1916 Eggs

1916 was a very good year for American farmers. Crops were abundant. The growing population in the cities clamored for more food, and improved transportation systems got it there faster and fresher. Even so, eggs remained a seasonal product, and they came from small flocks kept on pasture. Soon, that would change. Cold storage units were being built, so that summer eggs could be sold in the winter. Confinement systems were on the horizon, so that eggs would come from factories, not farms. But, in 1916, a farmer could keep a few hundred hens as part of a diversified farm, and make a good living.

In NYC, a dozen eggs sold for 31¢. That’s $6.22 in today’s dollars. Eggs were valued and not yet a cheap commodity. Of course, the farmer didn’t see the full 31¢. It would have taken as many as 5 middlemen to get that egg to market. Still, the farmer would have received 20¢ – about $4.00 today. $4.00 isn’t bad – it’s about what those of us who keep backyard hens sell our eggs for, and, as my numbers in my previous post showed, it’s enough to cover feed costs and then some.

But, why is it that the “organic” eggs being produced today and sold by huge corporations are getting the same price that I am, and the same that a small farmer in 1916 did? Don’t these huge modern concerns have economies of scale? Haven’t they crowded their hens into buildings that hold tens of thousands of birds? There’s a reason why the company that was cited for the salmonella outbreak this winter also produces “cage-free” eggs. It’s not because they care about their hens’ welfare. No, it’s because there’s money in it. The profit margin for “organic” is much larger than that for the usual carton of supermarket eggs. It infuriates me that these businesses claim “happy hens” and “farm fresh” on their packages, and illustrate the cartons with pictures of hens on grass. It goes beyond false advertising. It undercuts the small farmer, and makes it that much more difficult for the true farmer to explain the value of their product to the consumer.

The USDA cares nothing about these issues. The egg grading system (you know, “USDA Grade A Eggs”) was begun as a marketing tool for egg producers. It guaranteed the freshness of eggs traveling distances and coming out of cold storage. Plant inspectors look at the eggs, not the farms or the feed the hens eat. That’s still how it functions today. The term “organic” is regulated, but if you think an organic farm is anything like your backyard, or even like a 1916 farm, think again. It’s basically “cage-free” with better food.

I’ll be ranting about this more in the future. We’re working on an app that will help people find out exactly where the eggs they’re buying come from. And how fresh they are. It’s not an easy project. There’s a lot of research to be done and software code to write. There’s no master list of egg farms out there. There’s no accountability. We’ll be changing that as best we can. Hopefully, I’ll have something to announce by springtime.

(What I know about 1916 comes from several sources. One is “Poultry Breeding and Management” by James Dryden, a professor of Poultry Husbandry at the the Oregon Agricultural College. Published in 1918.)


  1. Such an interesting topic. When I can, I go up to a farm by Princeton, NJ called Cherry Grove Farms. They are a small operation and pasturize their chickens when it’s warm and keep them in barns when it’s cold. Their eggs are $5 a dozen, but oh so worth it.


    When I can’t get there, I go to Whole Foods and buy the Giving Nature brand which is certified humaine. I don’t know what else I could do. In a pinch, I’ll buy the Organic Valley brand (the only kind I’ll buy from the supermarket). Am I buying the right brands?

    It’s amazing how different the ones from Cherry Grove are from the rest of the, supposedly ethical, places. The yolks are huge and dark gold. So worth the expense.

    Sorry for the long post. I’m looking forward to your app.

    • Sara- I went to the Cherry Grove site. Wonderful farm. My “Poultry Breeding and Management” book has plans for that exact housing. Of course, I bet the farmers in 1919 would have like the portable electric fencing!
      Cornucopia gives Organic Valley a 3 out of 5 rating. A step better than factory-farmed. Doesn’t hold a candle to Cherry Grove.

  2. BRAVO!

    I’ve been on my high horse about eggs for about a year now, telling everyone I know to buy only truly free range eggs. A site I found that has helped is EatHumane at http://www.eathumane.org/

    This article in the New York Times was great. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/15/weekinreview/15marsh.html?_r=1&scp=3&sq=battery%20cages&st=cse

    I saved one page of it that doesn’t translate well to the web where it showed the outline of the 8″x8″ caged hens get and the 11″x11″ cage-free hens get.

    I have backyard hens now and get additional eggs from a CSA once a month. All of my eggs are now truly free range.

    • Hi Scott- I’ve given a quick look over the eathumane site. I’m always cautious about such organizations because often they have an underlying agenda that is anti-farming, or anti-companion animal (or zoo, etc.) They do have a useful page which defines some of those quasi-meaningful terms, like “cage-free.”

  3. Terry i heard that they developed a featherless chicken for their meat so they dont have to pluvk the feathers. They are kept in cold factorys and get so cold they freeze to death. They are not selling the live chickens to the public though. Its so in humane

    • Jam- yes, they’ve tried to develop featherless chickens, but it wasn’t economically sound. None exist that I know of. There is a breed of chicken with a featherless neck – amazingly cold-hardy and good layers. I think they’re ugly, but a friend loves hers!

  4. Terry — I have been buying my eggs (and chicken and pork) from Pete & Jen’s Backyard Birds. As you may know, they are taking a well-deserved vacation this winter and will re-open in March. In the interim I have been buying eggs from Chip-In Farms in Bedford (local but not organic) at Verrill’s or organics from Whole Foods. Any suggestions for better alternatives in this area?

    • I love Chip-in Farm! Third generation family farm, using the same well-ventilated, small coops that their grandparents built. Yes, the hens are indoors, and it’s not organice, but not crowded. Good people to support. I’d buy their eggs over Trader Joe’s organic any day.

  5. BINGO, Terry I’ve always said egg cartons were a classic case of false advertising.
    I have a bach. degree (plus numerous hours towards a masters) in Agri-Business and have toured many a farm in earning that degree and we once went to a religious farm in which (well before it was “the thing to do”) they sold eggs under the label of “all brown cage free”. Well, I took one look into that barn (no outside access) and couldn’t believe what I saw. I actually thought to myself they would be better off in a battery cage system. These hens were literally wing to wing, beak to beak, rear end to rear end. They were so pack in there that you could not see the floor at any point in the barn. Keep in mind at the time I was allowed in there hens were in nest boxes (I am assuming laying), hens hanging one by toe nails on the long window sills, perching on the platform in front of the nest boxes just to have a few inches of space.
    I asked the farmer how do you know when a hen dies, his answer and I’ll never forget it. Oh we don’t worry about it, the other hens ususally eat it. Ok, done ranting, sorry.

    Go get ’em Terry. Consumers have no idea how they are dupped at the grocery store. One of my favorites is “natural chicken” on a fryer package. I think I’ll pass on on the unnatural one. thank you.

    • Ken, as you know, but not the average consumer, “natural” on meat simply means no additives – added to the product after slaughter. Oh, wait, they’re allowed to plump with water…. It has nothing to do with how the animals are raised.

  6. To research farms I believe ethicurious.com was helpful. The best info I got though was from looking at the USDA Farm (Plant) Number on the egg carton. Almost all the Whole Foods store here sells is from the same number farm, despite hugely different labels and claims.
    Most of the claims about pastured and cage free and free range were total scam. Apparently the manager of eggs and dairy in the store didn’t know that.
    Check the carton number, then you can google map the farm and see an overhead view. You’ll see big buildings and parking lots; not a single area for outdoor chickens.
    It’s disgusting.

  7. Hylla, that’s a good start. And, a google earth map will show what a scam it is (to the point where you can see the huge open septic pits and the buildings housing 50,000 birds each on the “family farm.” But, the only cartons with P numbers are the ones that are USDA graded. That’s voluntary on the egg producer’s part. There is no master list of egg producers. Not yet. Aren’t you relieved you have eggs from your good hens?

  8. Campaigners against caged birds in UK and Europe can go here;


    and sign a petition with a few clicks to help support the ban on barren battery cages by 2012 – it’s under threat by farmers who say the 20 years they’ve had to change systems isn’t long enough!

    The campaign is by Compassion in World Farming, who appreciate that we still need to farm, but strive to make all farming better for everyone and everything involved. They might be interested in your app – would you extend your iTentacles across the Pond for us?

  9. I think all this is wrong i believe that everyone should have birds for eggs or for yard purposes anything. Also like it was in olden times have free range not to far of course and support the older and rare breeds. If you read this google the nankin chicken. They were thought to be extinct once there are about 2000 and i co own one of thoes its a rooster though but he is beatiful and popular with the hens but anywho if u can google the nankin chicken

  10. It gets my hackles up. I’ve seen these first hand, worked in a cage free house when in my teens. I find that egg cartons are a fount of misinformation. CAGE FREE only means the hens trample each other in less than natural surroundings. Free range now means they get a little ten foot by six foot “porch” stuck on the side of a windowless building so that 20 or so birds out of thousands get a breath of air. I have to laugh, sadly, at the “fed an all vegetarian diet”, because hens are anything but vegetarian and these malnourished birds get soybeans, the cheapest drek possible to raise profits. All natural has no meaning that I can figure out, unless it means the egg itself comes from an almost living creature. Major brands tout the “never given hormones or antibiotics” when law says they can’t anyway! Other laws are stifling backyard growers or limit numbers to two or four hens in favor of “silent factories” housing birds that are driven to lay to death, forced into molt, or “all in all out” situations as if they were sprockets instead of living creatures.Farms are never found at fault until someone gets sick, then the blame goes to the chicken instead of the METHOD of abuse. Profit wins and the rest of us are bleeding heart chicken huggers. The customer needs to know the truth, informed through a mindful and direct program.

    • Lucy – agreed. Just one small correction. CAFOs CAN feed antibiotics, but they can’t feed hormones.
      As a side note, there are recent reports from third world nations about a horrific use of antibiotics -the farmers using even more than the generous amount cited on the labels. There are also nasty chemicals added to feed. When a problem is admitted to, there’s a black market traffic for the diseased hens and eggs. It’s hard enough to find poultry products to trust in this country. I’d be very, very careful about imported foods.

  11. Thank you Terry for that correction. It is Important to get the information correct. I wonder, are these antibiotics allowed as a regular diet additive, or only given when the birds get ill?
    I try to be very careful about where my food comes from. It’s difficult to avoid imported food, especially from China, as it is used as an ingredient or part of something else and the source isn’t given. From what I can find out, China growers are still using melamine as a protein enhancer for animal feed, and that will follow the chain to humans. Look at fruit labels in the grocery for a big surprise. Our own USA labels with fruit from China! I had family who worked in the processing plants, and know that Chicken byproducts, feet etc, are sent to China and returned as a powder for use in gravy and soup stock and as feed additives without source noted on labels. Ick. All for profit. (I just heard a radio program that states, women in Jamaica are using injections of “chicken medicine” that is used to plump chickens before slaughter to enhance their own rear ends. Sad and funny)

    • I read awhile back (so it was true then but perhaps not now) that the apple slices sold in McDonald’s Happy Meals are from China.

  12. Every wonder why cancer rates are on the rise? Look no further than your dinner plate.
    Recently a story hit the news locally about a suburb looking to allow backyard chickens and here are some of the “facts” from those opposed.

    1. They spread disease. Holy Holstien!!!!!!! I can’t tell you how many hen, pig, cow patties I’ve walked through barefoot as a kid and cleaned pens with my bare hands etc. I’ll say this I’m healthier then most “city slickers”.
    2. They will attract wild animals like racoons, possums GASP coyotes. HELLO!!!!!! thes animals are already in your well manicured, FERTILIZED AND PESTICIDED (is that a word?) suburban yards and neighborhoods.
    3. The roosters will wake us in the morning. Again pure ignorance in the purest form of the word. You don’t need a rooster for a hen to lay eggs. Besides that I would rather listen to a rooster a few times a day than the dog that barks all day and/or night.
    4. They smell. Trust me 3 or 4 hens will produce less waste then a pack a yippy chihuahuas. nO offense to the chihuahua owners/lovers out there, just making a point. I own approximately 48 chickens and 3 ducks in the middle of the summer and have absolutely no problem with smell.
    I just wish I could get interviewed for the evening news, I would definately ruffle some tail feathers and curl a few toe nails. ;-)

    Again done ranting, sorry again. But these types of subjects just get me going.

  13. You would think the humane society would be all over these places but no. I guess we have no real humane society nothing humane about these places. This is worse than those labs that test on animals. They need to be nicer to other animals they are not worthless. Some happen to be so intelligent we are baffled by them

  14. I think the people that run those chicken farms and see them and ignore how bad that is and how cruel just letting them die. I think they should go to jail on animal cruelty charges. I will be so grateful for an egg now knowing what they go through to give that egg thats there life i think those farms should be shut down and given to people like all of you who actually care and love them and not just let them die. Thumbs up to you all for actually caring and loving them. You would be a great role model for alot of people

  15. This isn’t exactly what you are looking for (or developing your app for), but just recently I saw a link to a site where you can type in your zip code and get a listing of all ‘factory farms’ in your state, down to the county level. This is more of an ‘avoid the negative’ than ‘find the positive’ but it’s a good start. Now where did I find it?

    • Kathy- much thanks for this link. Click around the site as much as I can, though, I can’t figure out where they get their info from. Great graphics, passionate site, but I’d like to see a link that cites sources.

  16. Terry, tell you girls that I bought my eggs today from Vital Farms, who earned 5 eggs on the cornucopia site. Expensive as all get out, but you get what you pay for.

    That factory farming site it interesting. My cousins live in Lancaster, PA. Those nice, Amish farmers have quite an operation out there. You can smell the farms even in the city. Especially the hog farms, which I’m sure are really substandard.

    I’ve learned never to fall for that Amish farmer thing. They aren’t the nicest to their animals. The Menonites have some of the wost puppy mills in the country. Thanks for all the information.

  17. Terry- have you read the info from The Cornucopia Institute? They have the beginnings of a list of reputable egg producers, and are working towards the same goals.
    I find it gratifying when I can enlighten even one more person about the value of small farm produced anything!

  18. Your app must be a huge undertaking. Have you had to get any legal advice for this? I’m really interested to hear more about this in your future blog posts.