eggs being packed at Hi Desert Egg facility
Cage-free eggs are packed at Hi Desert Egg in San Bernardino. The farm, in Lucerne Valley, produces brown and white eggs. (Photo: Hi Desert Egg)

By Ching Lee, Assistant Editor, Ag Alert

Reprinted with Permission from California Farm Bureau Federation

The Easter egg hunt may still be a tradition this time of year, but egg producers say sales of their product around the holiday aren’t what they’re cracked up to be.

“It might push demand up a touch, but Easter is more of a chocolate holiday,” said Marty Zaritsky, an egg producer and distributor in San Bernardino County.

Even though some people still dye eggs for Easter, he said Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s remain the most lucrative holidays for egg sales, as that’s when people are baking and cooking more.

San Diego County egg farmer Frank Hilliker said he continues to see “a nice little bump” in sales a week before Easter as stores stock their shelves with eggs, but the holiday is not the huge driver it was 30 years ago. He says his highest demand for eggs is around Christmas.

At Easter time, he said, “those plastic eggs kind of rule the world.”

What is different this year is an outbreak of avian influenza across at least 24 states, though it has not been detected in California. The highly pathogenic virus has affected commercial and backyard flocks, resulting in the loss of more than 24 million birds as of last week. That has led to shorter supplies of eggs nationwide, driving up egg prices.

The higher market price is needed, Hilliker said, because the cost to produce eggs has soared. He noted the price of chicken feed has doubled from what it was two years ago. He’s also paying 25% more for packaging, 40% more for fuel and 10% to 15% more for labor.

Hilliker said he expects egg prices will remain higher until farms affected by avian influenza repopulate their barns. Though he is earning more for his eggs, he said the rise in prices has also begun to slow demand.

“With these higher prices, orders are down,” he said. “(Customers are) saying, ‘no, I’m not paying that.’”

Zaritsky said the market has already begun to correct itself, with prices coming down last week. Egg prices have become so high, he said, that “a lot of people are not buying, so eggs are starting to back up a little bit.”

“Now I will have to adjust my prices down,” he said, even though his production costs remain elevated.

The implementation of Proposition 12, which took effect at the start of the year, also affected his business, Zaritsky said. The law established minimum spacing requirements for housing egg-laying hens, breeding pigs and calves raised for veal.

Zaritsky’s own farm has always produced cage-free eggs, but he also sold commodity eggs from caged birds raised on other farms. With Proposition 12, cage-free production is now standard in the state.

“(Cage-free) was like my niche,” he said, “and now everybody does it.”

He said he’s now focusing more on specialty cage-free eggs such as fertilized eggs and “super-dark yolk eggs” that Asian shoppers favor.

Hilliker said he believes Proposition 12—which requires other states selling eggs into California to meet the law’s housing requirements—has contributed to shorter supplies of eggs, because some producers either quit the business or didn’t convert their operations.

“With all these high costs, it’s hard to find the money,” he said, noting that he himself has two barns that have yet to be completed.

To meet projected demand, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that about 66% of U.S. egg-laying hens will need to be in cage-free production by 2026. As of last year, organic and cage-free egg production accounted for more than 29%, or 96.1 million hens, of total U.S. egg production. That’s up from 14% in 2016 and 4% in 2010. By 2026, nine states—including California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah and Washington—will require all egg layers to be cage-free.

After losing a lot of her restaurant customers during the past two years due to the pandemic shutdowns, Sonoma County egg producer Tiffany Holbrook said she’s “trying to find unique ways to sell” her eggs, including “trying to take advantage of Easter.” The farm is now selling all-natural egg-coloring kits and eggs that have been dyed, to show that her light-brown eggs “still hold these beautiful colors.” She’s also offering discounts on smaller eggs.

Holbrook used to sell 60% to 70% of her eggs wholesale. But at the start of the pandemic lockdown, when grocery stores were running out of eggs, her farm’s egg vending machine “got very, very popular, so we were able to greatly increase our customer base” through direct sales. The surge in demand prompted her to increase her bird numbers and egg production. But sales have since mellowed.

“Now we’re actually trying to produce less because the wholesale didn’t quite come back as we had hoped it would,” she said. “We definitely are producing more eggs than we’re able to sell right now. We hope that Easter might change that for a week or so.”

Holbrook said she has seen robust demand at the nationwide level, with buyers saying, “name the price and they’ll do what they can to match it.” But as a small producer, she said she “can’t really fulfill” the large orders those buyers are seeking, typically in the amount of 50 dozen a day.

Despite organic feed costs rising nearly 30% since mid-2020, Holbrook said she’s not charging more for her eggs. Instead, she said she’s exploring other enterprises such as giving farm tours and selling different merchandise to boost revenue.

DaVonne Johnson, who runs a flock of about 400 layers in Contra Costa County, said she’s had to raise her prices for the first time in six years. In addition to paying 30% more for feed, she said the cost of other materials has gone up, including fuel, egg cartons, labels and shavings for chicken-coop bedding.

The Easter holiday won’t impact her sales, she said, because “we only sell brown eggs, and they’re not desirable for dyeing.” Even with the price of her eggs higher since the beginning of the month, she said she has not noticed a slowdown in her direct sales.

“Here at the farm,” Johnson said, “people are so happy to get the eggs that I haven’t heard anything back regarding the price.”

Previous articleMinistry Spotlight: StoryRunners
Next articleCalifornia State Senate Confirms Nicole Elliott as Director of the Department of Cannabis Control