An outbreak of bird flu has forced American farmers to kill millions of egg-laying chickens, 32 million in Iowa alone — hence the rise in egg prices.
But why so many? Because our eggs are now produced by a handful of gigantic farms. When one of their birds gets sick, the farmers have to kill them all.
This concentration of egg production wasn't always the case. In the 1970s, there were about 10,000 commercial egg companies, according to The Wall Street Journal. Today there are fewer than 200.
Bird flu aside, depending on a few farms, mainly in the Midwest, for most of our eggs doesn't make much sense. Eggs can be laid anywhere in the country. That includes backyards in Denver, New York and Des Moines.
So many urbanites have taken up chicken husbandry that cities are setting down strict rules for the activity. Poultry farming in dense neighborhoods is problematic. More on that later.
But every city has farms nearby that could supply eggs. The reason a few industrial farms dominate the business is that bigger is cheaper.
"Our customer base is demanding the lowest cost possible, and that causes us to put 6 million chickens on one farm," an executive at Rose Acre Farms told the Journal.
Some consumers care greatly about where their eggs, as well as apples, come from. The more local the better.
But fast-food chains and warehouse stores gravitate to the lowest prices. The restaurants don't necessarily buy eggs as most of us know them. McDonald's uses eggs in liquid form for many of its dishes (though the Egg McMuffin, the McDonald's website clearly states, is made with "a freshly cracked, Grade A egg").
Interesting that the concept of "food miles" — the distance American produce travels before reaching the table — was pioneered at Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Researchers there found that California onions sold in Des Moines typically journey over 1,700 miles. Produce trucked from outside the state uses between four and 17 times more fuel than that grown locally.
And Iowa hardly lacks for farmland.
As drought strikes California's agricultural kingdom, concerns are rising about its ability to "feed the nation." Meanwhile, more Americans are wondering why all their carrots must come from there. The water crisis enhances their arguments for local agriculture.
About backyard chicken farming: This is not a job for squeamish city people. Chickens smell, and their coops must be cleaned. Hens reach a point when they can no longer lay eggs. Are urban farmers emotionally equipped to turn a "pet" into Sunday dinner — or to provide retirement facilities for a hen past her prime?
Also, sooner or later, something gruesome is going to happen to one of the chickens. A dog may get at it. Or the chicken comes down ill.
Neighbors may object to the clucking and the odors. They have a point.
The desire to connect more closely with our food sources is a good one. But the idea of raising chickens in small backyards is more romantic than the reality.
In densely packed areas, growing silent lettuce, tomatoes and string beans may be more neighborly than raising living, squawking farm animals. Better to patronize your local egg producer. That would bring both fresher eggs and help boost your local farmer.
Meanwhile, there's no point in stressing over buying food products from elsewhere in the country, especially those needing special climates (avocados) or wide-open spaces (beef). Without our food distribution system, produce sections up north would be pretty dull in February.
Moderation in all obsessions is the way to go.
(A member of the Providence Journal editorial board, Froma Harrop writes a nationally syndicated column from that city. She has written for such diverse publications as The New York Times, Harper's Bazaar and Institutional Investor.)
- Category: Columns
- Hits: 329