In 2008, when Don Gilardi heard that California voters might dictate the living conditions of laying hens, he began to take a keen interest in chickens.
Gilardi, a Marin County rancher, concluded that the looming issue signaled consumers wanted a different approach to egg production. So he traded some of his sheep for hens and began selling eggs to Bay Area restaurants already buying his lamb.
That fall, voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 2, which in 2015 will ban most existing chicken cages. About a year later, buyers from Whole Foods visited Gilardi to see if he would sell them eggs from the hens he raises a different way -- not caged in warehouses but allowed to roam outside in pastures.
"I was the lamb guy and, at that point, I changed to the egg guy," he said.
Today Gilardi's 8,000-bird Red Hill Farms near Petaluma is a local leader in a fast-growing egg market, one where the hens spend their days in fields and their nights in mobile chicken coops. Pasture-raised egg farms rely on moveable electric fences, frequent rotation of birds to new grasses and a willingness by consumers to pay about $8 for a dozen eggs.
The operations are drawing attention for their strong growth and their high-priced products at farm stands, farmers markets and supermarkets.
"We can't keep up with the demand," said Bryan Boyd of Wise Acre Farm in Windsor.
Boyd and partner Raina Brolan began a few years ago with 30 chickens. By last year the farm had 600 birds. This year it has 1,200.
The hens, including white Wyandottes, speckled black Barred Plymouth Rocks and copper Rhode Island Reds, often can be seen along Arata Lane where the couple operates a weekend farm stand across the street from the backyards of a Windsor housing subdivision. Boyd and Brolan hope to soon keep the stand open seven days a week.
The pasture-raised operations constitute a small part of Sonoma County's $24 million egg crop, a farm segment that dates back more than 125 years to the development in Petaluma of the egg incubator. Observers say the growth of such farms demonstrates how consumers are learning more about the food they eat, with repercussions for farmers, food processors and retailers.
"I think it is even bigger than just eggs," said Julie Cummins, director of education for the group that sponsors the farmers market at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. "I think people are just starting to be aware of how their food is produced."
The group, the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, a year ago required that all eggs sold at the market come from pasture-raised operations. The change immediately affected one local cage-free operation, the Petaluma Egg Farm, where the hens live in specially-screened chicken houses but never step outside.
In the 1940s, three dozen commercial hatcheries operated in Petaluma. In 1945, the county's chicken ranches produced a record 51 million dozen eggs.
By 1993, when the county released its last official egg count, production had fallen to 14.6 million dozen. But the local industry saw a revival a decade ago when Petaluma-based Sunrise Farms began consolidating operations in Sonoma County from three other counties. The company in 2008 estimated that the county annually was producing nearly 40 million dozen eggs.
In today's supermarket dairy cases, egg cartons display a dizzying range of descriptions, including cage free, free range, organic, Omega-3 and pasture-raised. From the packaging, consumers often can discern little about how the hens spend their days.
Pasture-raised operations place the birds in fields to eat grasses, bugs and prepared feeds. Farmers said it takes much more labor to move the birds every few days in order to keep the ground from getting stripped to a moonscape.
Hawks occasionally kill hens by day. Mobile chicken houses keep out foxes, coyotes and bobcats at night.
Local dairy farmers are among those getting into the new egg business. Gilardi said he plans this spring to distribute pasture-raised eggs from six other farms in Sonoma and Marin counties. Perhaps five of the six currently operate dairies, he said.
Another such operation is run by the longtime McClelland Dairy outside Petaluma, which is expanding to 450 birds this year. Family member Jana McClelland said the laying hens complement the farm's organic dairy of 900 cows. The McClellands sell eggs and organic butter at the Sunday Marin Civic Center farmers market in San Rafael.
"The Bay Area is very conscious about what they're eating and this is what they want," said McClelland.
Little data exists on pasture-raised operations, "but it's a very small slice of the egg market," said Joy A. Mench, a UC Davis animal science professor and director of the university's Center for Animal Welfare.
Ninety-five percent of the nation's eggs come from large-scale, mechanized operations where the hens live in the kind of cages that Proposition 2 will ban in California. The other 5 percent involve various types of cage-free operations, including pasture-raised.
Christian Alexandre, 21, a pasture egg farmer and student at Cal Poly San Obispo, said it's natural to wonder why people would pay roughly 400 percent more for his eggs than those from a caged bird.
"There's no other product that has such an extreme markup," said Alexandre.
His family's certified-organic farm near Crescent City includes about 5,000 chickens and 1,500 dairy cows. Its Alexandre Kids brand eggs sell at Whole Foods stores as far south as Fresno. Earlier this month the farm's eggs were selling for $7.99 a dozen at the Coddingtown Whole Foods in Santa Rosa.
The egg operation was started in 2005 by Alexandre and another of his four siblings. It already has paid for college for the three oldest children, and the family is planning another expansion.
Chris Coffin, Whole Foods grocery coordinator for Northern California, said the company limited sales to cage-free egg varieties in 2004. The region's stores began offering pasture-raised eggs about the time that Gilardi's farm came on board more than three years ago.
"They definitely are a growth category for us," Coffin said of the specialty eggs. "People have really been willing to pay a premium."
Farmers and others say consumers pay more because they believe that pasture-raised means more-nutritious eggs from farms that use humane and environmentally sustainable practices.
"They're not just buying the egg," said Mark Kastel, a Wisconsin-based farm policy group that has pushed for stronger rules on organic farming. "They're buying the story behind the egg."
Unlike some other commodities, Kastel said, consumers can see and taste the difference. "The colors are brilliant. The flavors are intense."
Arnie Riebli, an owner of Petaluma-based Sunrise Farms, the largest conventional egg farm in Sonoma County, disputed that pasture-raised eggs are any more nutritious or healthier than those from caged birds.
And he countered that many more Americans are struggling financially these days and want access to conventional eggs because they need an affordable source of food.
"What about the other 95 percent of the population?" Riebli asked.
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