Saturday, August 1, 2015

Bird Flu Hits Fairs, Egg Prices, Restaurant Menus

Here's a story about eggs and the avian flu from Empire Farm & Dairy magazine by my colleague, Ted Booker:

WEST CARTHAGE — Black River Valley Farms, the largest egg supplier between Syracuse and Plattsburgh, has heard lots of feedback in recent months from its customers about how rising egg prices have cut their profit margins.

“I’m having some restaurants I supply saying they’re no longer doing breakfast specials because of the cost of doing eggs,” said Loren L. Roggie, co-owner of the egg farm on Route 26 near the village of West Carthage. 

“The wholesale price of eggs has gone up by about 50 percent this year because of the bird flu,” he said.

He said the farm, which produces 45,000 eggs daily, supplies mostly mom-and-pop operations across Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties — small diners, restaurants and grocery stores.

A highly contagious strain of avian influenza, responsible for the death of nearly 50 million farm fowl, has dramatically affected the nation’s egg and poultry producers across the country this year. 

The virus, which has been found in 15 states, has not yet spread to the Northeast and has remained mostly west of Indiana, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Monika L. “Moe” Harra, who owns Moe’s Diner on Factory Street and Friede’s Diner on Court Street, said she has been compelled to raise prices of daily breakfast specials by 20 cents because of rising egg prices. 

She said the two diners are supplied with eggs weekly from the Carthage farm.

“We’ve been affected by it a lot,” said Harra, who said she now pays the Carthage farm $1.89 for a dozen grade-A eggs. “They give us a break because we’re a little diner, but we’re now going to have to raise all of our menu prices. All items will soon be 10 to 15 cents more because we can’t just afford to jump up our egg prices by 50 cents.”


Though rising egg prices have been largely negative for restaurants and grocery stores that have turned off consumers by raising prices, the trend has been positive for the family-owned Carthage egg farm, said Roggie, who co-owns the business with brother Leonard J. and son-in-law Michael Lyndaker. 

Though demand for eggs has been slightly down from last year, he said, the business is expected to draw about 20 percent more revenue because of higher prices.

That’s because the farm, which has an egg-laying hen flock of about 50,000, produces almost all of its own eggs, Roggie said. When the wholesale price for a dozen large grade-A eggs surged earlier this year — climbing from about $1.35 in January to a peak of about $2.20 in May — the farm increased its prices accordingly. 

This week, the wholesale price in the region for those eggs has been about $2.10 per dozen, he said.

“The trend has benefited us, although it’s hard to say you’re benefiting from the demise of other producers. The higher prices will continue to help our bottom line unless we get hit with the bird flu,” Roggie said, adding that only employees are allowed to go into henhouses as a precaution against the virus.

The farm’s eggs usually are sold to customers at prices lower than the region’s wholesale prices, he said. To determine the cost, the farm uses Northeast wholesale egg prices reported by Urner Barry, a New Jersey-based publisher of food market prices.

Depending on the customer, “we sell them anywhere from exactly the wholesale price to anywhere from 25 to 30 cents lower,” he said, adding that its largest customers, such as Renzi Foodservice of Watertown, are charged the lowest prices because they buy in bulk quantities.

Profit margins on eggs sold to customers are ordinarily tight at the farm, he said. The farm, which harvests corn, hay and soybeans as chicken feed, plans to take advantage of better profit margins this year by investing in a new tractor and disc harrow.

“I’m 52 and have been doing this since I was 5, and I’ve learned that when times are good you need to upgrade your agriculture equipment,” he said, adding that his late father, Wilbur N., started the egg farm in 1959. “You also might save up a little for retirement.”


Roggie said he has heard from owners of grocery stores that consumers aren’t spending as much on eggs as they used to as deals have become harder to find. He said one local chain of stores, for example, quit offering deals this year.

“They used to have specials every two or three months on eggs,” he said. “And we’ve heard that if a customer used to buy three or four dozen eggs, they’re now only buying two.”

Deals still can be found, however, by persistent bargain hunters. The Walgreens on State Street in Watertown, for instance, is selling eggs at $1.99 per dozen this week; they are normally priced at $3.29.

Some restaurants, such as Crossroads Diner on Route 11 in the town of Pamelia, have elected not to raise egg prices — even though it would be justified. The diner cracks about 30 dozen eggs per week that are supplied by Black River Valley Farms, owner Robin L. Harwood said.

“If it gets too bad I’ll have to raise my prices, but I don’t want to affect customers and try to be as fair as I can,” she said. “You might have to charge an (extra) 25 to 50 cents for your eggs, but I’ll stick it out” until prices go down.

The price of Black River Valley Farms eggs at the Great American grocery store on State Street in Watertown has been highly volatile, manager Randall D. Lockwood said. The price per dozen large grade-A eggs, which peaked at $2.89 earlier this summer, is now $2.39.

“We’ve had to reduce our gross margins to reduce
sticker shock,” Lockwood said. “There’s usually a spike around Easter, but this is something I haven’t seen in the past 18 years.”

He said customers have become choosier about the size of eggs they buy. “They’re not grabbing as many jumbo size and extra-large eggs because of the price point,” he said.


This strain of avian flu started last year in British Columbia, traveling south along the flyways of migratory birds through California and making its way to the Midwest. 

It has been responsible for the death of about 48 million birds nationwide as a result of efforts to stonewall it, according to USDA statistics. That figure accounts for about 10 percent of the country’s egg-laying hen population and 4 percent of meat turkey flocks.

It remains to be seen whether the virus will spread to the Northeast, where New York and other states have taken precautionary measures to keep it out. 

Farmers and backyard-chicken keepers have been urged, for example, to stay vigilant for symptoms. Poultry competitions, meanwhile, have been canceled at all county fairs and the New York State Fair as part of a the state’s decision to do away with such events at fairs statewide.

Experts from the USDA have said the virus could be spread by wild waterfowl along their migration routes and into East Coast migratory flyways. Though waterfowl such as geese are resistent to the disease, they are capable of carrying it long distances. 

Experts believe the virus is not a threat to humans, and there have been no known cases involving humans in the U.S.
Roggie, meanwhile, said he remains hopeful that upstate New York will be spared the virus.

“I’m not saying we aren’t going to get it, but we’re better off than Lancaster, Pa., where they have chicken farm after chicken farm,” he said. “If they get it, that would be a disaster.”

*** If you'd like to read more stories like this, subscribe to Empire Farm & Dairy magazine. A one-year subscription is $50 and two years are $75. Send a check to Empire Farm & Dairy, 260 Washington St., Watertown, NY, 13601 

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