He was among the first batch of customers sitting in their idling cars at 8 a.m. on a recent chilly January morning. Being there early is important as eggs — which start at $5 a dozen at Billy’s — run out by noon most days, Kamps said.
The lengths people are willing to go for affordable eggs is a reflection of soaring prices nationwide — with a dozen large eggs retailing for $5.62 on Feb. 1, up from $4.83 at the beginning of December, data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows.
Egg farms are reporting an influx of customers, but some are looking into quirkier solutions, such as their neighbors’ backyards, to purchase eggs at a time when finding them at local grocery stores is not guaranteed.
Cars wait in line to buy eggs at Billy’s Egg Farm and drive-thru store in Chino on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023. The price of eggs has increased over the last year due to an avian flu outbreak that has affected chicken farms nationwide. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
Billy’s Egg Farm owner Billy Mouw says he’s been selling 25,000 eggs a day lately at his family farm, which houses around 30,000 chickens. With his daughters’ help, he’s able to shell out eggs a dozen at a time to cars that stretch down the residential road surrounding the business.
The availability and price of eggs at the farm make it worth the wait for Kamps, who has a family of five at home.
“You go anywhere else right now and its upwards of $7 for a dozen eggs, that hurts my wallet,” the Chino resident said as the line of cars began to move.
“It’s saving money for my family, but it’s also supporting the small business,” Kamps continued. “I’d rather spend the money here than at Walmart and honestly, it’s more expensive at Walmart right now.”
Customers shared similar sentiments down the road at another egg farm, Maust’s California Poultry, which reports it’s also seen a huge influx in demand.
“I’m definitely cutting back, I can barely make omelets for my family anymore,” said Dee Forbes, who was first in line at Maust’s. “I can’t find eggs at the groceries somedays, so I come here. Yes, I have to wait, but it’s cheaper and local.”
While egg prices have leveled a bit, it’s still a drastic jump from an average of $2.89 at this time last year.
This has left people shuffling between grocery stores across Southern California only to find shelves almost completely empty, or with sticker shock when the only ones available are pricier options.
Customers shop for eggs and poultry at Maust’s California Poultry in Chino on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023. The price of eggs has increased over the last year due to an avian flu outbreak that has affected chicken farms nationwide. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
All of this has led to some grocery stores rationing egg supplies, limiting customers to one or two cartons apiece. And as eggs are a major ingredient in products, other food items such as baked goods and mayonnaise, have also seen a price hike.
That drastic change in the egg landscape matters for families like Forbes’ who say rising food costs the past three years have profoundly changed her grocery shopping habits.
“I’m always looking for ways to spend less at the market but with egg prices now, it just means more money on food,” Forbes said as she put her young daughter in the backseat of her car. “Everything is increasing right now in value but I did not expect eggs to be one of them. But what can you do?”
A case of the chicken flu
So what’s causing this drastic change in egg costs?
Over 58 million birds have been infected with avian flu as of February 1, the agency said. The prior record was set in 2015, when 50.5 million birds died.
Paul Maust, assistant manager, carries a hen at Maust’s California Poultry in Chino on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023. The price of eggs has increased over the last year due to an avian flu outbreak that has affected chicken farms nationwide. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
These infected birds must be slaughtered, causing egg supplies to fall and prices to surge.
This includes millions of cage-free hens California relies on to comply with Proposition 12, which voters approved in 2018 and phased out caged housing systems altogether. It also requires producers from other states to not use cages if they want to sell their eggs here.
Since its passage, six other states have enacted laws that ban cages for egg-laying hens,. Three of those bans are now in effect, including in Colorado and Washington, where conventional eggs were prohibited starting Jan. 1
But with a majority of U.S. eggs still produced in the conventional way, the demand for cage-free eggs far outstrips what farms can supply.
Paul Maust, assistant manager at Maust’s California Poultry, has seen this firsthand.
The state is the largest consumer of eggs in the nation because of the population size, he said, but “now there’s less and less farmers here because there are so many regulations and rules.”
There is also no straight answer to when or if prices will drop back to 2022 prices, said Maust, who thinks costs will fluctuate as long as the avian flu affects supply nationwide. Sellers have to replace chickens and that takes time to start producing eggs.
Cashier Beatriz Quezada, left, sells eggs at Maust’s California Poultry in Chino on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023. The price of eggs has increased over the last year due to an avian flu outbreak that has affected chicken farms nationwide. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
While California egg farms, like his, haven’t been affected by the avian flu, he said customer volume now is higher than any time he can remember.
“We have about 90,000 birds total and we’re constantly bringing eggs from each our three farms, selling quick every day basically,” Maust said as a line of customers stretched around out the door on a recent January morning. “We’re getting probably about 1,500 to 2,000 people daily but this time last year, it was max 800.”
Mouw, the other egg farm owner up the street, has seen the same. Operating the business for 31 years and Mouw has “never had it like this before,” he said.
Billy Mouw sells flats of egss as cars line up at his Billy’s Egg Farm drive-thru in Chino on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023. The price of eggs has increased over the last year due to an avian flu outbreak that has affected chicken farms nationwide. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
“We still sell around the same but back then it would sell out at 5 p.m. and now, we’re rarely make it to 2 p.m,” Mouw said. “People are coming from across SoCal. We even had customers from Palm Springs last week.”
The recent demand in eggs has also led some households in the region to look for alternative ways to get their yolk fix.
In El Sereno, a mostly working class Latino neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles, Kit and Naoko Mccall have been supplying eggs from their small urban backyard farm for the past six years. The couple has 34 chickens and sell eggs the same day they are laid.
Dubbed EggSereno, their small business is run through word of mouth and direct messages on Instagram. But interest in their small operation has picked up, evident by a waitlist that’s currently over 100 people long, Kit said by phone last month.
A local family picks up a dozen eggs from EggSereno, a small local backyard operation in El Sereno that has been selling eggs for the past six years. (Courtesy of EggSereno/Instagram)
“We just love people coming by and meeting the source of their eggs,” said Kit, a local full-time teacher. “We teach kids about chickens and get to know our neighbors along the way.
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The business “is not a profitable operation but it’s rewarding to provide quality eggs,” to the community, Kit said.
In the city of Riverside, Mark Sessa, 55, jumped in on the egg business more recently when neighbors began knocking on his door asking about his backyard chickens.
“It was just past 30 days when they started selling them,” Sessa said. “I didn’t even know there was a shortage.”
He’s had chickens for the past 14 years, averaging around 10 total hens and producing eight to 11 eggs a day.
“Upkeep isn’t bad and it’s nice having chickens knowing how crazy it is out there right now with prices,” Sessa said.
While backyard chicken operations aren’t new, they’ve increasingly piqued interest since the start of the pandemic. People loaded up and in some cases hoarded supplies, including eggs, as the COVID-19 outbreak spread and orders to shelter in place were enacted.
Panic during the early days of the pandemic has waned, but Google search interest in “raising chickens” has jumped noticeably from a year ago.
That may be a reflection of the rapid inflation for eggs and people looking to save long term, Muast said.
Bernadette Arreguin Casiano’s backyard in Hacienda Heights is home to a chicken coop that has 30 hens and two roosters , one who is seen in the center of the maddness on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. (Photo by Anjali Sharif-Paul, The Sun/SCNG)
Most recently, he’s a seen an influx of curious customers inquiring on buying chickens and how they can start their own farm at home. Muast’s sells chickens of all sizes and breeds, he said.
“They say the prices are too high, so they want to see what they can do with live chickens,” Maust said. “It’s been happening more often than not.”
‘Eggs are essential’
For Bernadette Casiano, 51, she was ahead of the curve when it came to backyard chicken farms. The full-time nurse has been running a backyard operation at her Hacienda Heights property since 2014 and selling eggs to friends the past four years.
Bernadette Arreguin Casiano has raised chickens before the shortage and will continue to do so. She stands proud in her home garden in Hacienda Heights with one of her favorites, Sunny on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. (Photo by Anjali Sharif-Paul, The Sun/SCNG)
Casiano calls her urban farm her “homestead,” that’s currently filled with 20 hens. She even has a YouTube page that gives tips on how to grow vegetables and take care of chickens.
“I remember I was a little girl and one of my earliest memories was that my grandma had a chicken coop in her backyard,” Casiano said by phone last month. “That’s where it all started.”
But recently, her love of chickens has translated to a booming side hustle, something she never expected.
Casiano’s phone and Facebook account has been overwhelmed with interested buyers looking for eggs, which have become a hot commodity. A dozen eggs for $8 is a deal that many will pay right now, she said.
One of Bernadette Arreguin Casiano’s evolving hobbies is raising chickens, she feeds them nutritious grains as well as a compostable kitchen and garden waste in her backyard in Hacienda Heights on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. (Photo by Anjali Sharif-Paul, The Sun/SCNG)
“I looked at my chickens the other day and said ‘I knew you guys will pay off one day,’ ” Casiano said. “People know now me as the crazy homestead lady and that’s OK.”
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The spike in egg prices has provided Casiano with a new perspective on being prepared for whenever the next shortage of food product comes around. It’s something she hopes others will also learn from.
“I think as the world changes, all of us have to look at where our food is coming from and how we can be more sustainable and prepared,” Casiano said. “Eggs are essential to a lot of people and I think many are just realizing that out now for the first time.”