He greets his customers with a shout: “I’ve got brown eggs!” Sometimes he has green eggs, but they go fast.
Fifty-five-year-old Chuck Barman sports a long white beard, and he operates out of a beat-up 1998 Chevy Suburban that is adorned with a pair of size-84 blue jeans (the only purpose they seem to serve is as a sort of swing for children to ride in). What’s more, you might even find him donning a Santa hat, even when it’s close to 100 degrees out.
Barman, known by some as “The Eggman,” sells eggs for his Indiana-based company Swingbelly Farms and he can often be found at farmers markets, like those in Forest Park and Brookfield.
Customers, especially those with kids, flock to see the caged hens Barman brings to the Grove nearly every Friday. “They’re my sales force,” he said. “You’d be surprised how many children don’t know what kind of bird they are. It’s educational.”
Barman raises 700 free-range chickens on his 11-acre farm near Crown Point, Ind.
“About 9 o’clock a.m., after most of the predators are asleep, I open up the coops and let ’em loose,” he said, of his chickens.
Barman supplements calcium by crushing oyster shells into the sand they peck, but, otherwise, “they have to run around and eat whatever they can get their little beaks into,” he explained.
Right now Barman’s selling dozens of eggs every weekend at the farmers markets, and later in the summer he’ll be offering a variety of produce that is grown from seeds he purchases from Amish farmers. He’ll have tomatoes, corn stalks, pumpkins and squash. Currently, he’s got lettuce.
A few area restaurants purchase Barman’s goods. He sells produce to Emilio’s Tapas, in Hillside; and to the Scrambled Diner, in Dyer, Ind.
The green eggs may seem like a novelty, but they’re a hot item, and Barman has a number of repeat customers. The green eggs come from Chilean Araucanas, a breed of South American chickens that are distinguishable because they have no tail feathers.
The Araucanas’ green eggs are pricier because they’re only available a few times per week. Most of the eggs he offers at markets come from Rhode Island Reds [chickens], though; they lay brown eggs about every day or so.
“The Brookfield customers are mad now, because I run out of green eggs on Friday in Forest Park and I’ve only got the brown left by Saturday,” he joked.
Barman also sells duck eggs, “good for noodles,” as well as pullet eggs from adolescent chickens, which he said are “smaller, but people love them.”
Make no mistake, Barman is in it for the eggs. On a recent Friday, a customer with a European accent asked about the purchasing cost of Penny and Henrietta – two chickens that travel to the markets with Barman. They aren’t for sale, he said, adding, later, “I don’t whack my birds.”
And Barman’s birds have it good. They live in five chicken coops that Barman built using salvaged materials “that were going into the landfill.” The chickens nest in five-gallon drywall mud buckets attached on their sides to the walls. “My chickens do not live on concrete, they have straw on the floor. And I put the chicken manure on my tomatoes and produce.”
“It looks a little like a shanty-town, but everything was free except the nails and screws,” he said, describing the birds’ practical, and eco-friendly dwelling place.
Barman is passionate about his work, and during an interview, he rattled off a number of reasons why free-range eggs sold at farmers markets taste better than the mass-produced ones. Barman’s eggs are fresh, sometimes only a few days old, while those in the supermarket might have been laid several weeks ago, he said. Barman also rinses the eggs in water, leaving the cuticle or “bloom” – a membrane that is washed away in commercial egg production. As soon as the cuticle is removed from an egg, Barman explained, it is no longer airtight, and can absorb bacteria.
Barman looks something like a cross between Kris Kringle and Wavy Gravy, but he takes exception to any implication that he might be left leaning.
“I’m not a hippie,” Barman insists. In fact, he ran, unsuccessfully, for Indiana’s 6th District state senate seat in 2010 as a Libertarian. Barman is much more groomed in his candidate’s photo, though. He also ran for Congress in 2006 as an Independent, but was not elected.
Barman worked in the furnace of a steel mill before he devoted his career entirely to farming. The name of Barman’s company, Swingbelly, comes from a nickname he got in the steel mill when weighed around 290 lbs., he said. Now, he weighs 205 lbs, thanks to a diet of “six to seven eggs” at breakfast. “All protein,” he added.
The big man is happy with his work, though, and wouldn’t hand it in for any other trade. “I love what I do. I’m so glad when people buy something from me that they can enjoy,” he said.