The cost starts at the beginning

The Crack on Eggs

by Niki Patton

The Crack on Eggs

Elizabeth Cecil

Eggs: small, medium, large, brown, white, organic, cage-free, free-range, vitamin E and omega-3 added. There’s an old Russian proverb, “Love and eggs are best when fresh,” and while most shoppers would rather choose the freshest eggs, what often comes between egg lovers and their egg of choice is a major factor in the choice equation: the price tag. Eggs from commercial farms cost less than local farmed eggs, which is why some people make that decision to skip the local eggs. There are eggs that come from as far away as Virginia or ones that come from a nest close by, since the Island is lucky enough to have local egg farmers. Some may go straight to the source and buy from a local farm stand where they can hear the egg’s mother clucking in the background or watch her pecking for food in the farmyard along with her fellow layers.

Logically, an egg that rolled its way to the store from Edgartown or West Tisbury should knock the shell off a competitor who’s traveled hundreds of miles by truck or train. But the moving of an egg is only part of the difference in cost between a local and an import.

Ninety-five percent of America’s eggs still come from one of 250 commercial farms in the country. Visit one and you’ll be in the company of up to a million chickens, cage-raised in facilities of 20,000 square feet and more. A Single Comb Leghorn, the favorite commercial layer, will produce up to 250 eggs per year, the average number that each American eats annually.

Once you digest that one million number, it’s easier to understand the huge economies of labor, feed, and trucking that go with it. High volume production gives the seller another edge: large egg growers can make less than a penny’s profit per egg, but that’s multiplied times millions of eggs sold. (The country’s largest egg producer sold about 9.6 billion eggs last year.) All of this combined is enough to offset the cost of a long-distance trip, so it still might be hard for a local egg to compete in the price category, even when you add the import’s price for a ferry ride from the mainland.

But the mass-production numbers that keep the cost of eggs low are the same numbers that have made us aware of just what other costs are involved—humane and otherwise— in producing eggs on that almost incomprehensible scale.

Which brings to light the up-and-coming local eggs (our Island eggs), why they cost more, what that cost is, and what makes them so different from their commercial cousins. Of course there’s a chicken and an egg in both cases, but that is where the similarity ends. What’s different is where they are kept, how they are treated, what they are fed, and why they came to be at all.

Scan the dairy case of the on-Island supermarket that carries local eggs, Cronig’s Market, and, depending on the season, up to 30 percent of what you see will have arrived from within 15 miles of the store. That reflects the comeback of Island farming and a local merchant’s commitment to supporting this growing segment of the Island’s economy. According to Sarah McKay, Cronig’s manager, five years ago they carried eggs from three or four Island farmers. Today there are egg-wares from over twenty farmers behind those glass doors, competing for dairy-case sales with large commercial producers, (including that 9.6 billion egg corporation).

A local farmer can’t match the quantity of a commercial grower or make a profit on those margins, so they start out at a competitive disadvantage. But they do benefit from the short distance to market, sometimes just a walk across to the farm stand, and with it a lower cost for moving their eggs. Even so, if the only consideration were dollars and cents, it’s hard to say what a local farmer would have to charge to match the profits of his commercial counterpart. Many a local egg would never come to be, since the price would be unappetizing to anyone but the least cost-conscious consumer.

Fortunately, Island farmers tend to be drawn by a belief that the reward of being a small grower isn’t just calculated in dollars but also in maintaining roots, lifestyle, and ethics and in the value to the community of local farming.