Watching the market

Over at the farm, the pullets are out of the brooder and into the regular coop, though they are isolated from the older hens by a bit of fence as the acclimate to their new surroundings. Hopes are high for the highest egg production to come this summer. Work on a new farm stand is nearly complete with final coats of paint going onto the sign that will alert those driving by on the road that there will be farm items for sale. The kids are getting excited about the possibilities for summer sales of fruit, flowers, and eggs. They have had a taste of honey and are beginning to imagine that there will also be jars of the golden substance to sell, though I’ve cautioned them that a harvest beyond family needs is unlikely this year.

I don’t want to put a damper on all of the enthusiasm, but the reality is that there are a lot of dynamics that influence farm income and many of those dynamics are beyond the control of a small farm. Months ago, when the new chicks arrived at the farm, egg prices were at record highs. They had hit a peak and cartons of eggs were priced as high as $9 in the grocery store. Across the nation there were stores with eggs at over $1 each, prompting local stories of a spike in egg prices during the Yukon-Alaska gold rush. The spaces that were normally filled with eggs were nearly empty and there was talk of a shortage of eggs. The price of eggs at farm stands in the area rose above $5 per dozen, with locals predicting $10 egg prices this summer. At that time, our kids’ farm was recovering from a predator attack that left several chickens dead and egg production fell below the family’s consumption. A year ago, people were giving away laying hens for free. The excitement about raising back yard chickens driven in part by Covid-induced isolation, had waned and there were plenty of folks who were willing to go back to the grocery store for their food. By spring, the market had reversed. When it was time to get new chicks, there was a shortage and a spike in the prices. Careful attention to the market and quick action resulted in the family finding the needed chicks and mortality in the brooder was low, returning the population of predicting hens to a higher level than last year. Egg cartons are being collected in anticipation of a supply to sell at the farm stand.

Meanwhile, the price of eggs is plummeting at the grocery store. Watching the volatility in the egg market has become as entertaining as watching the price of gas at the pump. The big difference is that so far the grocery stores haven’t erected huge outdoor signs with digital displays to show the price of eggs.

Last year, deadly avian flu wiped out a significant number of hens across the nation. While the outbreak didn’t reach the farm and we saw little effect in our area, it affected the prices of eggs both at the store and at farm stands. Producers, dealing with inflated feed and fuel costs, began to ask more for their produce as supply fell. Demand rose in the grocery stores as Covid-weary shoppers sensed a dip in supply. Nothing makes items fly out of the grocery store like empty shelves. Memories of having to drive around town to find a package of toilet paper spurred shoppers to stock up. Huge egg distributors, like Cal-Maine Foods raked up huge profits.

However, individual producers didn’t share in the wealth. They didn’t have the capacity to quickly respond to market forces.

Wholesale prices on eggs began to fall in late March and prices in the grocery store have been following. They are up a bit from lows in early May, but the shelves are full once again and prices are holding steady. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the number of laying hens has been steadily rising reaching 314 million in April. Last year the egg market was dominated by news of bird flu. This year it is dominated by the absence of the disease. Meanwhile shoppers, including our household, have responded to high prices by learning to consume less. The usual rise in demand that comes at Easter was much smaller than usual.

More eggs, less demand is a recipe for falling prices. A farm stand with hand-painted signs has to find its own market niche. A slightly hidden driveway means that the new farm stand at our kids’ place will be slow to find its clientele. I hope that the grandkids’ excitement isn’t crushed by weeks of unsold produce. The stand will have to have an established clientele for fall sales of dahlia tubers to occur at all. And, as I’ve warned the kids, I don’t expect the bees to produce enough honey to sell this year. The colonies are thriving and all is going well, but I’m a first-time beekeeper and the learning curve is steep. I find it very hard to predict what might happen.

A farm stand might be a good way for the children to learn more about the ups and downs of the economy. Failures combine withe successes as strong teachers. Farms are subject to lots of forces that are beyond their control. Predators and disease are big factors. Market prices are volatile. And as every farmer knows, success or failure is always affected by the weather. Spend enough time with farmers and you will either learn to be silent or hone your skills of discussing the weather. It is serious business in agricultural communities.

Meanwhile, I haven’t begun to eye the cost of quart and pint jars yet. I know that there was a shortage and a spike in prices when people were forced to stay home due to the pandemic. I’m hoping for a good supply at the thrift stores when the time comes. Glass is easy to clean and sterilize. I’m well aware that I’m no good at timing my purchases. I have, however, become quite content just watching the bees without any need to get ahead of the process without expectations of abundant honey harvest.

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