Day 240 of 365
Everyone is talking about it. My friends and family send pictures of eggs with expensive price tags. Eggs have been so cheap in recent years that people are shocked by how expensive they are right now. Prices vary by area, but as of December 2022, egg prices had jumped over 49 percent. It looks like the prices may continue to rise in the coming months. On top of the rising prices, I have read reports of egg rationing in some areas of the U.S., much like what has happened in the UK in recent years.
What is going on? Though rising costs of feed and supplies for farming are factors, avian flu or bird flu is mainly to blame.
Avian Flu Hits the United States
Avian flu has historically been relatively rare in the United Sates. There have certainly been outbreaks, but last year was a big one. Last year, anyone with chickens was highly aware of a deadly outbreak of bird flu in the U.S. Even here in Maine, a state that had been fortunate in terms of avian flu outbreaks in the past, there were enough cases of avian flu that chicken farmers throughout the state were encouraged to enclose their flocks, something that is not an easy task for most small farmers. While most of the cases here in Maine were near bodies of water, it was a serious scare for everyone in our state.
But Maine’s cases were few compared to what was happening in other states in 2022. According to recent data from the United States Department of Agriculture, an estimated 57.8 million birds were affected by avian flu last year. I don’t know if everyone else was paying attention to the chicken news, but it was devastating to read about the cases impacting large farms where millions of birds had to be destroyed. Sadly, they were often destroyed in some of the most inhumane ways. It was like a tragedy that just kept building upon the previous tragedy. Now, months later, consumers are feeling the effects of a year of epic loss.
The United Kingdom As Warning
As a chicken farmer, I have been following the outbreak of avian flu in the United Kingdom fairly closely because the stories have been worrisome for years–year after year of outbreak, flocks destroyed, required indoor lockdown for all flocks. These are things we are not used to here in the U.S, but scientists have been warning for years that the U.S. could be in for a taste of what has happened in the U.K. Year after year of outbreaks has led to significant changes in the way poultry are kept in many parts of the U.K., and even that is not enough. 2022 was a record year for avian flu in the U.K. According to reports from late last year, egg rationing was necessary in some grocery stores.
Bird Flu and Climate Change
You may be wondering why we are seeing such record numbers of avian flu cases, and some scientists point to climate change. At the very least, researchers know for sure that climate change impacts avian flu cases amongst wild birds. And this year’s epic outbreak of avian flu was directly related to wild bird contact with commercial and backyard flocks. Experts were not seeing cases spread from flock to flock. It was being spread by wild birds, who are often immune to the symptoms.
Climate change impacts migratory patterns–what birds come into contact with what other birds and when. On top of this, warmer temperatures impact transmission. According to a report from Arizona State University, researchers at several universities in the U.S. warned in 2019 that “a shift in the global climate could lead to a shift in migratory patterns, leading to the reassortment of these viral strains and increasing the chances of a new, threatening strain emerging. Higher temperatures are also typically more conducive to viral transmission and pathogenicity.”
What You Can Do
I have always been a supporter of buying local eggs from your local chicken keepers, and now is a good time to connect to someone locally who sells eggs. Even chicken farmers and homesteaders with small flocks will often have extra eggs to sell during the spring and summer months. Of course, these small chicken farmers are also being impacted by the cost of feed and supples, but if you are looking for delicious eggs at a fair price, now is the time to connect with your local chicken lady.
In addition to saving money, you will be buying fresher eggs that taste better and may even be more nutritious than the eggs you get a the grocery store. You will also be able to experience the beauty and diversity of eggs from a small farm or homestead. You will find eggs in all shapes and sizes and in a variety of beautiful colors from blue to green to chocolate and cream.
And, if you are ambitious and have been thinking about getting chickens anyway, it’s something to consider. Of course, right now, building a coop and buying expensive food may not be the best option if you are looking to save money; however, in the long run, you will be more self sufficient and prepared. And, more and more, cities across the country are allowing backyard flocks.
What the Future Holds
Because there is a connection between climate change and avian flu, as a chicken farmer, I have concerns about the future. The U.S. has been fortunate, but scientists have been warning that we may not always be so fortunate. This last year has been cause for serious concern. In an article from NPR early last year, Jonathan Runstadler, an influenza researcher at Tufts University said, “It’s somewhat surprising how widespread it is already in North America.” He continued. “It’s clearly able to persist and transmit from year to year in parts of Asia, Europe, Africa, and I don’t think we should be surprised if that’s going to be the case here.”
If we do see repeated years of avian flu, it could mean that eggs will be more difficult to get, even from a local chicken farmer, as smaller farmers most likely do not have the facilities to keep chickens in lockdown–or at least not very many chickens. If we had to lock down our chickens, for example, we would have to keep fewer chickens, which means we would have eggs for our family and a couple other families, but we would not be able to sell eggs on the scale that we do now. We would also have some very sad chickens who would lose their freedom to come and go as they please.
For now, however, I try to be hopeful, hopeful that we will not see a repeat of 2022 in 2023. And, for now, it’s going to be a really good year to buy eggs from your local chicken farmer.