At Portland Farmers Market we like to think we have something to offer everyone, from an impressive array of the best quality produce and products from regional farmers and food producers, to entertainment, educational classes and events and programs that celebrate all things local and seasonal. Judging by the wonderful comments we receive from shoppers, visitors and the media (including ranking our market #1 in the nation
and the world
!) it appears many people agree.
Amid all of this positive feedback though, we have noticed a growing concern about prices at our markets. Shoppers are more price conscious than ever and many find themselves on a more limited food budget. Although many items can be purchased at our markets for a bargain at the height of the season when the supply is plentiful, it is also true that there will be some cases in which the farmers at our markets will not be able to compete with the prices at your local grocery store. One such item is eggs, which generally cost between $5 to $7 per dozen. Shoppers want to know:Why do eggs purchased at the market cost more than the eggs in the grocery store?
The answer to this question is multifaceted and takes into consideration a variety of factors such as labor, farm and marketing costs in addition to production practices such as the care, feeding and housing of the birds. Below we have outlined some the ways small family farms differ from larger commercial facilities.Animal Welfare
At the most basic level, one could say that the lower price of eggs at the grocery store is often at the expense of the hens themselves. To increase production, conventional factory farms often keep their hens in battery cages and may engage in practices such as beak cutting and forced molting through starvation. For those interested in learning more about standards in egg production, we recommended that you read this recent article
in The Oregonian
which aims to demystify the claims found on egg cartons, from free-range to organic to certified humane.
Unlike eggs that come from large commercial facilities, the eggs at our markets come from small family farms that believe in the health and welfare of their hens. Instead of keeping them in small cages, many of our vendors utilize mobile pasture based systems that allow their hens access to fresh pasture.
PFM vendor Jeff Falen of Persephone Farm (a certified organic farm in Lebanon, OR) explains, “Whereas the yard around a permanently located coop would turn to a mud yard devoid of nutrition, our mobile coop allows us to move our flock onto new ground alive with grass, clover, and bugs.”
Eggs found at the supermarket labeled “free-range” come from uncaged hens, though outdoor access is not required. Even “certified organic” eggs from the store do not have standards for the amount, duration and quality of outdoor access. There is currently a proposal in the works that will require a minimum amount of outdoor space of around two square feet per bird, but Falen says, “Chickens will denude an area this small in no time at all. We provide our birds with 50-100 square feet per bird…and they still eat or scratch up much of the vegetation in a few weeks time. Additionally, the organic standards do not require that chickens have access to pasture.”
Falen goes on to say, “Those of us who are providing ample pasture for our birds incur substantially higher production costs than those who don’t, especially for the labor required to tend birds that may be in a remote pasture as well as to move them to fresh pasture periodically. We believe our system creates a healthier hen and thereby, a healthier egg.”Quality
Studies suggest that pasture-raised hens create more nutritious eggs. PFM vendor Wes Coulter of Champoeg Organic Eggs (a small, local organic egg farm in Aurora, OR) also employs mobile coops that are either on wheels or wooden skids and can be moved by a small tractor. He moves the coops about once a week, often camping nearby to ward off would-be predators. Although this system is more work than a permanent coop, he believes it is worth the effort and that the proof is in the eggs. “My hens are exposed to things like bugs, grass, and other natural vegetation, which they consume, digest, and put into their eggs, giving them added nutritional value in the form of Omega-3's, good cholesterol, and whatever else those darker yolks and firmer whites contain.”
Another consideration is the freshness of the eggs. Says Coulter, “From a value standpoint, the eggs at the farmers' market are of much higher quality than factory eggs. In general it takes two to three weeks for factory eggs to reach the supermarket shelf for distribution to the consumer. My eggs are, at the oldest, four days before they are distributed to the consumer, and a good portion of my customers leave the market carrying eggs that were laid the day before.”
During the winter months, hens instinctively begin to lay fewer eggs in order to conserve energy, body heat and nutrient reserves for their annual molting process. Many commercial facilities circumvent this natural process in order to keep their annual yield of eggs high and their production costs low. Artificial lighting is employed to fool the hen’s physiology into thinking that winter has not yet arrived.
At Persephone Farm, Falen believes in letting nature take its course. “In accordance with our commitment to seasonal produce, we have chosen to let our hens lay according to the natural rhythm of the seasons. Without a light on in the coop their bodies can do what is necessary to maintain good health without the stress of heavy laying when they aren’t meant to be doing so.”
In addition, at small family farms where production levels are not the most important factor, hens are often kept longer. Coulter explains, “In factory farms--and this includes "organic" operations--hens are only kept alive while they are most productive and are culled at the age of one and half. Smaller farms tend to keep their hens around longer, up to four years or even longer. This means that small farms, in general, are working with hens that are significantly less efficient than their factory relatives.”
There are a variety of additional ways larger factory operations can keep production costs down that simply aren’t an option for smaller farms. For example, they are able to get feed (organic or non-organic) much cheaper through volume discounts, whereas smaller operations pay close to retail for the same feed.
There is also the issue of mechanization. Says Falen, “Most commercial egg operations (organic or non-organic) reside in permanent buildings, allowing for mechanization. Feed and water are automatically provided and eggs may be mechanically collected. We greatly appreciate the labor saving aspects of mechanization, but our mobile coop does not lend itself well to this process. We pay for mobility with greater labor costs incurred in hauling feed to our birds, collecting their eggs by hand, opening the coop in the morning, and closing the coop at night for protection from predators.”
Falen also put together this great chart which outlines the costs associated with producing a dozen eggs at Persephone Farm:
Total direct production costs $5.08/dozen
Contribution to farm overhead $0.97/dozen
(rent, buildings, utilities, interest, etc.)
28% marketing fee (transportation to $2.35/dozen
market, farmers market fee, farmstand labor)
Total cost of production and marketing $8.40/dozen
By this point, many of you are probably wondering, “Why would they sell eggs at a loss?”
To this question Falen responds, “Because our hens pay their keep in ways that are difficult to quantify. They add fertility to the soil, eat bugs and snap up weed seeds laying on the soil surface. They bring precious balance to a farm that is dominated by plants, helping us approximate the diversity found in a natural ecosystem.”
We would like to thank Falen, Coulter and our other egg vendors for sharing their insights into the world of egg production and for bringing their wonderful farm-fresh eggs to market each week.
When making the decision on how to best budget your food dollars, it is our hope that you take into consideration the unique experiences that shopping at your local farmers market can provide: the opportunity to meet your neighbors and grow community, the satisfaction of knowing that more of your dollar goes directly to your local farmer and local economy, and the chance to purchase the freshest, healthiest food directly from the person who grew or produced it with care, commitment and compassion.