It’s no secret. Eggs, long considered a household staple, have become one of the next hot commodities for consumers.
The national price for a dozen large grade-A eggs has doubled from $1.92 to $4.25 in the past year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Eric Toal, co-owner of “Seven Seay’s Farm” in Dawson County, explained that while he and his family typically focus more on other products, recent customer demand for their eggs has jumped threefold.
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“When we started off, friends were wanting some, so we’d sell them (cartons) for $3. Next thing you know, their friends were calling us, and [more] family was calling us,” Toal said. “Recently, we get anywhere between four to five different phone calls or text messages wanting to know if we have eggs.”
The search for reasonably-priced eggs now spans communities, from household consumers to area businesses that rely on the staple protein products.
Dawson County High School alumna Bernadine Baptiste, who brought her up-and-coming “Made by Bernadine” baking business to the area when she and her family moved in 2021, said that the price hike in eggs has changed the way she’s run her operation.
“I can remember eggs have been one of the biggest costs,” Baptiste said. “Last year, since I’d buy them pretty frequently, I’d spend $6 or $7 [per trip], and now, it’s $20. So I have to be aware of how much I’m using and how much I need.”
Cassie Illg, a fellow baker and wife of Dawsonville city councilman Will Illg, has been in business since 2017.
Illg said she’s also noticed a sharp increase in egg prices since opening her brick-and-mortar “Cassie Cakes” store in Cumming this past October.
“One of the things we’ve done to offset that is we have these local people, and we barter with them,” Illg said. “I bake her kids cakes, and she gives me her eggs.”
Illg and her staff had also had to rearrange recipes. For sugar cookies, instead of using the many eggs typically required, they’ve swapped in milk. For other recipes, applesauce or bananas have worked as substitutes.
Both Baptiste and Illg have had to balance offering affordable products for their customers while still making a profit.
“Even with the inflation, I'm grateful, because there are always people who are going to think things are expensive,” Baptiste said. “Most people are still okay with paying increased prices.”
“In some areas, the costs are passed on, but most people understand,” Illg added.
Avian flu has been pinpointed as one of several causes impacting the egg industry.
The outbreak was caused by infected birds migrating from Europe that leave droppings as they fly over U.S. farms, said Louise Dufour-Zavala, executive director of the Georgia Poultry Laboratory Network.
Her company is based in Gainesville and works with government agencies and other laboratories in the prevention, management and control of poultry disease outbreaks statewide.
“The source of the virus is wild birds,” Dufour-Zavala said. “And this year, instead of just a wild waterfowl being affected by this, it's about 140 species of birds. It’s tremendous.”
So far, nearly 58 million birds in hundreds of backyard and commercial flocks across 47 states have been affected by the virus, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of those, more than 44 million have been egg-laying hens.
However, Georgia commercial flocks haven’t been touched by the flu, said Georgia Poultry Federation President Mike Giles.
“We haven't been impacted in any commercial flocks, whether they’re egg or broiler, but there have been a significant number of laying hens that were impacted by avian influenza at various farms all over the country,” Giles said.
University of Georgia Department of Poultry Science professor Dr. Todd Applegate estimated that the national egg-laying hen flock started 2022 at about 326 million and ended the year at 308 million.
“Losing 8% of the national flock has put a damper on supply, yet our public still values eggs and egg products and thus the economic demand has pushed up prices in spite of a hampered supply,” Applegate said.
Then there’s the chicken feed to consider. Total feed price was up $37/ton or 14%, resulting in an 8-cent/dozen or 12%-higher cost of production versus same time in 2021, Applegate added.
“As with all other markets, inflation has raised the cost of inputs used to produce and deliver eggs such as: feed, transportation and labor,” said Maro Ibarburu, an associate scientist with The Egg Industry Center.
“The [egg] market’s highest period of demand occurs each year over the holidays,” Ibarburu added. “Since that time, the price paid to the farmers for eggs has been decreasing. Usually, in time, the consumer price follows.”
The egg industry is facing different market challenges than in 2020, Ibarburu clarified.
“At that time the industry experienced a sharp but short-lived increase in shell egg demand combined with a decrease in the demand for liquid egg,” Ibarburu said. “This time, there was a decrease in total egg supply combined with a strong end-of-the-year demand.
In Georgia, table eggs make up only 5% of the state’s poultry production, as compared to 90% for broiler chickens sold as meat, according to UGA’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development.
In other words, the eggs most people buy in the state aren’t local.
“Current egg prices reflect many factors, most of which are outside the control of an egg farmer,” the American Egg Board said in a statement. “Eggs are bought and sold on the commodity market, where farmers don’t set the price of eggs — the market does.”
In a 2022 report, the USDA noted that the increase in egg prices was “much larger than the decreases in production” and that people will keep buying eggs despite the increased cost, allowing egg companies to raise prices and not negatively impact demand.
The whole dynamic has left many wondering whether industry individuals are taking advantage of the perfect storm created by ongoing inflation and the avian flu outbreak to raise egg prices.
Farm Action, a farmer-led nonprofit that fights against monopolization in the agriculture industry, argued just that in a Jan. 19 letter to the Federal Trade Commission asking the agency to investigate the egg industry for price gouging and monopolistic behavior.
“When you have only a handful of companies controlling each section along the food supply chain … they're like, ‘Well, let's see how far we can go,’” said Sarah Carden, senior policy advocate for Farm Action. “Egg demand is pretty inelastic, and we've seen that. Look how far they’ve been able to push it.”
A new dynamic is also hatching between egg suppliers and many of their large-scale customers, such as food servicers, restaurants and grocers.
Many of those businesses have corporately promised to only source eggs from “cage-free” hens by 2025-2026, Applegate explained.
That means remodeling and building new facilities for egg-laying hens, a minimum 20-30 year investment, with cage-free facilities costing much more per bird, said the UGA professor. Less than 35% of eggs come from cage-free facilities now, and the large customers haven’t fully committed to the price premium of cage-free eggs
“Thus, we have a present over-supply of those eggs that, in some cases, are entering the market as just ‘eggs’ and [are] being sold under that increased cost of housing on top of the increased feed price,” Applegate said. “The egg sector will continue to make that proportional shift to cage-free over the next few years to fulfill large customer wants – but may not be able to achieve the time course ‘laid’ out by these large customers.”
Toal believes that while the hope is for egg prices to go down, those under-two-dollar cartons may be a thing of the past.
“A reorganization of the egg industry or a reset has to happen in order for more independent farmers to stay producing eggs for commercial operations,” Toal said. “If we don't have these farmers making the money, they’re going to get out of it.”
Toal added that such an exodus of smaller egg producers should be avoided, especially considering that the employment outlook is expected to decline by 3% over the next several years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The desires for cheaper prices and greater knowledge of one’s food and its source have led numerous people in recent weeks to local producers like the Seay farm.
“We have elderly people that buy eggs from us that may be on a fixed income…and they’ve been buying eggs from us for three years, so I'm not going to jack the price of my eggs up to them. People who’ve usually bought eggs are grateful for the prices, and there are those who want to offer us more money,” Toal said, mentioning some people’s wish to give back to their local farmers.
He also thinks the economic trends behind the egg and other markups have convinced people to turn toward more community or self-reliance.
“Anytime the economy starts turning down, people start wanting to learn to take care of themselves,” Toal said. “That’s how we got started in the early 2000’s.”
He sees potential in teaching younger people how to do things like raise their own chickens, even if it’s just two or three backyard hens laying a small amount of eggs.
“Your generation wants to think healthier [and about] where their food is coming from…they want to know that kind of stuff,” he said.
“Egg prices depend on both supply and demand. While demand is slowing, we cannot predict avian influenza,” Ibarburu added. “In the absence of new cases, the production of eggs will gradually increase over the next several months, and that should help the market.”
Note: Times reporter Ben Anderson contributed data about the avian flu and egg pricing. DCN is a sister publication of the Times.