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.”

Alchemist Farm & Garden of Sebastopol in west Sonoma County talks about chicks. See this story on North Bay demand for chicks and eggs:

Posted by North Bay Business Journal on Tuesday, February 21, 2023

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.

Alchemist Farm & Garden in Sebastopol in west Sonoma County shows off the rainbow of egg hues and shades. See the story on North Bay demand for chicks and eggs:

Posted by North Bay Business Journal on Tuesday, February 21, 2023

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.

Alchemist Farm & Garden in west Sonoma County shows off its egg-laying hens. See the story on North Bay demand for chicks and eggs:

Posted by North Bay Business Journal on Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Specialty chickens

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.

“We have ramped up our breeding this year,” said Oglesby, who now operates her business in Santa Rosa with her husband, Jim Cutler, a Napa Valley chef. She also has a full-time job outside of Napa Backyard Chickens.

Oglesby has kept her prices steady, between $25 and $60 per started pullet, or young chick, depending on the breed, she said.

Shortage? What shortage?

Leslie Citreon, owner of Mill Valley Chickens, started the family-run business in 2009. Mill Valley Chickens raises heritage backyard chickens, designs and builds backyard chicken coops, and offers introductory classes and consulting.

Mill Valley Chickens also operates a feed store, where it sells a wide range of products — everything from chicken troughs and decorations to chicken tutus and diapers.

Of course, it also sells Mill Valley Chickens’ eggs, for $12 a dozen — a price Citreon said she hasn’t raised in years “but probably should.”

“A lot of my customers seek me out because they want to have ethically raised eggs,” Citreon said, “so they're happy to pay the premium.”

Mill Valley Chickens’ upcoming hatchlings start at $19.99 each, depending on the breed, though some are already sold out, according to its website. The chicks can be taken home 48 hours after their hatching dates.

Citreon said the bulk of her customers are in the tech industry and live on the San Francisco Peninsula or in the East Bay.

“They have much larger properties,” she said. “They all have their own chicken flocks, anywhere from 10 to 30 chickens on their property … because a flock of six really isn't going to supply a family.”

Citreon said she hasn’t seen any impact from the national egg shortage, and that demand has remained steady in her neck of the woods.

“Most of the eggs in California are not coming from the Midwest, which is where the factory farms are being hammered,” she said.

On the front lines

To date, the avian flu has killed more than 60 million birds nationwide — the deadliest ever, according to the USDA. In California, there has been one affected commercial flock, two affected backyard flocks, and a total of nearly 30,000 affected birds as of Feb. 6, according to the state’s most recent report per the USDA.

In the North Bay, as of Feb. 20, there have been 46 afflicted birds — 26 in Sonoma County and 20 in Mendocino County. They are not commercial birds.

Jonathan Mahrt, whose family has operated Petaluma Egg Farm since 1983, said he is thankful the avian flu hasn’t struck the family farm — at least not directly.

The hens at Petaluma Egg Farm are healthy, but they can’t possibly produce enough eggs to make up for the grocery-store shortage of commodity, or mass-produced, eggs, Mahrt said.

According to a U.S. Bureau of Labor report on Feb. 17, the average price for a dozen eggs in January was $4.82 per dozen, 250% higher than the $1.93 price set in January 2022.

“Everyone is searching out eggs like ours because they’re now less expensive than the commodity eggs,” said Mahrt. “(Our) eggs have become the cheapest eggs.”

Mahrt explained the lack of supply is caused both by the avian flu and a state law — known as Proposition 12 — that requires all eggs to be cage-free. Prop. 12 alone put a lot of the state’s egg farmers out of business when it took effect last year, he said.

The overall result is that California has been hit hard.

“The supply issue is even worse for California,” Mahrt said, “because California can only (accept) cage-free eggs.”

Petaluma Egg Farm has kept its eggs on the shelves — though not always fully stocked — of the independent grocers that carry its products, including Oliver’s, Mollie Stone’s and United Markets, Mahrt said. The family farm supplies mostly Marin and Sonoma counties, but also some Northern California grocers that include bigger operations like Whole Foods, Safeway and Lucky’s. It also operates its own store, called Skippy’s.

Petaluma Egg Farm began in 1983 but the family has been in the egg business dating back to the early 1900s, starting as a hatchery in Calistoga.

Today, the family sells five brands — Judy’s Family Farm, Rock Island, Uncle Eddie’s, Petaluma Pastures and Daily Egg, he said.

Mahrt said experts have told him they can’t predict when the avian flu outbreak will be over.

“It is a little bit of a wait-and-see situation,” he said. “Farmers are just doing everything they can to try to avoid getting it.”

Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and employment. She previously worked for a Gannett daily newspaper in New Jersey and NJBIZ, the state’s business journal. Cheryl has freelanced for business journals in Sacramento, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge. Reach her at or 707-521-4259.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the first name of Jim Cutler.

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