Food & Farming

As Avian Flu Concerns Drive Egg Shortages and High Prices, R.I. Farmers See Increase in Demand

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Donald Baffoni, of Baffoni's Poultry Farm in Johnston, looks over part of the farm's flock. There are about 20,000 birds, which are raised for eggs and meat. (Mary Lhowe/ecoRI News)

While an avian flu outbreak has led to the death of millions of birds nationally, triggering high egg prices and shortages in grocery stores, some Rhode Island farmers have noticed an increase in demand for their products.

Since the outbreak started and ramped up over the summer, Pat McNiff of Pat’s Pasture farm said he’s seen a “slight uptick” in sales of eggs, and saw a big spike around the holidays for turkeys, which are also impacted by the disease.

Fourth-generation farmer Adam Baffoni of Baffoni’s Poultry Farm in Johnston said the farm has seen an increase in demand for eggs since the outbreak began.

Rhode Island has largely been spared by the national outbreak that has affected more than 57 million domesticated birds since the beginning of last year. The state’s only reported outbreak happened in October and impacted a flock of 60 birds in Newport County. (Nine more wild birds, which are counted separately, have been identified with the disease in Rhode Island, mostly in Washington County, during the same time period.)

Although the general risk of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) for humans is low and rare, “if you’re a chicken, it’s terrible,” McNiff said. The mortality rate for infected birds is about 90%.

McNiff’s farm in East Greenwich, as its name implies, pastures its chickens, allowing them to roam on an acre in the winter and through rotating acres in the summer to feed. Outdoor flocks can be harder to protect from wild animal contamination than chickens kept confined inside, so McNiff said they have employed a lot of vigilance.

Erin Diaz of Brushy Brook Farm in Hope Valley also allows her chickens to be on pasture and has had to be careful to keep the barnyard secured from outside animals. Brushy Brook also used to take in birds from other people when they no longer wanted them, but Diaz said she doesn’t do that anymore.

Since the federal government requires the depopulation of a whole flock when one bird has been identified with the disease, an outbreak at a small farm, like Pat’s, would be devastating, McNiff said. The government does provide economic relief for each bird that is killed, but McNiff said it could take months to obtain new chickens and for those chickens to then lay eggs.

Baffoni’s has also been vigilant through the outbreak. The farm receives deliveries of new chickens every couple of weeks and inspects each batch for signs of infection before they mingle with the existing population.

The farm hasn’t had trouble with their hatchery deliveries, Baffoni said, but they have refused some pullets (young hens) over concerns about infection. But despite as much precautions as a farm can take, avoiding the flu is often about luck, Baffoni said.

“If the wrong goose flies overhead and [poops] on your property, you get the avian influenza in your whole flock, unfortunately,” he said.

Baffoni’s is a larger operation than Pat’s Pasture, but both are small compared to industrial farms, so their price point has typically been higher than most of the eggs sold in the grocery store.

But with the avian flu and egg shortage driving up costs, both farms’ prices are more competitive with other brands, something both Baffoni and McNiff said is likely helping their sales.

“I don’t really look at eggs too often at the supermarket,” McNiff said, but he said it seems big-box brands’ prices are more similar now to the smaller and organic labels.

The average price of a dozen large eggs increased by 120% last year, according to a report from Vox, from just under $2 to more than $4. Signs at grocery stores around the country, including some in Rhode Island, have warned customers of the shortage and high prices.

Both McNiff and Baffoni said their prices haven’t had to increase as sharply.

“In the past, where our eggs may have cost $4 or $5 more than a dozen eggs in the supermarket, now our eggs are on par with the price you’ll find in the supermarket,” Baffoni said.

Diaz agreed that customers seem more willing to pay for the higher cost of local eggs now that costs have gone up for all egg producers.

“As far as egg demands? That’s out of control,” Diaz added. “I don’t think anyone can keep fresh eggs in stock.”

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