October 31, 2008

Market Egg Producers Weigh in on Prop 2

petalumaEditor’s note: In order to give a full range of perspectives on Proposition 2, we contacted all four egg producers in our market. What follows is based on the most substantive interviews we conducted. Jesse Kuhn of Marin Roots also went on record in support of the proposition; David Evans of Marin Sun Farms was out of town.

“I don’t know what ‘happy’ means to a chicken,” says Steve Mahrt of Petaluma Farms. The third generation egg farmer heads the company behind the Petaluma, Rock Island, Uncle Eddie’s, Judy’s Family Farm and Gold Circle brands. Mahrt says he recently invited a veterinarian up to his farmwhere they produce around 4,000 dozen eggs a dayto see both the caged and cage-free chickens Petaluma raises, for himself. “Even the vet, a Prop 2 proponent said, ‘I can’t tell if the chickens are any happier out of the cages,’” he recalls.

Mahrt has raised a portion of his chickens in cage-free environments for 25 years, but he opposes the Humane Society-sponsored Proposition 2, which would require chickens raised for eggs to be given enough space to “turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs,” because it strikes him as well-intentioned but bad for business. Mahrt and others at Petaluma Farms, including Stan Keena, who sells the eggs at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, are worried that if the proposition passes, producers in other states will flood the California market with cheap eggs, while farmers here will be hampered by the need to invest in more spacea cost that will run between 12 to 28 cents per dozen, according to one UC Davis study. Mahrt says he doesn’t want to have to pass that cost on to his customers and says that estimate strikes him as way too low.

When asked about how the measure might impact Petaluma Farms’ business, Mahrt is unequivocal: “I will not be in business if Prop 2 passes.”

Prop 2 would require increased space for all animals kept in poultry facilities, sow gestation pens and veal crates by 2015. And since there are comparatively few hogs or calves raised in the state, egg-producing hens are at the center of the discussion.

Just how much space would that mean? Mahrt believes he will be asked to give every hen nearly five square feet of room (the equivalent of their wingspans, or about 26 inches, squared); it’s a requirement he says would force him to expand even his cage-free hen houses.

Nigel Walker of Eatwell Farm doesn’t interpret the proposed shift that way. He points to a document called the Humane Farm Animal Care Standards for Production of Egg Laying Hens, which reads “a minimum of 1.5 square feet must be allocated to allow normal behavior.”

chickens“It’s a very modest measure,” says Walker. “Basically, caged chickens will go from having a space the size of ⅔ of a sheet of letter size paper to one the size of two sheets of letter size paper.” Walker is an outspoken advocate of Prop 2; he signed on to the official rebuttal to the arguments against the proposition and has spoken to a number of media sources about his stance.

Prop 2 would not impact Eatwell Farm directly; Walker raises 3,000 free-range laying hens that roost in mobile coops and are moved to new pasture every 2-3 weeks. They have space indoors and are protected by predators at night, but they spend a great deal of time foraging and pecking for food outside their coops. “I’m not saying everyone has to do it like I do. That’s not what Prop 2 is about at all. They are still factory farmed eggs. But it will give them a little more space.”

None of us know exactly how hens feel about their living conditions, but Walker has a guess. “Take the 10-12 people you work with and make them all get into an elevator,” he says. “After 24 hours, you’d be killing each other! That’s pretty much how caged chickens are living nowit’s elbow room only.”

As for some egg producers’ concerns about the changes, Walker believes that creative solutions will allow producers to comply with regulations without expanding their footprints. In Europe, where, he says “the growers screamed about it, it became law and everyone’s adapting to it,” many egg-producing operations have switched to what’s called an aviary system. Aviaries allow for multiple levels of habitat, but the overall density-per-house is the same as caged operations. Says Walker: “it just allows chickens to move around and interact and engage in social behavior.”

Any way you boil, fry or scramble it, Prop 2 has implications that reach far beyond California. Several other states have passed similar laws relating to pigs and calves, but this is the first time such a ballot measure has been raised in relation to egg-laying hens.

“It could ripple its way through the country, says Walker, “and that’s why the biggest contributors to the campaign against Prop 2 are the United Egg Producers (UEP), who are based in Iowa.” This kind of larger industry support doesn’t surprise Steve Mahrt, who says of the UEP, “this group sticks together.” He adds that the Humane Society is a Washington, DC-based group, saying “Prop 2 is being voted on in California, but it has been a national issue all along.”

Pictured above, from top: 1) Stan Keena sells eggs for Petaluma Farms at the Saturday market 2) Pasture-raised chickens at Eatwell Farms.

Update: Prop 2 passed in November, 2009

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »