A good egg is a little harder to find due to new state chicken cage law

Chicken lovin' gate at Armstrong Egg Farms at 27431 N. Lake Wohlford Road, Valley Center/Escondido.
Eggs and chicken manure, too?

Eggs and chicken manure, too?

Egg-laying chickens at Armstrong Egg Farms off N. Lake Wohlford Road “have less friends in their cage,” said a wry Ryan Armstrong this week, and egg prices have doubled since California’s Proposition 2 went into effect on January 1.

That proposition approved by state voters in 2008 calls for 25 percent more room in chicken cages, effectively cutting the number of hens per cage in half. A 2010 legislative add-on rule required out-of-state producers to follow state cage laws for all eggs sold in California.

California is not alone in the new roomier chicken cage laws. Ohio, Oregon, Michigan and Washington have passed similar legislation now going into effect.

Technically speaking, each hen must have 116-square inches of cage space in which to spread its wings.

While egg-laying hens have more room to stretch their wings, turn about and maybe not do the hokey-pokey, but certainly roam around a lot, consumer egg prices have soared. That’s due to increased production costs as a result of required compliance.

“It’s affected everybody’s operations,” said Armstrong, president of his family’s Valley Center egg farms and an influential state egg producer with half a million birds, according to previously published reports. “We’ve essentially spread the birds out a little bit with more space. Fewer chickens per cage means fewer eggs and prices going up.”

Proposition 2 takes hold

Ryan Armstrong, president of Armstrong Egg Farms.

Ryan Armstrong, president of Armstrong Egg Farms.

Before the law went into effect last December, a dozen jumbo and extra-large Grade AA eggs sold for $1.25. Prices immediately went through the chicken coop roof in January, peaking at $3.50 per dozen.

A drop in demand has stabilized prices at around $2.50 per dozen, according to a USDA shell-egg market report.

However, a $2.40 to $2.60 price range may be the new normal as Armstrong said, “This will go on until supply meets demand and that’s years away from happening.”

In effect, it was a case of voters getting what they wished for with unintended consequences. Egg producers opposed the law due to the anticipated price rise they had to pass along to consumers and because they believed the existing cage structures were humane enough.

“They weren’t mistreated before,” Armstrong said of the hens. “We had health standards to comply with before. I don’t know if they like it or not, but they have less friends in the cage now.”

Californians require about 30 million birds producing eggs to meet demand. However, state producers these days were calling on fewer than 10 million birds, according to Armstrong. Eggs have to be brought into the state primarily from top-producing areas at Iowa and Ohio, he added.

“Some farms have gone out of business due to Proposition 2,” Armstrong continued. “They decided not to deal with it. Everybody else is adapting. It would take a billion dollars of new construction, though, to rebuild the state egg industry. That’s a lot of money.”

Since Proposition 2 went into effect, the number of egg-laying California chickens has dropped to 15.6 million last year from 17.46 million in 2013, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Going with the flow

Inside the Armstrong chicken coop.

Inside the Armstrong chicken coop.

Armstrong Farms has been able to adjust better than most. The operation already featured a significant cage-free presence and has strong strategic partners.

“We’re comfortable where we’re at with prices where they’re at,”Armstrong said. “We feel that we can grow pretty rapidly and plan to expand. The prices where they’re at are good for us although bad for consumers.”

Fluegge Egg Ranch at Crown Hill Lane also produces eggs in the Valley Center area. Shea Fluegge, said they ranch had put in a new barn and replaced cages to comply with the new regulations.

“After investing in all this equipment, the amount of chickens we have now is much less than in 2014,” Fluegge said. “The new laws are tough on the consumer, prices have gone up tremendously. This is extremely difficult for small business owners i.e. restaurants, markets and ultimately the consumer. We appreciate all those who support local farming.”

San Diego County is one of the nation’s top five egg-producing counties. As a whole, the county has around four million hens laying more then 800 million eggs annually. Egg farms generally are centered around Ramona with smaller flocks at Valley Center and Lakeside.

The largest producer may be Pine Hill Egg Ranch, east of Ramona with a reported one million-plus birds. It’s one of the largest operations in the state.

The county crop report estimated county egg production to account for four percent of county agricultural production valued at $76 million in 2013.