Back Forty Farms
Americans love eggs. And it is an all-consuming love. We eat about 280 eggs a year (more than half an egg a day).
But lately, this love is costing us dearly: the price of eggs has practically tripled since the start of the pandemic and the shortage of eggs is hitting certain regions of the country. This combination created a rare window of opportunity for substitutes.
The price of most foods has gone up over the past year and although this has caused a lot of shock and hardship for people across the country, the price of eggs has struck a chord. Eggs are often seen as a cheap and reliable source of protein – a go-to when other things get expensive.
When the price of eggs goes up, people get emotional.
“This is a hot topic for consumers,” says Bill Lapp, president of Advanced Economic Solutions, a food industry consultant. “It’s like driving down the highway and seeing the price of gas at $5.30.”
Of course, it’s not just emotional: the price of eggs has risen more than the price of almost anything else in the economy.
The reason? It has a lot to do with the usual suspects: rising energy prices and rising feed, packaging and labor prices.
Along with eggs, however, there is another culprit: a devastating bird flu has killed millions of chickens over the past year. The supply of eggs in the United States has dropped, and in some places it is hard to get them.
“A lot of people worry about not being able to get eggs,” says Ron Kern, a chicken farmer in Nampa, Idaho.
He hears this from his customers: they go to the supermarket and there are no eggs. “These huge freezers are empty,” he says. It worries people that the eggs are becoming hard to find.
This egg-essential angst gave Kern an idea.
Stacey Vanek Smith
Kern runs Back Forty Farms in Nampa, Idaho, where it’s 4 p.m. — time to feed the chickens.
Kern enters the chicken coop with a bucket of food and hundreds of chickens rush from all directions: descending from their perches, rushing from the outside.
Back Forty Farms
As the chickens peck at their food, Ron Kern and his son Tony collect the eggs – a mixture of green, blue, white and brown. They are very careful with them. These eggs are precious. Especially now.
A few years ago, these eggs would have been boxed and sold for around $3 a dozen, but these days most of them go straight into a freeze dryer.
Freeze-dried gold powder
Instead of selling fresh eggs, Kern now freezes most of them.
The freeze dryers are about the size of a mini-fridge and a row of them buzz around in a small building near Kern’s chicken coop.
The eggs that Kern and his son have just collected will be cleaned, cracked, whipped and poured onto cookie sheets that will go into the freeze dryers.
Freeze dryers reduce eggs to a bright yellow powder. “Looks like gold dust,” Kern remarks. “Guess that’s a bit of gold dust, isn’t it?”
Back Forty Farms
The proof is in the profits
Kern charges around $20 a dozen for its freeze-dried eggs. He tells me it’s a bargain: the eggs weigh next to nothing, keep for decades, lose no nutritional value, and come in a small mylar envelope, which is easily stored.
And, most importantly, it gives customers peace of mind that whatever supply chain disasters, deadly flus, price spikes and shortages the economy may throw at us, they will always have their meal. favorite breakfast.
The proof is in the profits. As soon as Kern started selling her eggs online, orders poured in from all over the country.
“The demand went crazy,” he recalls. “Every package we put on our online store was sold out in 30 seconds. They just… stole off the shelves,” he adds, “I’m not even a pun, but here goes.”
(By the way, no one, not even the authors of government reports, seems able to resist egg puns – they are inexhaustible.)
Economics vs egonomics
Basic economics tells us that when the price of something goes up, people buy less of it: demand goes down.
But eggonomics is another story, says Bill Lapp. Even when the price of eggs goes up, people buy them. It’s called “inelastic demand” in economics, which means it’s something that people will buy no matter what.
Inelastic demand is generally reserved for basic necessities, such as gasoline, electricity, etc. Eggs are an exception.
“The demand for eggs is quite inelastic,” says Lapp. “It’s a cheap source of protein, it’s convenient and consumers love to crack that shell and cook their egg. Demand has been slow to change.”
Interested in a mung bean omelette?
Demand can be slow to change, but supply is another story. The exceptional circumstances surrounding eggs in recent years have created a major business opportunity for food companies.
All kinds of egg alternatives have appeared: not only freeze-dried eggs, but also plant-based egg products. These are usually soy or bean-based liquids that look like scrambled eggs when you cook them.
For the first time last year, egg alternatives were cheaper than real eggs. And, unsurprisingly, sales of egg substitutes increased nearly 20%, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm.
JUST Egg, which makes a scrambled egg made from mung beans, is said to have seen sales increase by around 17% over the past year.
Right now, if you can make something that looks like an egg, tastes like an egg, and costs less than an egg, you can make a lot of money.
A surprisingly unscientific taste test
But do egg substitutes really taste like eggs? Do they stand a chance of getting between Americans and their beloved eggs? I got together some of my colleagues from NPR to try out some of the egg alternatives and see if they managed to crack the code.
I don’t think eggs are going to lose their superstar status anytime soon (one of my colleagues commented that plant-based eggs taste like potatoes, another colleague described them as “super interesting.. . but nothing to do with eggs”).
Stacey Vanek Smith
That’s all, the yellows
But fear not, egg lovers! The science is moving fast: The first plant-based fried egg has just been developed by a start-up in Israel, and investors are pumping billions of dollars into food start-ups trying to tackle the elusive egg.
One thing is certain: if egg prices stay high and supply remains uneven, customers could start looking for eggs in earnest.
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