Egg Farm Tour

by Ann on March 9, 2010

I got the amazing opportunity to to to Arizona to learn about eggs. Seriously. The good people at the American Egg Board and The Good Egg Project (via Foodbuzz) brought us to Phoenix where we learned about eggs and toured Hickman Family Farms.  Since that was the place chosen to host our tour; I figured they were the “model” place that hosted tours all the time for those curious about egg production.  Come to find out, that’s not the case!  Hickman’s have given a few press tours, but they are not in the business of giving tours at all.  Ooooohhhh, that made it even more fun!  The first thing that hit me (other than the smell of course) was how CLEAN everything was.  I couldn’t speak for all egg facilities, but this one, most definitely.  The outside fence goes on for miles for biosecurity - you let people in that aren’t authorized and they could contaminate everything.  No bird owners allowed!  Luckily, none of the bloggers attending that day were bird owners so we were all allowed in.  First thing once you walk in the door is stepping on the chlorinated tablet mat, in an attempt to sterilize your dirty shoes.  Not a bad idea for home either with babies dropping their pacifiers on the floor and popping it right back in their mouths!  Then, you must wear a hairnet and a robe thing to cover up your clothes.  I was afraid if I sneezed that I’d get thrown out. 

Of course, the most interesting part was the hens.  In this case, there were a bajillion white hens.  White hens = white eggs, brown hens = brown eggs.  Same nutritional profile, only difference is the brown eggs tend to be a little harder to crack.  So, there are six hens to a cage (I think?  The United Egg Producers animal welfare program says one hen every 67+ inches ) and the cage is slightly tilted towards the front so when they lay their egg, it will slowly fall into the line where the eggs are then whisked away to be cleaned and packaged.  Underneath the cages are long conveyor belts where the excrement goes and gets cleaned out once per day.  The poo doesn’t touch the hens below, don’t worry!  At the front of the cage is the feed, and the back is the water, which means within the pecking order of the hens, the alpha female can’t competely dominate the weaker ones because at some point the alpha will need to visit the opposite end of the cage for either a drink or a bite to eat.  Also, the beaks are trimmed (still plenty of beak left…again, not to worry!) so that the alpha hens don’t tear apart the weaker ones.  Really, the alpha hens will go after the weaker ones and there are casualties, but that’s more prominent when the hens are freely roaming and more difficult to do with a trimmed beak.  Luckily, the hens were on their best behavior when we were there and we didn’t see any hens down at all.  

HickmansTruck 150x150 Egg Farm TourI typically buy organic eggs, mainly because I don’t want the hormones and pesticides.  Come to find out, they don’t feed  them hormones anyway!  However, those pesky pesticides find their way everywhere.  As a consumer, unless you know the farmer, you don’t really know how happy these Cage Free hens are and how much time they actually get out of the cage, nor do you know if they really want to be out of the cage.  The mortality rates are on average, much higher in the Cage Free environments as well.  Plus, going Cage Free means exposing the hens to mosquitoes and whatnot, which exposes them to disease that is far better contained in the caged hens, obviously.  I’m not too sure why there aren’t any caged hens fed organic feed though…is there?  I don’t think so, but at least you’d have a cheaper egg since you wouldn’t have to pay for the higher mortality rates and the bigger land space of the free range hens.  So, you’d have a cheaper “organic” though not cage free/free range egg.  I hope I just made sense there!   In the meantime, I still buy organic eggs for the pesticide-free reason and hope the hens are treated well.  However, at restaurants, I chow down on conventional eggs without a second thought. 

Most consumers buy Grade A, large, white eggs (about 15 cents an egg).  If you are to spend a little extra on the Omega 3 eggs, you’re just paying more for a hen that ate some flax seed.  Personally, I don’t buy these because I eat plenty of flax/salba/hemp seeds and prefer to get my Omega 3s through fish anyway!  However, if you don’t eat any of those things, you may as well spring a little extra for those Omega 3s!  Oh, and if we all decided that we were going to stop buying conventional eggs and we wanted Cage Free hens, there would be an egg shortage and the cheap cost of eggs would go up up up!  I’m pretty sure that isn’t going to happen…at least in most of the US anyway.  People will do anything for cheep, er…cheaper food. 

Back to Hickman’s tour - this place was so clean and the standards so stringent I felt like I could Pull a Mr. T and start drinking raw eggs for the awesome quality of the protein within and not worry about salmonella.  However, there is still roughly a 1 in 20,000 chance an egg will have salmonella so I refrain myself from chugging them.  Um, and I don’t do that anyway.  However, I love a slice of toast with an egg over-easy and dipping the toast in the yolk.  I’m trying not to do that pregnant but do it anyway sometimes…shhh, don’t tell the nice nutritionist, Mary Lee Chin, that attended the egg tour!  One large egg has about 70 calories and 6 grams of protein.  Most of the nutrition comes in the yolk, click to learn about nutrients and pregnancy benefits.  You can eat an egg a few weeks past its sell-by date and be just fine (so stop throwing them out)- each state has different requirements.  When egg whites start to get watery, it just means that the protein chains in the egg white are breaking down, but there is nothing wrong with the egg.  You can still eat them, but these eggs are best for baking.  Oops, I deviated from the tour talk again - when they took us into their cooling room, where the eggs go after being cleaned and packed, they told as a very interesting fact!  Sometimes, the eggs at the grocery stores feel a little warm still.  That’s not because the store is doing a poor job of chilling them (I hope not!), it’s because the eggs are so fresh they didn’t have time to be completely chilled by the time they made it to the store.  Wow!  Can’t get too much fresher than that unless you have your own chickens!  On average, the time it takes from the hen to lay the egg to when it gets to the store is one to four days.  That is it.  Sweet.  Makes me want to open every carton of eggs at the store and feel for their warmth…except then I’d be contaminating the cleanliness that those egg farmers work so hard to maintain.  Beware: if you are at a grocery store and an egg farmer sees you feeling up those eggs…he/she will cringe with disgust!  You can bet the shells are clean when they get to the store, but you can’t help what consumers do once it hits the store! 

Speaking of cleanliness, there is even a USDA inspector permanently at the egg farm inspecting random batches of eggs!  Nothing goes to waste and for those eggs that aren’t getting sold in cartons, there is also another building where they hard-cook eggs and peel them- as well as a cracking and/or separating room.  Typically, the medium-sized eggs are heading up this section.  Egg size is entirely due to the age of the hen.  A younger hen will lay a medium egg and an older hen will lay a jumbo egg - and large is the in-between.  There is nothing nutritionally different about those eggs either (except of course a larger egg will have a percentage more protein, calories and nutrients and a medium hen will have a percentage less, but only a proportional difference).

The Hickman family is truly a stand-up, welcoming, classy family.  We met almost the whole family, with Clint leading the tour portion.  Here is Clint on an ad for Sesame Street!  I was so impressed by their graciousness, honesty, and community involvement, that if I lived in Arizona, I’d be sure to look for their eggs!  However, since I live in Omaha (Nebraska for those who don’t know!), that is not possible since they don’t ship their eggs this far.  I guess local is better anyway:)  We’ve got lots of wonderful farmers in Eastern Nebraska and Western Iowa to provide us fresh, quality eggs.

I am leaving so much out, I’m sure, but you can click on any of these other attending bloggers and check to see what they said!  I will also have a follow up post about the cooking portion of the trip, the cool stars we met, and a giveaway with that one:)  Also, if you’re hungry for more pictures, here’s a link for you!

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jenn/CinnamonQuill March 9, 2010 at 5:18 pm

What a grand opportunity for you; it looks like it was well worth it! I actually learned a lot from your post as well…so jumbo eggs come from older chickens-I’ve always wondered how that worked. Amazing how quickly they get the eggs from farm to store!

I’ll def check out the links as well-many blogs that are new to me!

2 Belinda @zomppa March 9, 2010 at 5:45 pm

Ann: thank you so much this insightful post! I learned a lot too…I too love my eggs runny…it seems unless you buy them straight from the farmer or at the farmer’s market, it’s hard to really know…..

3 Heather @ Side of Sneakers March 10, 2010 at 5:09 pm

I never thought about all the people touching the eggs at the store!!! Sounds like an interesting tour, thanks for sharing!! :)

4 marla {family fresh cooking} March 10, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Ann I love your re-cap!! Gosh girl, you are a great reporter. I felt like I was back on our trip. Great details. I am so thrilled that we had the opportunity to meet in person. Hope to see you again soon :) xo

5 Ann March 10, 2010 at 5:30 pm

I know, kinda gross since you don’t know where their hands have been! I’m a peeker, not a toucher!

6 Ann March 10, 2010 at 5:38 pm

Marla, thanks - I’m blushing:) It was wonderful meeting you too and I love reading your blog!

7 Lesley March 11, 2010 at 11:41 am

I was surprised that you wrote that the birds are given 67 square inches as if it’s a good thing. That’s less space per bird than a sheet of paper — and they have to live in such cramped quarters for more than a year before being slaughtered. They can’t even spread their wings without touching other birds.

This standard for battery cage egg production is illegal throughout the European Union, and California and Michigan have both passed laws to phase it out, too. It’s simply cruel and inhumane to confine animals in such tiny cages that they care barely move their whole lives.

8 Ann March 11, 2010 at 11:46 am

Lesley, I didn’t say it was a good thing- I said that is the standard they comply by with the United Egg Producers animal welfare protection program. Just stating the facts.

9 Denise March 11, 2010 at 5:56 pm

I love your blog and how you really focus on natural eating. I was really surprised you were impressed by this experience, it seems anything but natural… thinking of the “beak trimming,” small confined space they are forced to live in, and that picture… oh my goodness that awful picture of the sterile confined birds! I am vegetarian to take a stand against factory farming and this is an egg factory if there ever was one! Makes me seriously consider going back to veganism.

10 Ann March 11, 2010 at 6:12 pm

The cleanliness and the family - and how much the family cares for the community was extremely impressive and I wanted to focus on the positive. The number of birds was overwhelming for sure though. When I actually saw the beaks trimmed, I saw that they weren’t chopped off or anything and was happy that without the total tips of the beaks, that the weaker hens weren’t being murdered by the stronger. I think the best place to start here is petitioning the animal welfare program to give the hens more space. They were trying to be conventional and ethical as well. What I’ve also seen is some scary stuff with some of the organic hens, so I don’t really think there is a perfect option unless you have your own chickens, which I don’t have the land for! Or, if you just know of a local small operation- which is my personal ideal… However, I just wouldn’t want to put down this amazing family who is doing their best to feed the community at an affordable price for those that can’t afford higher prices - but I do hope that we have babysteps for positive change for sure. I won’t stop eating eggs, I love them!

11 Michaela March 27, 2010 at 6:03 pm

Loved reading about the trip, Ann! Sounds like it was a really good experience! I want you to teach me the egg flip - you looked so serious in the pictures!! Thanks for sharing!!

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