Looking for eggs? Spend time considering your choices

by Barbara Soderlin, Omaha World Herald, original story link

If you’re out picking up eggs for an Easter basket or brunch, plan to spend extra time considering your choices. You may want to take a few extra dollars, too.

One Hy-Vee dairy manager said his store now carries 26 varieties of eggs, and there’s just as big an array of prices. Stores around Omaha carried a dozen eggs last week for as little as 48 cents, and as much as $7.99.

Even though the cheapest eggs are at their lowest prices in years, sales at the very high end are growing, farmers and others in the egg business say, as consumers get increasingly choosy about where their food comes from and how it’s produced.

Many of the more expensive eggs — those priced at $5, $6 or more a dozen — are “pasture-raised,” an emerging category in mainstream supermarkets, although they’re still a tiny percentage of total egg sales. Pasture-raised hens spend much of their time outdoors with access to grass and dirt where they can scratch, peck, flap and scrounge for insects and worms in the dirt and manure. The eggs often are sourced from small family farms that also raise other livestock or produce.

Shoppers have sought out pasture-raised eggs for years by taking a trip to a farm or farmers market, or buying them through a food co-op. They still can, and may get a better price. But now, more supermarkets like Baker’s, Hy-Vee and Whole Foods are making room on their shelves for these eggs.

The eggs are a step or two beyond cage-free eggs, which typically come from hens kept indoors in a large barn with thousands of others.

Cage-free eggs now are practically mainstream, now that big corporations like Walmart, McDonald’s, Starbucks and Kroger have pledged to buy only cage-free eggs by 2025 or sooner. They made the pledges under pressure from consumers and animal welfare advocates who say standard commercial egg production, where chickens are kept in small cages, is inhumane.

Whole Foods upped the ante in this farms race last week when it said it would no longer sell even cage-free eggs under its 365 Everyday Value store brand. Now, its minimum standard is “cage-free plus,” where birds indoors in barns would have perches and shelters.

“Pasture-raised,” seen by some as the highest standard for chicken welfare, is one of those food labels that means different things to different people. Some farms have their eggs certified as “pasture-raised” by the Humane Farm Animal Care nonprofit organization. That indicates the birds have a minimum amount of indoor and outdoor space, and are raised according to the organization’s humane handling standards.

Other farms use the term without certification and may not follow these practices, especially in northern climates where outdoor access is harder to achieve in the winter. Some producers refer to eggs from outdoor birds as “farm fresh.” A store manager, a web search or a phone call to the farmer can help consumers understand what they’re getting.

Whatever the label, stores and farms say they are selling more eggs from these outdoor birds, and middlemen who connect small farms with big retailers say they’re growing, too.

Troy Susie, dairy manager at Hy-Vee’s Williamsburg store in Lincoln, was skeptical when Nebraska egg farmer Dan Hromas first approached him three years ago about selling pasture-raised eggs under the Prairie Pride label. He wondered if anyone would pay almost $5 for eggs when there’s a 49-cent option.

But shoppers now ask for Prairie Pride, he said. Maybe it’s the local connection, and maybe it’s because they want to support Hromas, a disabled veteran.

“I have people come in and say, ‘Hey, do you have any of the eggs the vet sells?’ ” Susie said.

Hromas keeps nearly 500 chickens on land near Grand Island, and said he did about $21,000 in egg sales last year, though to not much profit. He’s still looking for that golden egg, he said.

His customers aren’t as worried about labels and certifications, he said.

“What they are concerned about is that intimate connection from the farmer,” he said.

Another Nebraska farm that’s gotten into the business is Country Lane Gardens, a greenhouse and farm near Columbus, which started raising hens for eggs three years ago and now has 800 birds. The eggs are sold in the farm’s CSA box, at an indoor farmers market in Columbus, and at Hy-Vee stores in Omaha and Columbus.

The farm sells them for $3 a dozen, and in Omaha, produce seller Tomato Tomato sells Country Lane eggs at its shop for $4.50, and also wholesales them to Hy-Vee, which prices them at $5 or more.

Big supermarkets “really like the local products,” said Country Lane owner Annette Hellbusch. “That’s what consumers are demanding nowadays, to know where their food is coming from.”

For others, it’s the taste, said Don Milota, operations manager at Tomato Tomato.

“It’s just got a nice, rich flavor,” he said.

Interest in pasture-raised eggs is a growing opportunity for one eastern Iowa wholesaler, Farmers Hen House, which has dealt only in specialty eggs, such as cage-free and organic, since it began in the 1997. The business buys eggs from local farms run by Amish families, packages them under a single label, and sells them to supermarkets around the region. Its eggs are certified by Humane Farm Animal Care in four categories.

Farmers Hen House has had more demand from consumers and customers for pasture-raised eggs in the last three to five years, and sells them primarily in bigger cities like Denver, Chicago, Minneapolis and Phoenix, general manager Ryan Miller said.

Miller said this spring he will be contacting more stores in the Omaha area, where he already sells other varieties, to make a pitch that they carry his pasture-raised eggs too. Cities have to be big enough to have enough demand for the eggs to make it worth a retailer’s while, he said. If the product doesn’t turn over quickly on a shelf, it won’t work, even at the higher prices these eggs command.

Stores might charge $6 or $6.50 a dozen for Farmers Hen House pasture-raised eggs, he said. That’s necessary to cover the higher costs of producing and transporting such eggs. Picking up eggs from dozens of small farms is more complicated than driving a semi truck to a conventional egg-laying facility and dropping off pallets of eggs at a supermarket distribution center.By Barabra

That’s the philosophy at Vital Farms, a 10-year-old Austin, Texas, company that says it is the nation’s biggest provider of certified pasture-raised eggs — the only type of eggs it sells. Vital Farms sources eggs from about 100 farms in what it calls the “pasture belt” across seven southern states, and said it is meeting pent-up demand by selling them to supermarkets nationwide, including in Omaha — where Whole Foods priced Vital Farms pasture-raised eggs at $7.99 a dozen recently.

Its farms are bigger than most family farms that produce eggs in Nebraska, with flocks of between about 2,000 and 10,000 hens, Chief Operating Officer Russell Diez-Canseco said. Farmers own their hens and are paid by the dozen eggs upon delivery, with the price adjusted quarterly to account for feed costs, Diez-Canseco said.

“Our relationship with farmers is one of mutual accountability,” he said.

Growth means the company now is building the first egg packing and processing plant it will own itself, in Springfield, Missouri.

It’s hard to say how many pasture-raised eggs are sold in the country. Vital Farms estimates pasture-raised sales at 0.5 percent of the total market for shell eggs (which doesn’t include eggs sold in liquid, powdered or other forms). Maro Ibarburu, an analyst at the Egg Industry Center at Iowa State University, said he had no information about pasture egg sales.

The American Egg Board said hens laying eggs sold as organic and cage-free account for 12.5 percent of the nation’s shell-egg flock; pasture-raised eggs would be a small portion of those.

But Americans are eating more eggs altogether: Consumption averaged 267 eggs per person in 2016 — 33 more eggs than 20 years ago.

Prices for conventional eggs are low right now, thanks to an oversupply, said Brian Moscogiuri, egg industry analyst at Urner Barry. Millions of hens were killed during the 2015 avian influenza outbreaks, and some international markets started importing from other countries. Today, he said, producers have raced to rebuild flocks, while exports haven’t fully recovered.

A dozen large eggs cost $1.29 on average in Midwest cities in February, according to the USDA, down from $2.19 a year ago. The price was over $3 in August 2015.

Consumers who aren’t hunting for pasture-raised eggs will benefit, he said.

“We’re going into Easter at some of the lowest (price) levels we’ve had in the last 10 years,” he said.