116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
KALONA — Every week, Farmers Hen House near Kalona sends up to a third of its free-range and pasture-raised eggs to California.
Despite the additional fees, inspections, reports and testing required to sell eggs to California consumers, it’s worth it because of the huge population base there, said Farmers Hen House President Ryan Miller.
“We would never make it if we just sold eggs here in Iowa,” Miller said of the company started in 1997 by his grandfather, Eldon T. Miller, an Amish farmer.
Farmers Hen House now buys eggs from 50 producers and employs 67 people at its egg plant. The plant processes 100,000 dozens of eggs a day, five days a week, for retail and food service.
Twenty-eight percent of U.S. laying hens were in cage-free environments at the end of 2020, up from 14 percent in 2016 and 4 percent in 2010, according to United Egg Producers, a national trade group. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service says that to meet the projected demand for cage-free eggs, 66 percent of U.S. hens must be free from cages by 2026.
For the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Marketing Service to certify eggs as cage free, inspectors must do on-site farm visits twice a year to check that laying hens have unlimited access to food and water and the freedom to roam during the laying cycle.
Certified free-range eggs must come from hens who, in addition to the cage-free requirements, also have continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle, the USDA reported.
Iowa is the No. 1 egg producing state, with more than 58 million laying hens producing more than 17.1 billion eggs in 2019, according to the USDA.
Iowa Egg Council Executive Director Kevin Stiles estimates about 10 percent of the state’s egg-laying flock is cage-free. It’s expensive and time-consuming to adjust housing systems for hens and many farmers have not made that transition, he said.
“There has been no federal assistance made available to egg farmers for cage-free construction,” Stiles said in an email. “The costs to convert barns or build new barns are extremely high, and for many farmers are not feasible, without support from their buyers/customers.”
There’s been a movement in recent years toward less-restrictive settings for food animals, including chicken, veal and pork. And like many trends in America, this one came from California.
A California law enacted Jan. 1, 2015, required eggs sold in that state to come from hens with enough room to extend their wings and turn freely around. Although this law didn’t specifically define the cage size, it did cause producers to increase enclosures to what many called “California cages,” Miller said.
Then in 2018, California voters approved Proposition 12, which required all eggs sold in that state to come from cage-free hens by 2022. That measure also prohibits the sale of pork and veal in California from animals raised in cages that don’t meet minimum size standards, the Associated Press reported. Massachusetts voters passed a similar referendum in 2016.
“I think this law is a positive thing,” Kathy Eckhouse, co-owner of La Quercia, a Norwalk-based producer of handcrafted and cured pork products, said of Prop 12. She and husband and co-owner, Herb Eckhouse, toured Farmers Hen House on Wednesday along with other retailers and journalists.
La Quercia buys pork from local producers who raise the hogs without crates and “preferably with full access to the outdoors,” Kathy Eckhouse said.
The veal and chicken industries have changed practices to continue to be able to sell in the California market, she said. But the pork industry has resisted the changes, which go into effect Jan. 1.
There have been several federal lawsuits trying to halt Prop 12, the most recent of which was filed by the Iowa Pork Producers and came with a request for a preliminary injunction to stop implementation of the law. The Pork Producers say complying with the law would cause costs to skyrocket.
But U.S. District Judge C.J. Williams, noting that the California law was not aimed specifically at Iowa — the nation’s largest pork producer — dismissed the case last month, Iowa Public Radio reported.
“The collateral effects of passing the law may be that Iowa farmers are harmed, but there is nothing that indicates this harm was intentional,” Williams wrote, Iowa Public Radio reported. “Even if plaintiffs satisfied the intentional act prong, the California law was not uniquely or expressly aimed at Iowa and the brunt of the harm was not felt there.”
Niman Ranch, a network of 740 farmers and ranchers who produce antibiotic-free meat raised with strict animal welfare standards, wrote court briefs in support of Prop 12. Chris Oliviero, Niman Ranch general manager, told The Gazette this week he expects the pork industry to shift like the egg industry has been doing.
“With California purchasing roughly 15 percent of domestic pork, it’s too big of a market for the industry to ignore,” he said. “The industry must proceed with making the changes to be compliant. It’s not easy. I understand the heartburn over doing it. But large companies are good at finding cost-effective solutions to things they want to solve.”
Iowa law holds spot for conventional eggs
The Iowa Legislature in 2018 passed a measure requiring grocery stores participating in some federal food subsidy programs to continue selling conventional eggs if they also sold specialty options such as cage-free or free-range eggs.
Supporters of House File 2408 said it was needed because animal welfare groups had shamed retailers into selling a product — cage-free eggs — that consumers didn’t want. They also argued consumers should have a lower-cost option.
“As we see in Iowa stores today, the choice of which type of eggs consumers wish to purchase, will continue to be made by the consumer,” said the Iowa Egg Council’s Stiles.
Opponents of the law said it artificially propped up conventional eggs — and agribusiness — rather than letting consumers decide.
Three years later, it’s hard to tell the effect of the law. The New Pioneer Cooperative, which has stores in Iowa City, Coralville and Cedar Rapids, did not sell conventional eggs before the law and so did not have to offer them after HF 2408 was approved.
“New Pioneer does value food access and we offer an everyday discount for shoppers who are on food assistance, but offering conventional eggs is in opposition to other aspects of our mission and not an avenue we will pursue,” said Linda Fritz-Murphy, purchasing lead for the co-op.
“Eggs are a good seller for us, and increasingly market share is moving toward free-range eggs which indicates to me that consumer demand is moving further away from conventional rather than towards it.”
Top 10 states for egg-laying hens
- North Carolina
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