Iowa egg producer uncertain about school openings, organic livestock rule |

Iowa egg producer uncertain about school openings, organic livestock rule

Hens roam freely at Chester Yoder’s poultry farm in Kalona, Iowa, one of the more than 50 farms that supply eggs to Farmers Hen House.
Photo courtesy Farmers Hen House

The uncertainty over whether public schools and universities will remain closed this fall or stay open is a major issue for the egg industry, an Iowa egg producer told The Hagstrom Report in a recent interview.

“The hardest part now is gauging what it is going to be in the future,” said Ryan Miller, the CEO of the Farmers Hen House, a Kalona, Iowa, firm that buys eggs from small farmers, many of them Amish and Mennonite, in Iowa and northern Missouri.

“Who knows how long the pandemic will last?” Miller said.

Even if restaurants open, he noted, it will take time for the economy to recover. And if restaurants don’t open, people will eat at home more, which will mean the eggs need to go to retail stores rather than food service.

Egg producers, he said, are watching which universities are opening up. Public schools, he noted, are usually big buyers of eggs for school meals programs, so the back and forth about whether elementary, middle and schools will reopen will also be a big factor in demand.

Farmers Hen House sells what Miller calls “specialty eggs” — organic eggs that are cage-free, free-range or pasture-raised.

Because the company supplies eggs to restaurants, colleges and grocery stores, Miller said he was able to shift some of his sales from foodservice to grocery stores, where sales were up

He said he was also fortunate because as far as he knows, none of his 63 workers have come down with COVID-19.

“It could have been a lot worse,” Miller said, noting that he only sells a small amount of “liquid eggs” to universities, but that other egg companies that specialize in liquid eggs sold mostly to food service were hit hard.

(After a long campaign by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the Agriculture Department last week made liquid egg producers eligible for aid through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.)

Even with rising grocery sales, Miller said, It has been harder to operate the business. Noting that only 5% of his company’s business is food service, he said that when the food service business fell off in March, the retail demand picked up “so much and so fast there were shortages right away.”

Retail consumption went way up, then down a bit, but it still was higher than usual for the year, he added.

California retail customers have said they will buying more shell eggs because restaurants are still closed down, he said. The farms he buys from are producing up to capacity, Miller said, and if demand stays up he may have to add more farms to his list of suppliers.

Miller said that although he doesn’t need COVID-19 aid or qualify for it, he wishes President Donald Trump’s administration would finalize the organic livestock rule that has been pending for several years and strengthen the oversight of imported feed that must be truly organic if the eggs are going to meet USDA’s standard for organic eggs.

“I can’t think of anything COVID-related the government should do,” he said. “The bigger picture thing is I would like USDA to do what they can to keep the integrity of the organic seal.”