Ryan Armstrong is a third-generation egg farmer in Valley Center but fears he could be the last in his family.
“It will put us out of business,” said Armstrong, a leading voice in the campaign against a Nov. 4 ballot measure that would force farmers to invest heavily to provide more space for caged, egg-laying hens as well as veal calves and pregnant pigs.
But Sacramento-area farmer Nigel Walker said passage of Proposition 2 would send a message to the egg industry and retailers that consumers are willing to pay a small premium on a dozen eggs in return for treating hens more humanely.
“Nobody is trying to destroy the egg industry. We're trying to take it into the 21st century,” Walker said.
He allows hens for his Eatwell Farms specialty business in Dixon to roam pastures. Eatwell delivers weekly packages of eggs and produce to households.
Farmers are not the only ones divided. California veterinarians are split, with those who mostly specialize in farm-animal care opposing the initiative.
“I look at the science. I do this every day. It would be a bad idea,” said Nancy Reimers, a veterinarian specializing in poultry in Gustine, in the Central Valley.
Under Proposition 2, farmers by 2015 would have to provide hens with enough room to turn around freely and extend their wings. So-called battery cages that squeeze hens into a space less than the size of a letter-sized sheet of paper would be prohibited. Alternatives could include larger confinement areas, cage-free housing in the barn or free-range.
Ixchel Mosley, an Eastlake veterinarian, is president of the San Diego County Veterinary Medicine Association, which has endorsed Proposition 2.
“As veterinarians, we took an oath to relieve animal suffering. 'Battery' cages are certainly promoting suffering,” Mosley said.
Proposition 2 also would require more space for veal calves and pregnant pigs, but those industries have a limited presence in California, and several major pork and veal producers nationally already are moving away from confining pens. The battle over Proposition 2 is mostly over more space for egg-laying hens.
“These animals are sacrificed for the benefit of people. The least we owe them is to treat them humanely,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, the initiative's sponsor. The society has spent $3.5 million so far to promote the measure.
Opponents are attempting to capitalize on today's concerns over escalating food prices to sway voters. They also point out that eggs produced by confined birds elsewhere could still be sold in California.
“Pennies, nickels, dimes and dollars add up as today's prices for everything (increase) – not just eggs and not just food,” said Don Bell, a poultry specialist at the University of California Riverside. “Unjustifiable cost increases are a luxury we simply can't impose upon the public in today's troubled economy.”
Bell has been drawn into the debate because one of his economic analyses found that moving to a more spacious system of housing hens would cost consumers about a penny an egg. Proposition 2 supporters seized on that figure as supporting their own studies indicating that a shift would not take a huge bite out of consumers' pocketbooks.
Bell said the penny-an-egg estimate is an oversimplification and ignores the estimated $50 million cost to producers.
“This is not a trivial effect for the individual farmer, to the allied businesses associated with egg production and to the egg-consuming public,” Bell said in an interview. The average family consumes about 1,000 eggs annually, he said.
Pacelle countered that the national egg market is extensive and would provide a buffer against sharp price spikes as California farmers gradually move to comply with the measure. Also, with restaurants and grocery stores adding more cage-free eggs, that market will grow for farmers, he said.
“It's doomsday thinking that doesn't represent reality,” Pacelle said of claims that grocery stores will stock more expensive eggs or buy from Mexican farmers.
California produces about 6 percent of the nation's eggs and consumes twice that, said Dan Sumner, a University of California Davis agricultural economist. Egg production reached $330 million in 2007, generated by about 5 billion eggs from 20 million hens. Of those, less than 5 percent were laid by hens not kept in cages, Sumner said.
Sumner, in his study, warned of high costs to the farmer. Those who shift to less confined housing could experience a 20 percent increase in production costs, mostly attributed to higher feed, housing and labor expenses. As a result, he said, California farmers could not compete with imports from other states.
“The most likely outcome, therefore, is the elimination of almost all of the California egg industry over a very few years,” Sumner said in a statement accompanying his report.
After 60 years in business, Armstrong said his family's Armstrong Egg Farm will be one of those casualties. He said it would have to acquire up to 300 more acres of land and invest as much as $15 million in improvements to provide the required space for the family's 600,000-strong flock, if the permits could be obtained.
“I just don't see how it's possible to invest $15 million and produce an egg that costs just as much as it does today,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong does have about 60,000 cage-free hens, but he said the eggs they produce outstrip demand.
“Now that the economy has slowed down, there's really too many of them,” he said.
Proposition 2 is filled with flaws and unintended consequences, Armstrong said. He said he knows firsthand that cage-free hens are at greater risk of disease and fighting.
“It's just unhealthy. The welfare of the chicken is harmed,” he said.
Walker, the Dixon farmer whose eggs are mostly organic, said he once worked on a ranch where the animals were caged.
“It was abhorrent,” Walker said. “If anybody who buys eggs went to one of those factories, you would have a hard time convincing them to keep buying those eggs.”
Walker noted that many chicken farmers already blend cage-free hens into their operations, earning a premium for those eggs.
“They have already shown it can be done,” he said.
If passed, Proposition 2 would be the most sweeping of its kind, Pacelle said. Florida and Arizona voters passed narrower veal-and pork-related confinement ballot measures, but they didn't include hens.
Fearing a national trend, dozens of egg producers across the country are writing checks to help finance the opposition in California. Rose Acre Farms in Indiana contributed $517,000; Midwest Poultry Services, also based in Indiana, sent $250,000; and Herbruck's Poultry Ranch in Michigan delivered $117,000. Moark, a western Riverside County egg operation in Norco, was one of the big California donors, contributing $215,000.
Both campaigns are using veterinarians to promote their positions, and not without some controversy. The American Veterinary Medicine Association is neutral but has released statements warning of Proposition 2's broad effects. The California Veterinary Medicine Association has endorsed the initiative, prompting about 150 farm-animal veterinarians to form a breakaway group in protest.
Reimers, the poultry specialist, said widespread cage-free practices could lead to more salmonella poisoning in humans from contaminated eggs. Chickens could experience jumps in parasitic infections and disease, such as avian flu.
But Mosley, the San Diego-area veterinarian, said current caged practices expose hens and the public to similar risks.
“I question how much of this (opposition) is politics on behalf of the farmer,” Mosley said.