Farmer in Pottstown, Pennsylvania feeds their chickens. Photo credit: Zoe Schaeffe

What the huevos? Surging prices of eggs, shortages in some stores

Consumers are saying, “The eggs are too damn high.”

Winter holiday season saw a peak in the demand for eggs compared to last year. What consumers were unprepared for was the hike in prices following Christmas and New Year festivities. Social media expressed much of the sticker shock. Posts showed cartons of a dozen eggs going for over $9 at some stores.

“I haven’t looked at egg prices in a grocery store in probably 1-2 years,” posted Rocky Creek Homestead VA who showed Nettles free range eggs go for $8.99 before sales tax. In shock, they mentioned that “. . . it sure is a huge increase from what I remember a few years ago.”

While Rocky Creek, a farming operation, has the advantage of sourcing their own supply, the average buyer is feeling the pain. One post showed a two-carton pack at Walmart in Ft. Worth, Texas for $15.36. To add to the spike, market analysts say that the high prices will be around for at least the first quarter of 2021.

The fiscal uproar even had one egg-lover perform a cheerleading skit. Dee Perkins whose TikTok handle is @cheerlebridee enthusiastically rhymed, “Back it up, back it up and stop, put them eggs back until the prices drop.”

The price hike is due to the perfect storm between agriculture and the economy. Like many other industries impacted by the pandemic price surges, agriculture felt its impact. The cost of fertilizer, feed, equipment, diesel fuel and even farmland shot up. All the while labor, supply chains and the availability of bank loans dramatically declined.

Months before, farmers warned consumers that the exorbitant rise in hay alone would impact consumers rather quickly. “Please understand, food prices are going to go up,” said Holly Weilnau of JH Weilnau farm in a TikTok video on May 29. Now unavailable, Weilnau went on in the video to explain how her family’s farm is paying four times more on some supplies than they did in 2019. “Guys, this is not going away. Stop sticking your head in the sand and thinking, ‘Oh, it’s going to be okay.’ It’s not gonna fucking be okay.”

While farmers have been forced to increase their prices, egg costs and shortages are also due to a seasonal virus that impacted poultry farms across the country.”

Last November, the U.S.D.A. reported a “highly pathogenic [strain of] avian influenza.” The Eurasian H5 strain was detected in both wild and domestic birds. A respiratory disease of birds, the U.S. experienced the worst poultry health in 2022. During the summer months, an estimated 52.7 million contagious birds died, but most were put to death to stop the virus from spreading. Forty-six states reported outbreaks in commercial flocks.

In turn, the outbreak ratcheted up calls for better poultry care in commercial farming. Particularly, in the organic meat and egg industry, advocates pressed for better animal welfare laws under the Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards (OLPS) rule. The law mandates stricter rules for care. In particular, for cage free chickens to have the ability to have more outdoor roaming room.

Triple J Farm, a Blakc-owned family farm in Windsor, New York sells eggs and maple syrup. Photo credit: Triple J Farm Instagram Page

“The organic community and our association have been fighting for some 20 years for the much-needed animal welfare reforms that this regulation makes possible. It is time now for USDA to heed the overwhelming support that this new rule has received from the public, and once and for all make this rule a reality,” said Tom Chapman, CEO of the Organic Trade Association.

During the Barack Obama Administration, the U.S.D.A. passed a law to upgrade animal care in commercial stock in 2015. However, under President Donald Trump it was rescinded in 2017.

In a release, OTA also pointed out a crucial reason to push better animal welfare laws—the consumers want it. Increasingly, consumers are looking for healthier, sustainable protein options; especially at the top of the year when diet changes are the highest.

This year, the demand for eggs was much higher than New Year 2022. Yet, the U.S.D.A. reports that the inventory of eggs actually making it to market has decreased. One issue is the payment to farmers went down or remained the same, all the while, the production of eggs shot up. Plus the stocks of organic eggs are down by 5.5 percent, adding to the gradual increase on store shells.

To mitigate the issue, last January, the Biden-Harris Administration announced an initiative that would break up the poultry monopoly in the U.S. One of the measures in the action plan was to protect and support farmers who are most vulnerable in the market—meaning minorities and women. “Highly concentrated local markets in livestock and poultry have increasingly left farmers, ranchers, growers and producers vulnerable to a range of practices that unjustly exclude them from economic opportunities and undermine a transparent, competitive, and open market—which harms producers’ ability to deliver the quality, affordable food working families depend upon,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who is a member of the White House Competition Council.

To move towards its proposal, this past November, the U.S.D.A. invested $71 million into 21 grant projects to bring more equity in the poultry industry.

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One segment of the industry that is benefiting are small to medium poultry farms that sell eggs. New Jersey’s Smith Poultry recently started an egg CSA in response. “Have you seen the price of eggs at the store has drastically increased? Food systems are being stretched and farmers stressed,” posted farmer Kyle Smith who runs an operation in Williamstown, an agricultural community in the southern part of the state.

Throughout the growing community, farmers are packing their eggs and hauling them to markets to finally cash in on a need. Oriana Bolden of Freedom Dream Farms in Wilmington, North Carolina is known for her nutrient-rich, dense eggs on her urban patch, sells at the Northside Co-op and also delivers. In New York, Black farming family of Triple J Farms announced a March egg drop. To sweeten the offering, they also sell freshly tapped maple syrup that is currently being featured in Black Farmers Index’s food gift box called, Vittles: Sown With Soul.

While there is a humorous approach to the egg-shattering prices, underneath the jokes and chatter is the reality of the increasing food insecurity. While industry analysts say that egg prices will eventually even out, more people are using food pantries and giveaways to supplement their home’s daily food sources. Last September, the White House hosted a globally-focused conference addressing food insecurity. In 2021, reports showed food insecurity almost doubled.

“More and more people come to our food giveaway,” Africa Ibang told Ark Republic in an interview last year. “People are hurting out here. The food we have is gone in an hour.”

The sobering fact Ibang points out is that Americans must get used to higher prices because rising food costs will be a norm rather than an off-put economic trend.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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