vegetable farmer who once worked in wildlife rehabilitation, harvesting the males was trying. Though she says it was a valuable experience, Ms. Myerson doesn’t foresee meat as regular part of the operation.

By this summer her chicks were grown and laying their own eggs, which the quail will often push together into clusters inside the coop. They are combatively maternal over what they believe will be the future of the flock. 

“One of them will want to be on the egg. I’ve seen them fighting to all squeeze into one nest together,” Ms. Myerson said. 

Last Sunday, in one corner of the coop, six or seven quail crowded around a pair of eggs. One perched on another, trying to push it out of the way, while the rest waited in the wings, ready to hop in when opportunity struck. That day, Ms. Myerson also found a pure white egg—the second one she’s seen. “It’s like somebody’s glands weren’t working,” she said.

Ms. Myerson’s 45 quail are aerodynamic and compact, their length from beak to tail roughly the span of your hand, if not a bit smaller. Blonde streaks cascade down their earthy brown backs. Each female lays about an egg a day, quickly adding up to dozens and dozens of miniature, speckled specimens. 

Many farmers, including Ms. Myerson, install timed lamps in coops during winter, when birds typically lay fewer eggs as an adaptation meant to limit chicks’ exposure to harsh winter conditions.

She hasn’t had too many problems with the quail, though on their first day in the coop she walked inside to find a snake with a quarter of a dead quail down its gullet. (She subsequently covered potential points of entry.) And one adult escaped and hung around the farm for about two weeks before she managed to nab it with the butterfly net she has repurposed to rein in fugitives.

When she first considered getting into the egg business, Ms. Myerson wanted to sell pastured chicken eggs, but a large enough swath of land proved difficult to come by. Quail, small and relatively easy to raise, fit neatly into the farm’s overarching niche strategy. And, she added, eggs in general are a good business move. “People will pay for money for an egg. A good egg is worth something,” she said. “I felt they would appeal to people and distinguish the farm.”

Other than raising quail, Little Wing Farm focuses on cultivating heirloom vegetables of interest to restaurants looking for high quality or specialized produce. For her winter crop, Ms. Myerson is growing particularly sweet scarlet nantes carrots and black Spanish radishes, among a host of other vegetables. 

So far, Ms. Myerson has sold her eggs to Stellina and Saltwater. Stellina once made a quail egg salad, using a mix of hardboiled and pickled quail eggs colored with beet juice, mixed together with a garlic aioli and served on crostini. 

“The flavor of the quail egg and the protein is really nice,” chef Justin Langer said. “The customers loved it.” 

Next week, the restaurant plans to use them for uovo in ravoilo, in which a cracked egg is tucked into a pouch of pasta with greens and cheese and boiled until the white is cooked but the yolk remains a thick runny liquid. 

But if you want to go for purity and ease at home, you can simply soft or hard boil the tiny eggs from two to four minutes, peel and sprinkle with a dash of salt. A bite into the egg must pass through a surprisingly firm, protective membrane to get to the yolk, which even when hard-boiled remains creamy, almost like a paté, Ms. Myerson said. It’s an egg well worth the hunt. 

 

Those interested in purchasing quail eggs, $7 a dozen, can call Molly Myerson at (914) 582.1588 or email her at barddex2000@yahoo.com