North Bay farmers face high demand for eggs, chicks amid shortage
Most years, Franchesca Duval, who operates Alchemist Farms in Sebastopol, sees a spring rush for her newly hatched chicks, especially around Easter time.
But not this year.
“What I'm seeing is people ordering much sooner than years past,” said Duval. “I had an extremely busy January and February.”
Demand this year for eggs, and the creatures that lay them, is a result of the national egg shortage that’s been mostly attributed to the avian flu outbreak. On a local level, it’s not the sickness itself that’s the problem.
“People are preparing and bracing themselves for potential food shortages, because they have no idea what the supply chain is going to do,” Duval said, explaining her customers don’t want to deal with that anymore. “They want to be more self-reliant.”
First-time raisers are joining families that have been raising their own eggs for years for another reason, Duval said. She is seeing food insecurity worries being triggered by memories from the pandemic, when people were also panic-buying chickens for their backyards.
“I am seeing a repeat of 2020,” said Duval, the “head chicken wrangler” who raises 13 breeds of chickens with her husband, Ryan.
“We have breeds that are really solid for egg production,” Duval said. “And we have breeds that I would consider more pet breeds.”
That’s right, not all of her customers want the baby chicks for hatching their own eggs in their backyards. Some are business clients and others purchase the birds to be so-called “therapy chickens” to take to elder-care facilities.
Prices for her chicks range from $5 to $25 each, depending on the breed, to $150 for 10 chicks of mixed gender, she said. Alchemist Farms also sells gift packs that can go up to $225.
Duval ships both newly hatched chicks and hatching egg boxes to her customers across the country.
But not all hatcheries are allowed to ship, she added. There’s a specific certification hatcheries must have to prove their chickens have a clean bill of health.
“It’s important for people to know, if they do want to buy chickens, to make sure the farm is NPIP-certified,” she said. The National Poultry Improvement Plan is a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and certification must be renewed every three years, according to the agency.
Meanwhile, Napa Backyard Chickens’ customers are buying started pullets — young chicks about 8 weeks old that are ready to go right into the coop, where they will go on to lay eggs, said co-owner Karen Oglesby, who specializes in raising rare-breed heritage birds.
“We try to tailor the breeds that we have to be suitable for a (small) backyard,” she said. “They may have different color eggs and they may be different plumage. We also sell (the chickens) to a number of wineries (and) resorts.”
What started for her as an interest in raising chickens, over time turned into a full-blown business. She’s been at it now for 12 years.
Misty Pursell, a Napa resident whose family runs a hobby ranch, buys her hens from Napa Backyard Chickens.
“We like the thought of growing our own food without the chemicals, and Karen produces beautiful chickens that are healthy, well-bred and cared for,” she said.
Pursell is also happy to have plentiful eggs these days, enough for her extended family and neighbors.
“We love the fresh eggs, and especially right now with the price of eggs,” she said, “they’re like the golden egg.”
Oglesby, like Duval, is seeing demand from the pandemic-inspired boost in 2020 come back to roost. That’s because backyard chickens have a life cycle of two to three years, she said. Now those customers are back looking to replenish their flocks.