Column: Egg prices scrambling budgets and business plans – Chicago Tribune

With egg prices climbing because of a bird virus that’s sweeping the globe, Ed Huss has never seen demand higher for his free-range eggs that he’s sold on Hankes Road in Aurora for 15 years. (Ed Huss/HANDOUT)
By now you’re probably used to those inflationary prices at the grocery store. Maybe you’ve even learned how to cut back on items, like sugared cereal and chips, that are already on your New Year’s resolution hit list.
But what’s really got most of us shell-shocked right now is the price of eggs.
Eggs, the oh-so perfect and once cheap and popular source of protein also goes into so many other products eaten in our kitchens and restaurants.
Unfortunately, what experts are describing as the worst outbreak of avian influenza on record is into its second year. This highly pathogenic HPAI strain is dropping birds around the globe from snow geese in Colorado to skuas in Scotland to penguins in South Africa.
That includes, of course, chickens from commercial and backyard flocks, 58 million of which have been wiped out since last February in this country alone, according to the U.S Department of Agriculture. And there seems to be little sign of this outbreak slowing down.
Which is why the average price of a dozen eggs in December 2021 was $1.79 and is now $4.25 per dozen, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor. Locally – I can vouch for this personally – a dozen regular large eggs purchased a few days ago at discount grocer Aldi cost $4.99.
That’s enough of a jump to scramble plenty of budgets, especially for those who are already struggling to pay bills in these unprecedented times that have seen inflation follow on the heels of a global human pandemic.
Of course, as commercial farmers struggle to monitor and prevent widespread contamination, it’s not just the price of eggs that are affected. Poultry itself has seen a dramatic increase in price, and products made with eggs, from mayonnaise to bakery cookies, are greatly impacted.
The price of eggs has been rising all over the country due to what experts are describing as the worst outbreak of avian influenza on record. (Matt Rourke/AP)
Aurora Cermak Fresh Market General Manager Marcus Sousanes admitted “it’s hard now paying double and almost triple prices” for eggs that are used in the store’s popular bakery section.
But what’s the alternative, he asked, other than passing along that cost to customers, which his store has decided not to do.
The prices of eggs on shelves, of course, have to go up. However, “there’s only so much you can pass along to customers before they won’t buy it,” Sousanes told me.
“You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” he said. “So we just decided it’s better to be damned if you don’t (raise bakery prices).”
Some businesses, on the other hand, have little reason to cry foul.
Ed Huss, who has operated his egg farm on Hankes Road in Aurora for the past 15 years, has seen a boom in business unlike ever before.
“It’s been crazy,” said the Vietnam War veteran who served as the grand marshal of Aurora’s 2019 Memorial Day Parade.
“Usually I’m doing half the business this time of year,” and ends up donating surplus to places like Wayside Cross Ministries and Hesed House homeless shelter, Huss told me.
A thousand dozen eggs were given away last year between Jan. 1 and the end of March alone, he said. But now his operation can’t begin to keep up with demand from customers, who are coming from as far away as Huntley and Chicago for these fresh organic, range-free eggs that he readily admits “are terrific” when compared to the taste of those from commercial enterprises.
Huss’ 700 birds, separated by age into four buildings and allowed to roam in the pasture, produce about 25 dozen eggs a day, which he offers 24/7 to customers in a self-serve system.
No matter how many eggs he lays out right now, “by the end of the day they are all gone.”
Huss insists he and his right-hand man, Poncho Flores, are not concerned about their birds getting the flu because strict cleaning precautions are already in place.
In his many years of operation – most of which with wife Judie, who passed away in March – Huss says he’s never raised the price on any of the half-dozen sizes he offers until six weeks ago when the cost of a dozen small eggs went to $3 a dozen and super jumbo, $6.50.
When I caught up with him this week, the egg farmer was again rethinking his business plan, not only contemplating another modest price jump but also adding ducks to his livestock because of the demand for their eggs.
This turnabout has even led Huss, who will turn 80 in September, to reconsider retirement.
“I’m fortunate,” he told me. “I’ve been blessed with good health and wonderful people who have shown me so much support.
“With business this good, it’s worthwhile staying in it,” he said.
The several restaurants and bakeries I contacted, however, don’t have some of those options, especially when it comes to raising prices.
“No one is going to pay $4 for a doughnut. So you just have to ride it out,” insisted Cermak manager Sousanes.
dcrosby@tribpub.com
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