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Extraordinary times for egg prices

A recently dyed yellow egg rests on a paper towel in front of different colored dyes at an arts and crafts space in Charlottesville.
Jahd Khalil
Radio IQ

It's unseasonably warm outside of The Hive in Charlottesville. A group of women are at the arts and crafts space to learn how to dye eggs for easter. They’ve hit a bit of a snag.

The dye for the eggs is a bit too hot. So owner Kim Anderson mixes in some ice cubes borrowed from a neighboring restaurant.

Then, in goes an egg.

“Alright we’re going to start with just putting this into yellow, and then see how well it works,” said Jeanette Sanker, who is running the workshop.

Each year around Easter, demand for eggs goes up. They’re baked into sweets, fried up for brunch, or dyed for decoration.

“Oh look at that…looks like it's taking very nice,” Sanker said, pulling the white and yellow egg out of the dye.

Over the past five years prices almost double around Easter, according to Cobank, which lends money to farmers.

In Virginia prices vary a lot. The store brand carton of 18 that these women are using for their crafts goes for $1.89 in Charlottesville, but as much as $3.49 in Roanoke, according to prices for the store looked up online.

Inflation, the economic measure of price increases, is at it's highest in 40 years. Egg prices themselves are up nationwide, more than 11 percent from last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Virginia’s economic region saw meat, fish, and poultry prices go up by more than 13 percent.

This year there’s another extraordinary problem.

“We're having a situation in the United States right now with avian influenza,” said Hobey Bauhan, the head of the Virginia Poultry Federation. “There has been an outbreak that has expanded to 26 different states. Fortunately, it has not hit commercial flocks in Virginia as yet.”

Virginia hasn’t had any infections outside of a backyard flock in Fauquier County, but nationwide at least 11 million birds have been killed to contain the spread of the virus. But producers are being cautious, keeping outsiders out of chicken farms.

It’s something Virginia has dealt with before.

“I have - still have - nightmares from when I was governor in the early 2000s,” said Senator Mark Warner, who now represents Virginia in the US Senate. When he was in charge, almost 5 million chickens and turkeys in the Shenandoah Valley were killed to try and stop the spread.

“It was devastating 20 years ago, and we don't want that to be repeated in the valley.”

Agriculture is Virginia’s largest industry and poultry is its largest segment. It contributes $13 billion to the state economy, the poultry federation says. Most of these birds in Virginia aren’t egg layers though.

On a tour of Farmer Focus’s new processing facility, Mike Breeden took a package of chicken off of a purple conveyor belt. “So here is where the action happens, this is where Farmer Focus is produced,” he said.

Farmer Focus’ plant in Harrisonburg is relatively new chicken processing plant for the local organic brand.

Organic chicken is becoming more expensive at a slower pace than conventional chicken, said Kathryn Tuttle, the company's Chief Marketing Officer, citing numbers from IRI, a market research company.

But, companies like this aren't immune to the price pressures of the economy.

“Prices in organic grain were already climbing based on supply chain disruption and the war in Ukraine has only accelerated those cost increases,” said Corwin Heatwole, the company’s founder and CEO. “We are still months away from understanding the full cost effects the war on Ukraine will have on the price of organic feed.”

17% of consumers say they look for cheaper options during the current market, according to a survey by Purdue University. And advocates say rising food prices have been affecting those in need the most.

“We're hearing a lot about how the rising cost of food prices are affecting everyone,” said Cassie Edner, the director of Virginia Hunger Solutions. In her work she’s heard from low income individuals and those on social security benefits for disability or retirement. “They're all feeling the crunch with these increased food prices.”

If food prices keep going up it’ll affect these individuals and families more and more, she said.

“Because unfortunately the cost of living is changed once a year…So while these food prices are going up, these individuals aren't having the same increases in their benefits.”

Virginia recently expanded food benefits, but state budget negotiators need to resolve some funding differences. Also up for consideration is how much of the grocery tax to eliminate.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Jahd Khalil is a reporter and producer in Richmond.
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