Americans depend on chicken farms and henhouses for eggs that, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department, they eat 278 of per person per year. But egg production isn’t always predictable or dependable. In many ways, farmers are at the whim of nature.
“The way that we raise chickens though, there’s really not much we can do in terms of separating wildlife from our domesticated flocks,” says Aaron Jodas, the owner of Jodas Farms.
Last year, the highly contagious avian influenza, carried mainly by migratory birds, swept through the U.S. egg industry, killing an estimated 44 million hens, a significant part of the pre-outbreak population.
Dawn Thilmany from Colorado State University says, “Eggs is the story of the year, but I think it’s mostly again just because it’s that staple everybody has in their refrigerator all the time.”
Thilmany, an agricultural economist, says she’s never seen egg prices shoot up the way they have, from one to two dollars to $5 a dozen or more. If grocery stores carry them at all.
“Egg prices have definitely gone up. My boys are teenage boys who are big into working out these days and all that protein so they’re eating somewhere between 3-5 eggs each a day, so I’m telling them to slow down. It’s really weird when you go to buy eggs, it’s something that you’re used to having an abundance of and then all of a sudden they’re just gone,” says Paula Aweida, a consumer.
“Stores do not like to be out of eggs, they don’t like to be out of eggs at all.”
Thilmany says egg demand, always high around the Christmas holidays, is a big reason prices were 8.5 percent higher in January than December.
“It was uncanny, people just kept buying, even when they tripled the prices they’d been paying, so I think it was really a once in a lifetime dynamic.”
Higher feed and transportation costs have also contributed to egg inflation. And with new avian flu outbreaks occurring globally, the problem remains with us in the new year.
“I think anyone with a big hen-laying house is very nervous right now and trying to figure out new biosecurity measures. This is the animal disease that’s not going away easily or lightly,” Thilmany adds.
But it appears supply and demand have come more into balance and that wholesale egg prices have peaked.
Jason Lusk from Purdue University says, “It takes a few weeks for the prices grocery stores are paying to be reflected in what consumers are paying so I’m hopeful that within the next few weeks we’ll start to see some relief.”
Thilmany expects more cage-free, organic brands going forward, and somewhat more expensive eggs than in the past.
“I just think you’re going to see this market be a different market now.”
A time when eggs are out of the headlines and a fixture in shopping carts once again.
“I’ve never seen so much excitement about the economics of eggs and I’ll probably never see it again,” she says.