The Milwaukee County Winter Farmers Market is a special space that allows you to eat local longer and connect directly with the farmers and producers whose great products you can purchase each Saturday morning until April 9th at the Domes’ Annex.
Many customers have farm fresh eggs on their shopping list, and if you’re an early market-goer, you can usually get your dozen or two. It’s been a frustrating discovery to many customers that all eggs have been sold out by the time that they get to the market. We asked some of our farmers to weigh in on that issue so everyone can better understand egg production in winter.
First thing to consider is daylight hours in the winter. Hens rely on about 15 hours of daylight to be the most productive. As one knows, we don’t see as much daylight in Wisconsin’s winter. Most of the winter it’s just above 9 hours of daylight, and in early March it’s risen to just above 11 hours. Many farmers supplement with artificial light in their coops so their hens will keep producing.
Chickens also lose their feathers annually and grow news ones, which is called molting. Molting occurs in response to decreased light as summer ends and winter approaches. According to Dave and Leslie of Meuer Farm, the molting on average takes 7-8 weeks, but can range as much as 4-12 weeks. During this time the new production of feathers takes precedent over egg production, and has a great demand on energy and nutrient stores.
Another thing to consider is temperature. Hens are trying to stay warm just like us in the winter. Their energy is more likely spent on staying warm than producing eggs, and they eat more to get that energy. Hens are also laying eggs for reproductive value, and they innately know that hatching a chick in the winter means that they’ll have a harder beginning at life, so aren’t prone to lay in the winter as much. Farmers will put heaters in to keep their coop above freezing so the eggs don’t freeze or crack and also so the hens’ water doesn’t freeze, but the coop isn’t designed for them to feel like they’re lounging around on a warm summer day.
Many farmers have pastured hens in the summer, and while often going outdoors is still an option for hens in the winter, they’re not getting the nutrients and protein from the grass and the insects they’d otherwise be eating in the warmer months. Since pasture isn’t an option in most Wisconsin winters, farmers pay for more feed in the winter. And our farmers care about the type of feed they use so they still have quality, nutrient-rich, healthy eggs; feeding hens is not low-cost nor low-input in the winter.
There’s obviously an additional cost in having eggs in the winter. As stated above, there’s additional energy and feed costs. Farmers also have to make their purchases of their hens many months in advance. One vendor, Jeff from Jeff-Leen Farm, places his order for new pullets (5-6 month old hens) in March, and picks them up in August or September to add to his brood. In October and November he takes out of production any hens he has that aren’t laying, hence the addition of more “soup hens” he offers at market around that time.
In relation to placing orders, Al Weyker of Lakeview Buffalo Farm noted that it takes laying hens 7 to 9 months to raise their first egg. The investment and planning of having younger, higher-producing hens for the winter production is one that happens the winter before.
Farmers are always dealing with unpredictability and change from season to season, and nothing can truly be planned or projected perfectly. Unpredictably in egg production comes in the form of weather, disease, predators, and a lot of unknowns. Jeff from Jeff-Leen is having his toughest winter ever with egg production, and can’t figure it out despite his many years of farming experience. Last winter market season, he was bringing 80 to 130 dozen eggs per week. One market day in January this year, he had 18 dozen. “His girls” started producing more, and a few weeks later he had 61 dozen. Al from Lakeview Buffalo Farm had 40% loss of his laying chicks this year, mostly due to the cold weather. And the hens that survived just aren’t laying as much either. He said they should have up to 12 dozen being laid each day, but only have about 3 dozen per day. Both noted, that even though the hens are producing less, they still have to feed them, so often are costing much more than they’re making.
There are of course regulations on small farmers from the state about egg production and sales. Egg producers that are covered by the law (all of our vendors) must adhere to the following conditions:
- Eggs must be sold directly to the consumer, not to a wholesaler or distributor.
- The number of egg-laying birds in the egg producer’s flock must not exceed 150.
- Eggs can be sold from the farm where the eggs were laid, at a Wisconsin farmers’ market, or on an egg sales route.
- Eggs must be packaged in a carton that is labeled with the producer’s name and address, the date the eggs were packed into the carton, a sell-by date within 30 days, and a statement indicating that the eggs in the package are ungraded and uninspected.
- Packaged eggs must be kept at an ambient temperature no higher than 41°F at all times.
The amount of work that goes into getting eggs ready for market is great. From caring for the brood; collecting and cleaning eggs; determining the size by candling the eggs to grade them (the process looks at each individual egg with light to see how big the air cell is; a much harder process with brown eggs) or weighing the eggs to put them in medium, large or extra-large categories; and safely getting to market (there’s bound to be a dozen casualty here and there). It’s a lot of work. Kathy of Morning Star Family Farm estimates that each egg gets one minute of dedicated labor to it. She says “all processes are done by hand, egg-by-egg. Including all of the steps from grinding the feed, feeding the girls, and collecting the eggs, to washing and packing the eggs for sale, there is a minute of labor in every egg we sell, or 12 minutes per dozen.”
Eggs bought directly from farmers cost more than you’ll see in the grocery store. But when you consider the above information about providing quality feed, good conditions for the girls, and labor, you can guess why seeing an average of $5/dozen is a norm. According to Lori of Soap of the Earth, “The high-value nutrition contained in a dozen of honorably-produced eggs, $5/dozen is a considerable bargain”. We couldn’t agree more.
We do hope that everyone could get their eggs at the Milwaukee County Winter Market, but hope you understand why it’s not always possible to meet the supply with the demand. We encourage you to come early and also to build a relationship with your farmers so they can do their best to plan for future markets.
Who brings eggs? And about how many (we didn’t ask all of them):
Morning Star Family Farm (about 12 dozen chicken eggs/week, and a few dozen duck eggs)
Soap of the Earth (about 10-12 dozen/week)
Jeff-Leen Farm (anywhere from 18-61 dozen/week)
Lakeview Buffalo Farm
Dominion Valley Farm
Meuer Farm (part-time vendors)
Article written by Katie Hassemer, Fondy Food Center’s Director of Farmers Markets. Any further questions about eggs at the Milwaukee County Winter Farmers Market, or other market inquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org.