SAN DIEGO – With cartons of eggs flying off the shelves, local poultry farmers have been overwhelmed trying to meet the demand of consumers across Southern California, as the avian flu continues to handicap operations at large commercial suppliers.
But for these farmers, that demand has not just been calls for the eggs they produce. More people are coming to them looking to buy chickens to lay eggs in their own backyards.
“We have a lot of people that call about (raising chickens) in their backyard, trying to see if they can buy chickens from us that are already laying,” farmer Chloe Nevarez said to FOX5SanDiego.com.
Nevarez owns and operates a small egg supply business, Happy Hens, with her husband in Ramona. They have about 15,000 birds on their farm that lay about 12,000 eggs each day, which are usually delivered to grocery stores like Jimbo’s and Whole Foods.
“People (are) starting to want to do it on their own,” Nevarez continued. “I’ve talked to a ton of people who just want to raise birds on their own now.”
Eggs, which are a staple grocery for most households, hit a nationwide all-time high in price last month – a nearly 140% jump in cost compared to the same time in 2021.
Benchmark egg prices for Southern California retailers currently range from about four to six dollars per dozen, according to the latest market report from the USDA.
The highly pathogenic and deadly avian flu that has been spreading among U.S. birds is largely what’s driving these increases, as the number of egg-producing hens has dwindled at thousands of farms since the beginning of the outbreak in early 2022.
More than 58 million birds across the country have been affected over the last year, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Since October, as many as 253 commercial and backyard flocks of chickens have seen cases of the avian influenza, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, impacting nearly 12 million birds.
“Avian influenza, the one that’s going around right now, the farms that get it, it’s from one day to the next: your birds look completely healthy, (then) the next day, half of your flock is dead,” Nevarez said to FOX5SanDiego.com.
While the influenza has only been detected by the USDA in one San Diego flock, affecting about 150 chickens, many local farmers have seen a significant increase in the number of people coming to them directly for both eggs and birds.
For the eggs Nevarez’s farm supplies, there’s about a six-month long waitlist for new client orders.
“The people we already worked with, we’re giving them as much production as we can,” she said. “(But) we don’t have any additional production to have offhand.”
That’s why more people are turning to raising their own chickens in their backyard.
“The calls have been coming in like crazy, because people want the coop ready chickens that are already laying eggs,” said Renee Brandt, a local chicken breeder and owner of Backyard Chickies. “I would say that business is booming.”
Brandt says she’s seen a lot more first-time owners looking for a backyard chicken to meet their egg needs, given the high prices and low availability of the product in stores.
“I’ve had calls where people are telling me, ‘Do you know the price of eggs at Costco?!’ or ‘We went to go get eggs and there were none at the store … we need some chickens right now that can lay eggs,’” she continued.
Chicken ownership has gotten a lot easier for first time owners looking to crack into it, as things needed to take care of a few birds like feed and coops have more accessible.
Changes to urban farming regulations in the City of San Diego have also made chicken ownership easier in the area, allowing most single family homes with a backyard to own as many as five chickens depending on the size of the property.
Interested in owning chickens in the City of San Diego? Check the regulations around it here
While Brandt encourages anyone who is interested in chicken ownership to pursue it, she said even those with a handful of chickens right now are struggling to get enough eggs to meet their needs, as older birds go through a egg-laying hiatus during the winter called “molting.”
“Most of the chickens in our area are just starting to lay eggs again,” she said. “Even the people who have older chickens were calling me to get some of the younger chickens that don’t molt, because they’re saying ‘We need some eggs.’”
Farmers like Nevarez, though, stress that the current shortages are temporary and those looking to independent ownership of chickens to satisfy their egg craving need to be aware of the responsibility that brings.
“Chickens take about four to six months before they ever start laying eggs,” she said. “So it’s a huge time commitment to get more eggs.”
“The ranches will eventually kick back on,” Nevarez continued. “All of these ranches that have had their birds put out of production are doing everything they can to get back up and running as quickly as possible.”