Comparing egg production models

This post is part of an ongoing, fascinating discussion/debate between ourselves and a mid-scale organic egg producer from Wisconsin (commenting as “Mac”), sparked by a comment thread on our earlier post about small-farm egg economics. Read that post and thread first, to gain the context of the discussion and the two farm models under discussion. My latest response simply became too long to be a useful comment and stands well on its own as a comparative analysis of the two models, so we’re published it here for further discussion. Also coming in a future post is a long discussion of our justifications for raising heritage breeds and doing our own breeding, something Mac also initially challenged.

Mac,

I greatly appreciate your openness with numbers and experiences; this makes for an excellent discussion. I’m glad to see that there is a model for a farm to make decent income on eggs, but from our perspective there are still flaws in your production and marketing model, and I will discuss these below. Also, please keep in mind that being organic, or even nearly so, in Missouri and many other places is harder than in Wisconsin. We don’t have the local support network of organic co-ops, crop farmers, hatcheries, and feed mills that you do; we have to do everything ourselves or ship it in from far away, and our state government is also generally more hostile. One organic egg producer I know personally drives to Kansas to haul back organic corn for his custom-ground feed because it’s not available reliably here. I suspect your support network helps keep your prices down, which is fair and understandable but still different than many other places.

We’re discussing two very different models of poultry/egg production, and I’m not sure they’re directly comparable in economic terms. My numbers and analysis apply to a system in which the birds are primarily pastured-raised in a rotational system that changes the area under their feet on a regular basis. This is a standard model for small or diversified farms; even at the scale of someone like Joel Salatin at Polyface Farm, the birds are still regularly moved to new ground in portable pens, or new ground is brought to them in the form of portable fencing (incidentally, Polyface keeps their layers for two years rather than one). This is an inherently labor-intensive model, but the tradeoff is perceived to be healthier birds and pasture because there is more fresh food available and the pasture is allowed to recover.

In addition, our eggs are far fresher, reaching the customer within 2-3 days, rather than 1-2 weeks in your model; this has specific culinary implications in some circumstances such as poached  eggs, and this also justifies a higher value to the consumer. We feel our eggs also taste better than store eggs, and while many such claims are unsubstantiated, we do have a bit of evidence in our favor: we held a tasting event on our farm in 2010 in which a crowd of people blind-tested boiled eggs (among many other things) from our flock and from Organic Valley eggs. Here’s our synopsis of the results; rankings are from 1 (best) to 5 (worst):

Boiled chicken eggs
On-farm: 1.71
Organic Valley: 2.71

I thought this difference was fairly subtle, but the results were fairly clear. This was a close comparison, as Organic Valley is widely regarded as the best of the large-scale producer brands, and our eggs are coming from winter chickens who still are eating mostly grain and not a lot of foraged protein. Our yolks were noticeably yellower, but the flavors were only subtly different. If we can beat the best store option at the low end of our chickens’ flavor potential, that’s not bad. And it speaks well for O.V., as I’ve had far blander store eggs before.

Both consumers and advocacy groups tend to perceive rotational pasturing as an ideal situation. For  example, the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute defines the ideal pasture management for egg production as “diverse, small- to medium-scale family farms. They raise their hens in mobile housing on well-managed and ample pasture or in fixed housing with intensively managed rotated pasture”. Whether or not you like or agree with Cornucopia’s specific standards, they are representative of the wider cultural concepts among our target customer base, which in turn drives marketing and pricing.

Joel Salatin at Polyface, a dedicated capitalist but hardly an elitist, appears to sell his rotationally pastured, non-certified eggs for about $4/dozen on-farm, and $6/dozen off-farm (based on prices quoted by customers online; the latter probably includes a considerable retail markup). In addition, I’ll cite a recent article in Growing For Market magazine (Nov/Dec 2011 issue, not available online) written by a mid-sized vegetable farm in Virginia, using methods that are a hybrid of our two models (they buy mature layers, manage them in a rotational pasture system for six months, then sell them for meat). They concluded that $5/dozen earned them a little over minimum wage, and their feed costs were a bit lower than ours for organic as it’s easier to get in Virginia than Missouri; they also noted that they didn’t think they could go any higher given the underpriced competition in the area. We know and trust this farm’s judgment, as it’s where we got our start before settling Missouri (we’re not from Virginia, though).

Of the organic/sustainably minded professional farmers I personally know in this area, one has gone to $6/dozen for pastured organic eggs, one feels that $3/dozen for pastured eggs from hens fed conventional feed is a loss leader for their CSA,  and one has quit selling pastured  eggs altogether because of economics. Another sells certified organic eggs for $4/dozen but does so in a partial confinement model similar to yours, though with fewer birds and thus less economy of scale. So within the system of small-farm rotationally pastured poultry, I think we’re in line with the economic reality, given that a segment of consumers do in fact want pastured eggs and  the labor requirements that come with it.

You criticized this model for trading on the willingness of a “fortunate few” who would pay for overpriced  eggs. However, it seems to me that your model is equally reliant on this consumer dynamic, as by your own admission your eggs at $4/dozen are still too expensive for most of your rural neighbors (who, as you noted, don’t care about organic). It is a choice, too, whether or not they think it is: I’d like to see the sales numbers for the alcohol, cigarettes, candy, soda, lottery tickets, snacks, and other discretionary sundries from your local gas station/grocery store, as those form the profit backbone of convenience stores  everywhere.

It seems to me that the $4/dozen retail price is what keeps you in business; you still need your co-op to do the  transportation and marketing work for your overall volume (and for the other farmers whose total  production makes the system’s efficiencies possible), for which it doubles the price, to be paid largely by the same mostly urban “fortunate few” who choose to pay up to four times more than the cheapest option. Another reason your model works is your organic certification, which again allows you to charge a higher price for effectively the same food product (by your line of argument), which is mostly an ethical choice by the same urban foodies. Thus, you’re doing the exact same thing as we are: you’re selling an environmental and cultural ethic, and a higher-quality product, that allows a far higher egg price than cold, hard economics would dictate. Both our prices are determined in part by just how high up the sliding scale of perceived ethics/sustainability our methods place.

I will openly and happily grant that your system is way better than a conventional feedlot’s. I would buy and eat your eggs. However, your methods as you described them still fall in the middle of the potential  range of flock management ethics, though  I’m open to more details. For example, I’m curious how you manage the pasture attached to your barn to avoid overuse by the flock. As I said above, I know from experience what even 30 foraging hens can do to fresh pasture if kept on it too long; I don’t see a way for 2500 birds  to use the same pasture year-round without destroying it unless they don’t use it as heavily as truly pastured birds do. Cornucopia’s egg producer ratings describe their  middle-ground ranking as “family-scale farms that provide outdoor runs for their chickens, or from larger-scale farms where meaningful outdoor space is either currently granted or under construction. All producers in this category appear committed to meeting organic standards for minimum outdoor space for laying hens”, which fits the information I have about your setup. They, and I, agree that this is not an inherent criticism, simply a statement that there are even more ideal ways to manage birds when possible. For reference, their top-ranked farms include one in Wisconsin which practices intensive pasture rotation and charges $5/dozen.

The most fundamental difference in our numbers is labor cost; you’re producing far more eggs per unit labor than we are. This is certainly more efficient, no argument there. Measured in the simple terms of eggs out vs. labor in, true feedlots are also a lot more efficient than you are, but I doubt you would advocate their methods over your own. However, you’re still basically using the “factory” model in which all the inputs are purchased off-farm (birds, feed) and mixed together in a production facility before selling the finished product, with little to no reliance on or integration with the overall farm landscape and environment. Your model may have pasture, but it’s not based on pasture. Our pastured birds, on the other hand, utilize far more on-farm resources from foraging in otherwise unused areas to cleaning up produce and cooked animal scraps (fat, whey, etc.) sourced on-farm. But even with partial-factory methods, you’re still doing it to certain ethical (and expensive) standards that do set you apart from the true feedlots; thus we’re both setting an ethical standard for farm management and animal care that is economically arbitrary except for what we perceive our customers are willing to pay.

The final leg in your economic model is a carefully marketed consumer perception that egg production of all certified organic eggs  involves birds that are more pastured, and less confined, than many actually are. Pretty much every egg carton I’ve ever seen, organic or otherwise, has some version of the diversified pastured-based Old McDonald farm on it, with a happy chicken out in the sunshine. Whether or not it resembles your farm, relatively small among your peers, it certainly doesn’t represent them all.

An organic inspector we know has told us of organic egg operations that are quite unlike the pasture-based systems envisioned by the average consumer. This Cornucopia Institute photo gallery has some excellent examples from the various scales. I suspect you fall in the mid-range, and I suspect your farm looks pretty good. However, the disturbing photos of confinement pullet production for Organic Valley (such as this one; link added 2/11/12) an otherwise highly-regarded organic co-op, makes me wonder where yours are from, and whether they grow up in such a crowded indoor environment, especially given the price you quoted which seems quite inexpensive. Have you been to your pullet source? In any case, I doubt a carton with a large image of thousands of hens indoors on litter, happy or otherwise, would sell as well. In effect, your co-op is likely marketing all of its  members’ eggs as coming from intensely pasture-based farms, and consumers lap it up.

This matters because, in my five years selling  at a farmers market, I consistently found that consumers held a much rosier view of farm conditions and economics than reality justified based on our insider knowledge. I blame it equally on the media and advertising agencies, but people consistently assume that anything local is organic, that all chickens live happily on grass all day long, that grass-fed means no grain, that no-spray means organic, and so on. So even gentle greenwashing is very powerful when it comes to crafting an image that is at odds with the reality, even if that reality is reasonable in its own right, as on your farm.

There is room in our economic system for both our production models; you’re able to handle the larger accounts that farms like ours would have a hard time meeting, and there are customers who don’t insist on truly pastured birds like ours, just reasonably well-treated birds not pumped full of drugs and GMOs. We’re each meeting a specific consumer niche with a price that’s reasonably appropriate to the economics of the customer-desired farm management. I don’t consider your methods ideal, but that’s one reason we started raising our own (another option rural  people who “can’t afford eggs” should consider). We’ll admit that our model isn’t 100% ideal either; we’d rather not ship in feed from long distances, but economics of growing our own are truly prohibitive given the government crop subsidy system, and we refuse to compromise our principles and buy GMO feed.

I have no apologies or concerns about raising and marketing pastured eggs from heritage breeds to people who value those concepts, at a price that justifies the work. If I’m the food equivalent of a hand-crafted Fair Trade artisan pottery mug, so be it. Anyone offended by “overcharging” for a product should go after luxury cars and the fashion world long before small farmers. I’m still producing a useful and beneficial product, along with personal income and tax revenue in a rural area that really needs it, with the profits (if small) staying here and not padding someone’s faraway golden parachute. If there are customers out there who will pay as much for a dozen eggs as a 6-pack of bottled water, bless them. There ought to be room for us all in a free market, without the mid-level farmer looking down on the small farmer while the feedlot peers over their own shoulder.

7 thoughts on “Comparing egg production models

  1. Eric, that’s quite an entry you’ve put together, I’ll do my best to try to address everything.

    “We’re discussing two very different models of poultry/egg production, and I’m not sure they’re directly comparable in economic terms.”

    I don’t believe we are all that different in terms of production (save for scale), but yes, there are major differences in marketing. I always have a market for my eggs. I am never in danger of producing too many, or too few. I never have to dump unsold eggs and take a hit on the cost of production.

    Comparing my direct sales to yours, my local customers who buy eggs for $2.50 a dozen do get the benefits of our efficiency of scale, plus I do not charge them for marketing or transportation costs. I do little to market eggs for direct sales. When we started I put a cardboard sign out front for a few months. Eventually the sign went away, but everybody now knows we have eggs. They drive down to the barn, get their own eggs out of the cooler, and leave the money in a coffee can, to the tune of around $5000 a year. The only extra cost cost to me over the wholesale production is the cost of the carton and 2-3 minutes labor per dozen. If I do happen to deliver eggs, I charge $3.00 per dozen and record the mileage expense. On other blogs I’ve heard very small producers claim that such practices undercut the market (their market anyways…), but I don’t necessarily see it that way. I charge a fair, from the farm price that takes into account what I have into the product. For those that buy at retail, the extra $2 that they pay pays for bulk processing, top-notch marketing, and retail distribution.

    “You criticized this model for trading on the willingness of a “fortunate few” who would pay for overpriced eggs. However, it seems to me that your model is equally reliant on this consumer dynamic, as by your own admission your eggs at $4/dozen are still too expensive for most of your rural neighbors (who, as you noted, don’t care about organic).”

    True, it’s a matter of perspective though. I am surrounded by many folks who believe that this is a true “food revolution” that can change systematic problems with U.S. agriculture. Many times the conversation comes around to bringing organic food to the masses. They feel bringing prices for high quality, organic foods closer to conventional prices without sacrificing standards puts more land under organic management, and slowly changes the status quo.

    My neighbors who are willing to pay more than the $1 / dozen price at the gas station do so for a higher quality product, characteristics inherent in the product itself, rather than the less tangible ethics and ideals that are the basis of agriculture. Yet those are still dollars that support the expansion of organic agriculture whether the individual consumers realize it or not. You say there is lack of support for organic agriculture in your region, but only larger market shares and exposure will build that infrastructure in your region.

    “However, your methods as you described them still fall in the middle of the potential range of flock management ethics, though I’m open to more details.”

    I don’t believe so. We aren’t so different from your average backyard flock. We have a backyard chicken coop that has nest boxes, roosts, perches, feeders, and waters. There is plenty of floor space for the birds to scratch around in the litter. There are large doors that enable them to go outside on lush pasture. It is not just some backyard grass, but a forage mix of timothy, alfalfa, canary grass, and shorter grasses. It is just shy of an acre, but the birds do not eat it to a nub. High traffic areas around the doors and nearest the coop become bare, but 90% of this area remains covered in forage. The quality of forage is such that this area probably produces 5-7 tons of forage per growing season, which could equal more than 10% of their rations. I have more land available to expand the pasture or even separate larger areas for rotational grazing , but really haven’t found the need to expand beyond the area that it encompasses now. (It was quite smaller at one point, but they did eat it down to a nub, so I expanded it to the current size that seems to support them rather well.)

    “However, you’re still basically using the “factory” model in which all the inputs are purchased off-farm (birds, feed) and mixed together in a production facility before selling the finished product, with little to no reliance on or integration with the overall farm landscape and environment. Your model may have pasture, but it’s not based on pasture.”

    Our farm is not an island unto itself, neither is yours. I could grow my own grains for feed, I could raise my birds (more on birds later). Growing my own feed would require that I purchase or rent more land. That wold require that I purchase equipment to work the land or I could hire somebody with the equipment to do all or portions of the machine work. Such an enterprise may also require additional labor that I could hire. The amount of money invested and the amount of time put into it varies. Yes, I buy all of my feed, but those inputs mainly come from my neighbors or regional farms. The neighbor has organic cropland directly adjacent to our chicken pasture. Last year I purchased 1000 bushels of corn from him to be used in our poultry rations, I also sold him 40 tons of poultry manure to fertilize that land. I could purchase or rent the exact same land myself and work the land to the varying degrees that I described, or I can just buy the feed from him. The end result is the same. I have purchased grains from the neighbors, I have purchased feed from the organic feed mill 20 miles from here which purchases grains from organic farms all over the region. I have sold manure to the neighbors for their grain crops. I have also sold manure to a local organic CSA. Our integration into the farm landscape and environment is directly intertwined with a larger organic economy that benefits the environment throughout our region. The same could probably be said of your farm, since in the absence of a local feed source you have chosen to purchase feed from our region.

  2. “Your model may have pasture, but it’s not based on pasture.”

    Our birds have access to pasture like any other. Perhaps they don’t utilize the forage to the extent that some flocks would and have a heavier reliance on their poultry ration, but judging flock management/humane practices by how much grass a flock eats is along the lines of judging how humane slaughter is by noting the animal’s age. They are not ruminants. Besides, for 4-5 months out of the year our pasture is under several feet of snow. Are your “pasture based” eggs a seasonal product?

    “We’ll admit that our model isn’t 100% ideal either; we’d rather not ship in feed from long distances, but economics of growing our own are truly prohibitive given the government crop subsidy system..”

    I’m not sure what conventional crop subsidies have to do with the cost of producing your own. If you were in a position to grow your own you would just do it. Heck if you can grow corn, wheat, barley, triticale, field peas, etc., there is no reason you can’t grow, harvest, and grind your own feed, by hand, for 30 birds. It’s a bit labor intensive, but not beyond the bounds of reason. The grains for 30 hens for a year could be stored in less than a dozen drums and mixed and ground as you see fit.

    “Cornucopia Institute photo gallery has some excellent examples from the various scales. I suspect you fall in the mid-range, and I suspect your farm looks pretty good. However, the disturbing photos of confinement pullet production for Organic Valley, an otherwise highly-regarded organic co-op, makes me wonder where yours are from, and whether they grow up in such a crowded indoor environment, especially given the price you quoted which seems quite inexpensive.”

    Advocacy groups such as CI can paint any portrait that they wish, propaganda is an easy game. I feel our farm is a step above many, yet it isn’t hard for somebody to paint a less than rosy picture. Mr Kastel has shown up out here to take pictures, and although we have nothing to hide, my wife told him that he could take photos, but individual photos wouldn’t be published without our consent. It’s not too hard to take a photo of the most crowded part of the barn and tell people that this how the birds are kept 24/7, to take a photo of the area of the pasture where the birds have dug down to dust bathe and talk of barren, overstocked pastures, to take a picture of the side of the barn that doesn’t have windows and tell folks that the birds are kept in the dark. We compost mortalities and spread the compost on our garden, so there are areas littered with chicken bones, photos of which can support stories of the horrors of nothing more than… farming.

    We do buy our pullets from local pullet barns like depicted in that photo. Some are aviary systems like depicted, some are floor raised. For us to raise our own chicks to laying age would take infrastructure on the scale of our existing hen house, and then it would only be utilized for four months out of the year. There is a reason that others make a living doing it, they can utilize the same resources to grow pullets for multiple barns year round.

    It is not possible to raise thousands of chicks outside. They do need some sort of shelter. That shelter keeps them warm and out of the elements, and away from predators. It also provides a certain amount of bio-security. Our pullets receive a round of vaccinations that protects them from common avian diseases. Those vaccinations are not complete and can be broken before 16 weeks of age. To let them outside before this age can be a concerning proposition. Disease running through a flock can have severe economic impacts. We have a very small operation but to lose a $17k investment in pullets, plus the resulting loss of family income for at least 6 months while new pullets are sourced would be devastating. I have seen it happen twice on neighboring farms. Poor vaccinations procedures at the hatchery resulted in flocks susceptible to Marek’s disease which is fairly common in the environment. Both flocks had losses of close to 50% and depressed production in the birds that survived.

    What are your plans for vaccinating your flock? I hate to say it, but unvaccinated backyard flocks in contact with wild birds are common carriers of avian diseases.

  3. Mac,

    As worthwhile as this discussion has been, we’re going to have to wrap it up as we can’t afford to spend more time on something that, after all, is only a small part of our diversified farm business. We’re rapidly getting busier; first spring plantings are only a few weeks away, and we have transplants growing right now. Below I’ll address a few of your last comments/questions and wrap up our thoughts, though I certainly have not addressed everything you raised. We are working on a discussion of our thoughts and experiences on the whole on-farm breeding issue, and related disease issues, which may come out within a couple weeks.

    “I charge a fair, from the farm price that takes into account what I have into the product. For those that buy at retail, the extra $2 that they pay pays for bulk processing, top-notch marketing, and retail distribution.”

    I don’t think you quite got my point here, so let me try again. I agree that your on-farm price accurately reflects the cost of production of any given dozen eggs in your system, since you sell them for about the same to local customers or the co-op. My argument is, the only reason that works for you overall is because the vast majority of your production isn’t sold on farm, but relies on the wider food network. In other words, your farming model would not make you meaningful money if you had to sell all the eggs your 2,500 birds produce in your local area at that price. You would either have to do a ton more marketing and transportation yourself, thus increasing your costs, or cut your price significantly, thus killing your profits. You can sell 2,000 dozen eggs locally at $2-3/dozen, but not 50,000 dozen (my rough estimate of what your flock might produce based on your numbers; please correct me if needed). Thus, in my view, your lower local price is in fact subsidized by the urban co-op consumers because they’re the only reason you stay in business at the scale you do. Even if it feels good to sell to your neighbors, you’re largely in the business of selling high-priced ethics, not feeding people cheaply, and do not have standing to criticize us for doing the same thing.

    “I’m not sure what conventional crop subsidies have to do with the cost of producing your own. If you were in a position to grow your own you would just do it.”

    We are primarily a vegetable & pasture farm, not a grain farm. We earn a far higher return per unit space on produce than on bulk grains, and it would be economically insane to take some of our vegetable areas out of production to raise small grains in competition with the large-scale grain farms that produce cheap, government-subsidized feed. I’ve sold fresh-ground cornmeal at our farmers market for up to $6/lb; “generic” organic cornmeal goes for around $2-$3/lb online; a bag of organic feed corn costs me about $0.20/lb. However, the high cornmeal price still doesn’t earn the same return per unit space as vegetables because corn is so much less economically productive per area than vegetables. (We’ve run the numbers; here’s a talk we’ve given with some data on sweet corn vs. other veggies. When we can grow vegetables & sell them at a much higher price than the feed corn we could raise on the same plot of land, it doesn’t make sense for us to grow our own feed corn (or other feed components). There is no economically sane way to grow, harvest, & store grain for our flock in the current system.

    Feed corn is so cheap because of the economies of scale of large-scale agriculture, the significant price supports of government subsidy programs, and the artificially low cost of oil; two of these three factors, and arguably all three, are the direct result of government interactions with the marketplace. You agree that growing small-scale grains is labor-intensive; given that that’s your criticism of our model overall, it certainly isn’t a viable option for trying to make a profit on pastured poultry when I can buy the bulk stuff so absurdly cheap. In addition, growing and handling grains requires specialized equipment, which you noted that even you don’t want to invest in even though you certainly could. To put it another way, why spend labor growing small grains to feed to chickens to turn into eggs to sell at a barely profitable price when I can grow vegetables on the same land for a far more direct return? That’s a direct result of government intervention in the marketplace, turning on-farm self-reliance into a handicap rather than good management in the name of cheap food for consumers who don’t need it.

    That being said, keep in mind that we do make significant efforts to cut our off-farm feed purchases by feeding out produce scraps, whey from our goats, cooked meat/fat scraps from on-farm processing (non-poultry), and so on. We also have plans to grow some minimum effort food plots that the birds can be rotated onto for self harvest. In the original post, I noted that I was cutting my feed cost estimate by 1/3 to account for this, but replacing the remainder of feed with on-farm grain just doesn’t make sense even by our ethics. If the subsidy system was reformed to bring the price of commodities closer to their actual economic cost, and/or fuel prices rose from their also too-low current values, doing it ourselves would make more sense. But in the cheap fuel and cheap corn world we have right now, we have little choice.

    I think the basic issue we’re disagreeing over here is scale. You see scale as an economic efficiency and necessity; I see it as creating as many problems as it solves. You see it as bringing affordable food to the masses; I see it as degrading agriculture while subsidizing consumers who don’t need it given what they spend on other goods. You’ve already admitted that you source your “organic” pullets from a confinement barn like this one, hardly what organic consumers think of when they envision, or even visit, your own farm. You claim that it’s difficult to raise large numbers of chicks in a less-confined setting, but that’s exactly my point: your scale precludes many of the more sustainable animal managements methods that are both proven over time and assumed by customers when they buy organic. You certainly could breed your own, but it would raise yours costs enough that your model wouldn’t work; thus you take the shortcut and use confinement-sourced birds in violation of organic principle, if not rule. Your model takes shortcuts to achieve “affordable” organic for consumers who think they’re paying for something better.

    Looking back at how this discussion began, your opening argument was that we were quaint, inefficient, and overpriced. The conventional ag world could easily say the same thing about you, so we’re all operating on a sliding scale of economics and ethics that has no absolute baseline. Once that’s established, we’re also all operating in a reasonably free market in which consumers are free to choose what farm management methods they want to support with their discretionary income, just as they support sports teams, fashion designers, soda companies, and so on. My core complaint with your system is not its management choices, though I don’t think they’re ideal. It’s that you (and/or your co-op) are marketing your eggs with an ethic that’s a lot closer to our model; in effect it’s the greenwashing that I object to. You’re selling yourself to urban consumers as us, while looking down your nose at us, and I have a problem with that.

    The other main place we disagree is on the relationship between consumer and farmer. Consider your quote that “I’m sure I could come up with a specialty egg that I could convince some folks to buy for $10 per dozen, but I am trying to make a living feeding people, not just collecting money from a fortunate few.” We too, are trying to make a living feeding people. But we don’t feel a moral need to keep food cheap at all costs in the richest country in the world. The vast majority of Americans have enough discretionary income to afford $6/dozen eggs; look at the concession prices at any sporting event or fair, or the sales receipts at any convenience store, for proof of that. And heartless as it seems, the bottom 10% can’t be our personal concern; that’s what we have government safety nets for, which again are funded by the taxes our businesses generate. So I have no regrets about charging a fair price for a high quality product to consumers that are willing to pay it; our farm isn’t here to fix the world’s social problems, it’s here to earn a living for us from consumers who want us to exist.

    It’s worth noting that though our CSA is the highest-priced in the area, I don’t think most of our members would consider themselves the “fortunate few”. Though I’m certainly not privy to the details, we seem to have folks from a wide variety of backgrounds, jobs, and economic situations; few if any would be considered “rich”, and who cares if they are? It’s not inherently shameful to be rich or fortunate, or to sell products to those who are. Our CSA members have simply chosen to adjust their budgets for something that’s important to them, just as those who buy our eggs do. Regional considerations also matter; we had a CSA member on-farm a few days ago buying eggs, who recently moved here from the Northeast. He was already used to paying $6/dozen for market eggs there, so didn’t bat an eye at our prices: it was normal to him in his personal budget.

    We’re quite grateful to you for the time, information, and honesty you’ve brought to this discussion. It’s been very worthwhile and educational to us, as it has to many readers who have mentioned this to us. It’s nice to set an example for reasonable discourse on the internet. I hope we’re both able to stay in business and continue to develop support for the overall shift to sustainable agriculture.

  4. Thanks for the reply Eric. I’ll try to wrap it up here…

    I wasn’t trying to criticize, nor look down my nose at you. (It does go both ways… I see more than a few “organic food fights” on various blogs). In fact I started out offering suggestions on how you could operate more efficiently. While I understand your reasoning in your management choices, at the same time I often find myself thinking that there is something wrong with the inherent inefficiencies in your choices. I cannot seem to reconcile the fact that you accept those inefficiencies to be what they are and pass whatever the cost may be onto your customers. There is nary a business in the U.S. that can operate that way for long, as competition soon drives prices lower and force a certain amount of efficiency. I can’t decide whether you are truly selling a unique, value-added product outside of any competitive market forces, or whether you are just convincing your customers to monetarily support you and your ideals. (Not necessarily criticisms, just my thoughts and observations).

    There is a sliding scale of perceptions involved. A typical, family owned organic dairy farm here would be milking 40-100 cows on a few hundred of land. In California, a family owned organic dairy would easily be five to ten times that size, yet would also be providing for numerous families of employees. What we do here I consider to be traditional farming. This area was settled by farming families 150-170 years ago. They were not necessarily “poor farmers” just getting by scratching in the dirt, but true agriculturists who built very successful agriculture based businesses in this area. One of my g-g grandfathers came to Wisconsin from Germany in 1845. He was 18 years old and was a shepherd in the old country. He worked on a farm in the Milwaukee area for ten years to save up money to buy his own land. He eventually bought land on the western side of the state where he built a small log cabin. Over the next 35 years he built a farm of 600+ acres, replacing his log cabin with a modern brick home. He started from nothing and grew it into a business that supported him and his family and a number of farm employees by providing food to a region. Such is the story of agriculture on our area. Small family farms, that weren’t just subsistence farms, but farms that were actually feeding a region and making a living doing it. These farms have struggled and almost disappeared from the landscape, many now being used as country estates and recreational-use lands. The organic industry has saved many of these farms that were hanging on by a thread and prayer, as well as opened up opportunities for aspiring farmers to put good, productive land back to use.

    I feel that we are making something of a living wage for our family using traditional agriculture methods that suit our climate. Does it involve a few hundred birds rummaging around the backyard in the most idyllic setting that a person can imagine? No, but it does involve an operation of a certain scale. My gg grandfather did not make a living pasturing less than one cow (which would be the bovine equivalent of a several hundred chickens). Does that scale mean that we compromise our standards? No. These birds have a henhouse with feeders, waterers, perches and nestboxes; the typical equipment that you’d find in any chicken coop of any scale. They are allowed free roam of the barn, and the outdoors as weather permits, just as most backyard flocks do (we raised small backyard flocks for a number of years before we started this venture). They are fed organic feed that is raised on nearby fields that is fertilized by their own manure. It is not any less organic or any less humane because of its scale.

    To address you concerns of “confinement” pullet raising, you have to realize that that photo shows birds of an age that are ready to be moved out to a hen house. They are raised to about 16-18 weeks old before they are moved. Obviously, they weren’t that crowded as day-old chicks, nor were they that crowded as 10 week old chicks. They start to reach that point of looking crowded as they are ready to be moved to different housing. Even the smallest of operations use some sort of brooder to raise chicks chicks to some given age before they are allowed outside. Is raising chicks in a brooder a “confinement” operation, or is it providing necessary shelter, heat, food, and water until the birds are of a certain to age to go outside? What is the appropriate age? Is it two weeks, ten weeks, or sixteen weeks? In this case it is 16-18 weeks to ensure the integrity of vaccinations that protect the flock from disease. Of course, the folks at CI don’t tell you the whole story. They do do their best to portray a stark comparison; the highlights of one operation versus the “worst” of another.

    I’m still not following your argument of competing against cheap, government subsidized grain. The organic grain system in the U.S. operates outside of the federal crop subsidy program. Even in conventional production, subsidies are only a few dimes on the bushel, it is the sheer scale of U.S. production that makes these subsidies add up to billions of dollars on trillions and trillions of bushels. While I continually hear arguments from folks about how “heavily” our food is subsidized, in reality there is probably less than one cent of subsidies involved in the production of a dozen conventional eggs (6 billion dozen eggs per year). How much can they subsidize the four pounds of feed it takes to make a dozen eggs? Anyhow, given that you are probably paying $30 a bag for your trucked-in layer rations, the economy of growing your own (and thus doing it more sustainably) makes it look more attractive. Any corn that you grow at less than $30 per bushel (or possibly purchase in your region) increases your profit. There are protein/mineral premixes available from the mills that you can add to any locally sourced organic corn to mix your own ration.

    I’ll leave it at that. As I said, I wasn’t necessarily criticizing you as much as I was trying to understand your thinking. I wish you both good luck…

    -Mac