Egg scare drives sales for smaller producers

Billi Davis sells eggs grown on his farm in Palisade, where he keeps about 100 chickens.

An outbreak of salmonella from eggs that has sickened more than 2,000 Americans and spread to at least 22 states has some local hobby chicken farmers clucking about the benefits of locally grown food.

“We know our eggs come from the coop and they go right into the refrigerator,” said Sally DeFord, who raises four chickens in her Grand Junction backyard. “That’s kind of nice. We don’t even have to worry about (salmonella). It was kind of a relief.”

As of Wednesday, there were some confirmed cases on the Western Slope of salmonella from the half-billion egg recall. Reports also indicated some Mesa County residents may have contracted salmonella, but epidemiologists still are investigating, Mesa County Health Department spokeswoman Kristy Emerson said.

Investigators are attempting to track the salmonella from two Iowa-based commercial chicken farms, both owned by Wright County Farms.

Some local residents long ago read the writing on the wall that large-scale food producers may pose more food-safety risks, and they yearned to return to a more personal relationship with their food. That was the case for Billi Davis of Palisade, who raises about 100 chickens to sell eggs year-round to about 25 customers.

“We’ve lost control over our food,” Davis said. “I think people are more conscious of this now. When I talk about free-range chickens and eggs, it’s like I’m preaching to the choir.”

That’s not to say that small-scale chicken farmers cannot be susceptible to a salmonella outbreak. The thinking is that a smaller-scale farmer has more control over a flock and could more readily pinpoint and remedy the cause of salmonella.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chickens, ducks, turkeys and other poultry carry salmonella, but chicks may be most prone to carry the disease, especially if they are shipped several times before arriving at the farm. Salmonella lives in the birds’ intestines and can be spread by bird droppings. Salmonella also is in rodent droppings, and farmers often have to be careful to keep chicken coops clean and rodent-free. Salmonella bacteria can live in or on an egg, but refrigeration halts its spread.

A bird infected with salmonella may not appear sick, the CDC reports.

Salmonella usually affects children, old people and people with compromised immune systems with symptoms that include diarrhea, fever and abdominal pain.

There are no local numbers available that indicate more people are becoming hobby chicken farmers, but the numbers of anecdotal accounts appear to be increasing.

Matt Broe, general manager at Murdoch’s Ranch & Home Supply, 3217 Interstate 70 Business Loop, said the recession renewed an interest in hobby chicken farming. This year, those sales aren’t as brisk as the economy is rebounding, he said. Still, each year from March to July the store sells about 20,000 baby chicks.

Broe said he might consider ordering more chicks for next spring, but by then he figures this year’s sweeping salmonella outbreak will be a distant memory for most folks.

Murdoch’s chicks are shipped from a farm in Delta and from out-of-state farms, Broe said.

One indicator that more people are raising chickens is increasing sales of ready-made chicken coops at the store.

“It’s not just an old barn. These are fancy backyard chicken-hobby-farm coops,” he said.

According to Grand Junction code, residents can have up to six, small, agriculture animals, such as chickens on their property.

Customers wanting farm-fresh eggs lately have been clamoring to get their hands on local farmers’ eggs, said Melanie Ettenger, who sells eggs and vegetables at a farmers market in Carbondale.

“We just can’t keep (eggs) in stock. Honestly they’re almost to the point where they’re getting obnoxious about it,” she said about customers.

Ettenger works for Cameron Place Community Sponsored Agriculture, or CSA, which raises four chickens. A stockpile of eight dozen eggs will be gone in the next two days.

“We have four chickens. They can only lay so much,” Ettenger said.

Although people care about where their food comes from, buying from small farmers is also about food quality, she said. Small-scale farmers usually allow chickens to roam on pasture, eating bugs and pecking for food.

“They’re not shot up with hormones. The color of the egg is totally different. It’s a deep orange,” Ettenger said. “If anybody tries farm-raised eggs, they don’t go back.”


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