The perspective of an egg farmer

The perspective of an egg farmer
I have been disappointed by some of the perspectives some media and consumers have when it comes to egg production, salmonella, and livestock production here in Iowa. Too many want to paint modern farming with a broad and condemning brush. I would like to give folks a different perspective from someone who is actually involved with the egg farming.

I am part owner and involved in management of an egg cooperative. Our employees take great pride in the quality of work they do and the high quality of our product. They have done extra work to help the business secure markets that paid higher prices for our eggs. A number of employees have been working there since the business opened nearly 10 years ago. What we have found is that management matters and if the employees really don't care, or don't want to be there, quality suffers. When quality suffers, consumers suffer. That doesn’t work.

University research has shown that salmonella occurs in eggs (approximately one in every 10,000) no matter what production methods are used. In other words; it happens to large flocks raised indoors in cages or small flocks that spend their time out scratching in the dirt. It is just a fact of life.

There are several vectors that can contribute to the occurrence of salmonella. Exposure to rodents and the presence of salmonella in feed ingredients are a couple of the main ones. It is virtually impossible to eliminate the exposure of rodents to grain. As producers we can only minimize that by rodent baits and other natural methods. This would be true in organic grain sources as well, only rodent baits would not be allowed.

At our egg co-op, all of the hens are vaccinated for salmonella multiple times before laying age. We have tested the eggs and the facilities for salmonella, and every house has come up negative. If we were to get a positive, those eggs from that house would only go to breakers where they are pasteurized. We also put our eggs in coolers at 46 degrees as soon as they are collected to minimize warm temperatures that might colonize bacterial growth. That’s good management.

Bad management appears to have happened at the notorious DeCoster Farms in Wright County. If they did indeed test positive for salmonella at any of their houses, those eggs should not have been sold into the shell egg market. Rodent control in the chicken houses is a constant vigil but they allowed it to be neglected, adding to the risk of salmonella contamination. Long after the DeCosters are done testifying before Congress, they will be paying the price for bad management choices.

To paint all modern egg farmers by the DeCoster’s brush is just way off base. The overwhelming majority of Iowa egg farmers, (both large and small) follows the rules and use good management practices so their eggs are clean and safe. Iowa's livestock growers care about their animals and the result keeps the animals in a humane, productive environment.

I always hated the saying, 'Don't criticize the farmer with your mouth full,' but I think it is good advice. The Michael Pollans, The New York Times', and the Jim Yungclas' of the world are so affluent they can make different choices than most when it comes to what they put on their family table. But the folks standing in line at their local food pantries aren’t so lucky. I hope if you’re reading this now, you’re not among the more than 111,000 Iowans who are “food insecure” and wondering how you can afford to feed your kids a nutritious meal tonight. Mandating one style of food production isn’t going to make eggs, much less anything else, affordable for these folks.

Iowa’s farmers are truly the envy of the world. I’ve hosted farmers from other countries who think that and I’ve traveled in other countries enough to appreciate the model of food production we have. To the world, the progress of Iowa farming is celebrated, not indicted. I pray we all keep that “world perspective” in mind when you shop for eggs, meat or anything else at your local grocery store; behind your purchase a hard-working farmer is proud of the progress brought by generations of knowledge and hard work.

Written by Gary Boswell.
Boswell is a fifth generation Iowa farmer.