Local farmers do their part to satisfy demand for eggs

Tri-City HeraldSeptember 25, 2012 

Served up deviled or baked in a heavenly soufflé, scrambled with cheese or fried in a sandwich, hard boiled or over easy — the ways to cook up an egg are as varied as those who make sure a dozen are in your fridge come breakfast, lunch or dinner time.

“It ranges from the most sophisticated, modern, large-scale producers to the small operators who have a few hens, and everything in between,” said Jason Kelly, communications director for the state Department of Agriculture.

Indeed, Ryan Antos in Benton City and Kent Woodward in Pasco live one county apart, but they are worlds apart in egg production.

Woodward is the president of Oakdell Egg Farms, a 40-acre spread south of Eltopia. Along with farms in Idaho and Utah, it is part of the larger operation under the same name that has been in Woodward’s family for more than a century.

The local facility houses 1.5 million hens in nine massive buildings and produces about 1 million eggs a day.

“And that’s not that big, really,” he said in earnest. “When you have a contract with, let’s say, Fred Meyer, you don’t just supply one store, you supply 30 stores. You’ve got to be big enough to supply that.”

There is a good chance if you buy eggs in a grocery store in the Tri-Cities, you’ve eaten an egg from one of Woodward’s hens.

Antos’ eggs, on the other hand, can be found at the farmers markets in Kennewick, Richland, Pasco and West Richland as well as the Northwest Regional Food Hub.

He and his wife, Chera, operate the Happy L’il Homestead on 30 acres with their children. Along with 20 to 40 hogs and 130 turkeys destined for Thanksgiving dinner tables, the Antoses raise chickens — some 100 to 300 broilers at any given time, and 500 layers that produce the 100 to 150 dozen eggs a week they need to stock the farmers markets.

“Free ranging is the crust of our business,” Ryan Antos said, noting his birds spend their days on two acres of fenced-in land, gobbling up insects for the bulk of their diet.

Free range is not an option for larger producers. Placed in a similar space as Antos’ birds, Oakdell’s 1.5 million birds would require 6,000 acres, or more than 9 square miles, just for the chickens.

And that would not even begin to feed the nation’s hunger for this delicate commodity.

The United States produces close to 90 billion eggs annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with almost half that total coming from the Midwest. Washington producers account for a small slice of the national quiche at just under 2 billion eggs, ranking 17th nationally.

National consumption averages out to 240 eggs per person per year, and it takes about 300 million birds to feed the U.S. population of 311 million and counting.

Most of those eggs come from high-tech facilities like Oakdell Egg Farms, which operates on 40 acres — not much more than the Happy L’il Homestead.

The chickens are housed in cages, monitored by an automated system that requires little human intervention in handling the birds.

Woodward said that of the 60 people working at the farm, only 15 work around the birds. Most of the rest are in processing.

He added that an operation the size of Oakdell might have required five times as many workers back in the 1960s, when egg producers were just starting to put birds in cages.

What hasn’t changed, Woodward said, is the price of eggs for the farmers.

“You go way back in the ’50s, and it was 50 cents a dozen for eggs on the farm,” he said. “You compare that to now, we don’t get a lot more than that. Over the years, we’ve just become more efficient.”

Efficiency is key in an industry built around such a perishable item. Around 30 days after an egg drops from a chicken is the latest you want it dropping on your plate.

“You can ship it all over the country,” Woodward said. “But the farther you go to ship, the tougher it is to keep up. Our eggs go directly to the store. When one of our trucks goes out, it goes and stops at dozens of different stores before it empties out.

“It’s tough to do that a thousand miles away.”

That is not a concern for Antos, whose supply doesn’t last much past a week, even priced in the neighborhood of double that of grocery store eggs.

“You take a dozen of ours and a dozen from the store, crack those eggs, and you’ll find an amazing difference,” Antos said. “Color, texture, quality, taste ...”

It comes from the birds being out in the sunshine, eating worms and grass.

“My customers will tell you the same thing,” he added.

In the end, a dozen from the store or a dozen from the market — it comes down to taste. And local farmers are doing their share to satisfy your hunger for eggs.

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