Small chicken farmer shares basics of egg economics

SPOKANE — Paul and Susan Puhek’s eggs go quickly at local farmers’ markets.

When they bring 20 dozen, they’re sold out in 30 minutes to an hour.

“I think people just really want the fresh eggs,” Paul Puhek said, while teaching a class on the economics of egg production during the Spokane Conservation District’s Farm & Food Expo Nov. 3 in Spokane.

“A lot of people like it because they want to support local agriculture in their area,” Puhek said. “There’s definitely a difference in taste. Store-bought eggs for us now are like ‘Ew.’”

The Puheks usually keep 50 hens in Otis Orchards, Wash., but are down to about 25. Puhek said they’ve been profitable since they started in 1995.

The Puheks want to cycle new birds in and old birds out, but Puhek said they’ve had difficulty finding a place to process their older hens. He called that the biggest need.

The Puheks primarily sell produce, with eggs as a secondary market. Paul farms part-time and keeps a full-time job. Susan manages the farm, including delivery.

Possible markets include grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries, co-ops, farmers’ markets and CSAs.

Puhek told farmers to start by considering market demand for their eggs to determine how many dozen per week they should produce.

Chickens can have a lay rate of 50 percent to 80 percent, so 100 chickens will lay about 80 eggs per day during peak lay in spring, and much less in winter time, he said.

Producers should also be aware if the market they want to sell at is seasonal.

“If you have a whole lot of chickens producing a lot of eggs and all of a sudden the market closes, it’s like, ‘OK, now what?’” Puhek said. “Chickens don’t stop, you can’t mothball the factory.”

Farmers should think about how far and how frequently they wish to deliver, and how they would receive payment. Most wholesale customers need an invoice with each delivery, and usually pay by check within 30 to 60 days.

Poultry or egg producers may sell eggs from their own flocks directly to end consumers from their farms without the purchase of an egg handler license or egg seals from the Washington State Department of Agriculture if they’re selling on farm or in CSAs.

Farmers selling eggs at farmers’ markets and through direct to retail sales, such as restaurants and grocery stores, must be licensed through the state Department of Revenue as an egg handler or dealer.

Local health districts have jurisdiction over farmers’ markets and may conduct market inspections to assure compliance with local rules and regulations.

Puhek also told farmers to calculate their production costs.

For example, Spokane County requires a temporary food establishment permit to sell eggs at a farmers’ market. If eggs are sold for $5 a dozen, it would take 32 dozen to pay for the $160 permit, Puhek said.

He doesn’t recommend selling for less than $5 per dozen at farmers’ markets.