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COVID-19 food shortages: get a CSA membership, or maybe your own chickens

On the morning of April 9, a truck pulled up outside Kerry Mergen’s egg farm in Albany, Minnesota. Fifteen workers got out with hoses of carbon dioxide. They’d come to euthanize Mergen’s 61,000 chickens.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that Mergen got one day’s notice that the Daybreak Foods chickens he’d been charged with raising would be killed early, as food service demand for fluid eggs had shifted. Mergen said his farm wasn’t the only one in Minnesota. Four other, larger chicken farms also had their chickens killed.

Fragile supply chains crumble

By now, this kind of COVID-19 story is familiar. We already know that our supply chains are unstable, and food waste is on the rise. But it’s still alarming. It’s hard to imagine that killing tens of thousands of egg-laying chickens won’t have an impact on consumers.

Demand for eggs is high right now, but it’s also rapidly shifting. In the week of April 3, the average price of a dozen eggs peaked at $3.07. That’s was nearly 3.5 times the average price than a month prior. But last week, the average price fell by half. Eggs, like milk, cheese, toilet paper, and other grocery store staples, are on a demand roller coaster as supply chain issues lead to food shortages and surges.

But eggs from Mergen’s farm were never meant for supermarket shelves. They were set to become ‘fluid eggs,’ sold in the foodservice and restaurant markets. Now, though, restaurants don’t need eggs. No one is coming for brunch. No one wants a crème brûlée.

So Mergen’s chickens were gassed, loaded into trucks, and turned into dog food. His 22-year-old business disappeared, and probably won’t restart anytime soon, but he also doesn’t qualify for unemployment. Mergen and other chicken farmers could, in theory, pivot to fill the need for eggs in supermarkets. But that kind of change would cost too much to make sense.

That’s the human cost of this fragile supply chain. Not to mention the workers at the Cargill fluid-egg plant that shut down. They would have processed Mergen’s eggs (among 800 million the plant processes every year), but now the plant is temporarily shut down. Cargill laid off 300 workers.

Waste not, want not

If supply chain issues with all their waste and human toll have started to make you queasy, it might be time to move in another direction. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is experiencing a boom as shoppers are starting to get fed up with dangerous grocery store trips and empty shelves.

Here’s how CSAs work. Consumers sign up online, directly with a farm, to get weekly boxes of produce, meat, or eggs. The farm chooses what goes in the box based on what they have. Consumers pay a flat rate, which sometimes ends up being less than the same food would cost at the grocery store or farmer’s market.

With a CSA, everyone wins. Farmers have guaranteed income and get to start their season with some capital. Consumers get quality produce and a relationship with a farmer. The best part for right now—you don’t have to walk up and down grocery aisles in a mask to get the food. Some CSAs deliver, while others are offering contactless pickups.

It’s not too late to sign up for a summertime CSA. The USDA offers a CSA directory so you can find a local farm that works for you. Most states also offer their own directories.

Another option is to look for farms in your area that sell eggs, meat, milk, and other foods directly. There are cattle ranches that sell directly to consumers, as well as many households that sell eggs. This might take a little research. Some egg sellers just put a sign in their front yard. In many places, small-time dairy farmers who sell raw milk do so through the grapevine to fly under the radar of government regulations.

Time for a chicken coop?

Plant nurseries around the country are selling out of tomato plants and bean starters, and people have been panic-buying baby chicks, sometimes killing them because they don’t know how to raise them.

The Stoney Ridge Farmer has a video on how to raise baby chicks. All you need is a box to contain them, something to keep them warm, a feeder, waterer, and litter. The Brinsea EcoGlow Brooder is a safer alternative to heat lamps. That is if you can find baby chicks to raise.

Once you have chicks, you’ll need a coop to contain them once they’re ready to go outside, after about six weeks. Take a look at the Modern Farmer’s guide to building your own chicken coop.

An alternative to a fixed chicken coop is a mobile chicken tractor, which lets you move your chickens around and graze on grass. Living Traditions Homestead shows how to build one out of boards, cattle panels, and chicken wire in a few hours for under $100.

The Left Field Gardener has a pandemic vegetable-growing video that will stock your canning pantry for months to come.

David the Good also has a video on survival gardening in a crisis. His book, Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening is a good primer, as is Steve Solomon’s Gardening When It Counts.

Happy growing and eating!


    • Haus Monkey

      I wasn’t familiar with CSAs. Thanks, definitely worth a look.

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    • August

      Chickens are so easy once they’ve grown up. The hardest thing is keeping an eye on them since everything bigger than a bunny wants to eat them too. I personally keep mine inside much longer than six weeks. I usually keep mine in for the first few months. Too many things can eat them when they’re really little like crows or house cats.

      If you can, get a rooster for about every 10 hens. The guy will keep the hens from picking on eachother too much. He also finds food for them and (hopefully) protects them against predators.

      They love being outside scratching around for food and taking dust baths. They don’t go far from their coop so you don’t have to worry about them running away. Just make sure you lock them up at night in a secure coop.

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