Poultry panic strikes Edgar County

By Robby Tucker rtucker@prairiepress.net
Posted 1/23/23

The day of reckoning has arrived for breakfast enthusiasts across the nation. Prices for eggs are reaching new heights as consumers are forced to rethink their first meal of the day.

For many …

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Poultry panic strikes Edgar County

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The day of reckoning has arrived for breakfast enthusiasts across the nation. Prices for eggs are reaching new heights as consumers are forced to rethink their first meal of the day.

For many large egg producers, the culprit responsible for the historic jump in prices is a familiar one: avian influenza.

Avian influenza ravaged laying hen populations across the United States in 2015. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the previous epidemic resulted in the deaths of 50.5 million wild birds and poultry across 21 states.

The most recent outbreak already surpassed 2015’s record-setting numbers. As of Jan. 17, 2023, the CDC reports nearly 58 million poultry affected in all but three states. These figures do not account for wild birds.

Laying hens, chickens responsible for producing the sought-after breakfast yolk, suffered at the same rate as their other poultry relatives. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports indicate a 37.4% drop in the total marketable stock of eggs since January 2022.

In the Midwest, the loss has been worse, totalling 38.3% of marketable stock — roughly 6,447,039 dozens of eggs.

Prices across the country skyrocketed as a result of the scarcity, with volume buyer prices creeping as high as $6.70 for a dozen eggs in California. Last week, the price sat well above $7. Most corporate producers are struggling to keep up with demand as their flocks thin by the day.

By all accounts, the situation is severe. The impact of this poultry pandemic is being felt nationwide, and Edgar County is being hit just as hard.

Robin Trapp, owner of Betty Jane’s Kitchen in Paris, is one of several local restaurateurs whose business is directly affected by this volatile market.

“We are being extremely cautious with what we use our eggs in,” Trapp explained.

Trapp first noticed an abrupt price jump at the beginning of the year. After receiving relatively normal quotes from multiple vendors, the price for a dozen eggs rose roughly $1.25 across the board.

As with any bakery, eggs are the lifeblood of Betty Jane’s operation. Cakes and sweet treats generally require egg white or yolk to achieve ideal texture.

If the prices do not ease soon, Betty Jane’s might need to make some painful adjustments.

“Spring cakes are light and fluffy, so they require lots of eggs,” said Trapp. “We’re trying to ride it out, but spring could require some menu changes.”

On top of the price hike, Trapp encountered quality control issues when ordering from large, commercial vendors. Eggs labeled as large are sometimes smaller sizes.

The situation is difficult on the other side of the supply chain as well. For local producer L&A Family Farms, the avian influenza epidemic has yet to make an appearance among their roughly 750 to 1,000 hens, but the high demand left in the wake of outbreaks within larger, commercial operations stretched their inventory to its limit.

“Right now we’re having trouble keeping up with demand from our existing customer base,” said Brian Lau, co-founder of L&A. “We’re selling eggs as fast as they (hens) are laying them.”

L&A raises their hens on-pasture and does not use artificial sunlight to increase production during the winter months — a notoriously slow season for natural egg-laying. Lau and his team have always been careful to build up a secondary stock of yolky pearls for the off-season, but sky-high demand from shoppers looking for alternatives burned through their reserves.

Fortunately, L&A weathered similar scenarios before, surviving 2015’s round of poultry-borne illness.

“2015 was the same. The prices weren’t as high, but we sold a lot then,” said Lau.

Even smaller, backyard operations are feeling the sting this winter. Adrian Brinkerhoff, founder of B’s Chicks and a former 4-H member, did not choose to raise chickens, instead, the chickens seemed to choose her.

Brinkerhoff and her boyfriend Kyle Beck inherited an abandoned chicken coop when they moved into their farmhouse east of Newman. To say Brinkerhoff was uninterested in utilizing their new facilities is an understatement.

“I laughed at him (Kyle) when he mentioned the idea,” said Brinkerhoff.

Before long, Brinkerhoff changed her mind, expanding her flock to 130 laying hens with more than 100 chicks who will be ready to lay later this year.

While there is no influenza among her roost, bitter cold weather and natural predators, like minks and owls, claimed nearly a third of her hens this winter — worth roughly $1,000. The loss gave her an up-close look at the steep production cost many other producers are currently facing.

“Younger chicks don’t start laying until they are between 14 and 22 weeks old,” Brinkerhoff explained. “Loss of production costs a lot.”

Brinkerhoff’s prices remain at their pre-epidemic state, but she certainly understands why others in the market are charging more.

“If we can’t afford to rebuild (our flocks), people can’t get their eggs,” Brinkerhoff said.

Brinkerhoff hopes consumers will be understanding while producers work to pick up the pieces.

“Please be patient with us,” pleaded Brinkerhoff. “Prices aren’t why I do it.”

Given the current state of the egg market, some consumers might be tempted to take matters into their own hands and start their own coop. Brinkerhoff advises against a knee-jerk response.

“Don’t do it to save. It’s expensive, and between time and effort, it gets really expensive,” said Brinkerhoff, adding, “It’s not for the faint of heart.”

According to Brinkerhoff, building appropriately sized facilities for hens takes a sizable investment. Additionally, prices for chick feed increased.

Lau echoed Brinkerhoff’s sentiments.

“Only start hens if you really like chickens or want a hobby,” Lau advised.

The veteran producer warned people who want to avoid grocery store prices, or entrepreneurs looking to cash in on the high demand for eggs, will eventually wake up to the costs of operating their own coop.

Although the egg market is anything but sunny side up right now, Brinkerhoff and Lau both agree better days are on the horizon.

“There will be some kind of correction,” said Lau.

Once producers can replenish their flocks of laying hens, a five to six month process according to Lau, consumers can expect to see prices begin to balance out. While the price of eggs may not dip back to their previous levels due to inflation and higher feed prices, demand will sharply decrease once numbers return to where they once were.

Brinkerhoff echoed Lau’s cautious optimism.

“In 2015, things leveled out,” Brinkerhoff said.

Despite the increase in price, Brinkerhoff still believes consumers are getting a good deal when they purchase a carton of eggs.

“They’re still really competitive, and they’re a great source of protein and nutrients,” she explained.

Lau praised their longevity and shelf life, claiming eggs are good for up to a month, so purchasing in bulk and conserving stock might be a good way to ride out the current market.

For now, America’s favorite gooey breakfast protein will remain a luxury item on grocery store shelves, but producers and consumers alike can hold out hope for a more stable market in the months to come.