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Why do eggs cost so much? The answer may surprise you. Find out what’s happening with the egg industry, the rise in chicken ownership, and what the long-term implications of all this might be.
Like most other products in the past year, eggs have been in the headlines as the subject of record inflation. Prices of the kitchen staple have risen precipitously in the past few months, leaving many consumers with flat cakes and empty breakfast plates. The situation is leading other consumers to take matters into their own hands, though, and start raising their own hens.
However, hatcheries have reported selling out of popular layer breeds, and the ranks of backyard chicken keepers seem to be growing faster than at any time since the start of the pandemic.
It’s no groundbreaking revelation that inflation has hit everything across pretty much all segments of the economy in the past year. The reasons for this vary from product to product and region to region, but the general agreement is that the main cause is the supply chain disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. The main cause of rising egg prices, though, is actually a different deadly epidemic.
Avian or bird flu hit huge numbers of American flocks in 2022; the implication of this has been the record-breaking culling of millions of birds to help prevent the spread. Laying hens were hit especially hard, while broiler facilities generally lost fewer birds, mostly because they don’t have to maintain as many birds for as long to produce their product; this is why chicken meat prices haven’t kept pace with egg prices.
It’s hard to know why bird flu hit with such a vengeance this year, or when it will happen again. A variety of teams and projects are working to develop effective avian flu vaccines, but they aren’t yet widely deployed in the U.S. and don’t protect especially well against the deadly strain that was prevalent this year anyway.
For newbie chicken keepers looking to save money on their eggs, it might be frustrating to know that the price spike is already subsiding as the bird flu outbreak recedes. Even with the huge number of birds lost, the rate of replacement in the industrial supply chain is so high that this outbreak won’t suppress supply for very long. However, knowing that another outbreak might strike at any time can also make them feel like they’ve made a good long-term investment: The next time bird flu strikes, it’ll be relatively easy to protect their small flocks, and then they’ll be sitting pretty as prices start to rise.
Prices for Chicks
As the rising prices of eggs have driven more people to buy their own flocks, the prices for chicks, pullets, and hatchable eggs have risen in turn. In fact, no matter how much you’re willing to pay, some prospective buyers may have trouble finding any stock available at all.
While this is undoubtedly frustrating for people eager to start raising birds or long-time keepers just looking to replenish their own flocks, it is unlikely to be a long-term problem. Egg prices have already started dropping since the end of the holiday rush, and the issue has been eclipsed quickly in the headlines and, albeit more slowly, in people’s minds. Although hatchery orders may have been pricier or harder to get this year, they’ll likely be back to normal very soon.
While it’s easy to draw a straight line between high egg prices and chicken ownership, and to look at the relationship as a simple attempt by consumers to save money, there are a number of other trends at play that observers should keep in mind.
The prevalence of backyard and homestead flocks has been rising for years, and it spiked massively three years ago, when the first waves of lockdowns rolled across the country. A lot of that first pandemic wave was attributable to people’s sudden boredom, freed up time and income that would otherwise have been spent on travel or other activities, and excessive use of social media, which features many cutesy accounts showing off chickens and other livestock as mischievous and adorable. For people who had long been considering getting chickens, it seemed like there had never been a better time, and to other people who had never really considered it, it suddenly seemed accessible and even easy to get a backyard flock of their own.
More importantly, though, the pandemic itself, along with the attendant supply chain disruptions, have fundamentally altered the way many consumers think about and interact with the market and its products. Things that seemed reliable and immutable were suddenly thrown into question—whether basic staples like toilet paper or eggs would be available and affordable at the supermarket, or if it would be safe for people to go pick them up. For many people, it was the first time their food security had ever been thrown into doubt, and it’s hard to quantify or underestimate the effect this can have on someone’s psyche and worldview.
All of that uncertainty likely primed people to respond to the current price spike by investing in chickens, which might have seemed an overreaction four years ago. Now, it feels like a sane, sensible measure to protect their kitchens from the buffeting of a supply chain and market they’ve learned not to rely on.
Making economic predictions is a notoriously difficult enterprise, and it’s also far outside my area of expertise. Nevertheless, we can look at the current interest in chicken ownership and people’s general relationship to the supply chain, and make some educated guesses about what it means for eggs and chickens in the near future.
Even if the current price pressure on eggs goes away, which it looks likely to do soon, the wider set of feelings and cultural shifts that are leading people to get chickens won’t be as quickly forgotten. In a world where people are less inclined to trust the industrial supply chain, they’re leaning back on methods that once seemed outdated but now seem more reliable; the increased interest in backyard chickens will likely be tied to a rise in things like homegrown vegetable gardens and self-made jams.
Whether this movement accelerates in the coming years or not will depend largely on what the industry does from here. Many brands have already leaned into what might be called homegrown-ness as part of their image, but consumers may still be wary of these brands if they can’t always find them on store shelves. All in all, the biggest change all of this may have wrought on the consumer-producer relationship might not be measured by those who have already bought chickens, but by everyone else. After all, the percentage of people who own backyard chickens as opposed to those who buy eggs in the store is still relatively small. The question is whether or not that small number will be the only ones still paying attention to the egg industry in a year.