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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