How Are San Diego Farmers Complying With New Animal Cage Law?
Maureen Cavanaugh: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I’m Maureen Cavanaugh. Our next report has to do with the price of eggs, the humane treatment of animals and how California farmers are trying to balance the two. Now that Proposition 2 has finally gone into effect, you may have a dim memory of a state ballot initiative back in 2008, which asked voters to ban cramped cages and crates for farm animals. It was largely aimed at eradicating battery cages in chicken farming. The law went into effect this January 1, and while chickens maybe happier, the price of eggs is expected to climb up to 50%. Joining me to talk about the changes in California egg farming and the prices at the supermarket are my guests, Dr. Gary Weitzman, he is President and CEO of the San Diego Humane Society. Dr. Weitzman, thank you for coming in. Dr. Gary Weitzman: Oh, Maureen thanks for having me. Maureen Cavanaugh: And Frank Hilliker is owner of Hilliker's Ranch Fresh Eggs in Lakeside. Frank, thank you for coming in. Frank Hilliker: Pleasure to be here. Maureen Cavanaugh: Now Dr. Weitzman, the Humane Society was the driving force behind Proposition 2. Tells us about battery cages and why this legislation was needed. Dr. Gary Weitzman: Sure. But let me point out though that the Humane Society in the United States, HSUS, was really the main driving force behind all of this and we were great supporters of it at San Diego Humane, but we’re very much looking at the local situation and you know even its widespread as California in general. But we’re celebrating that this went into effect on January 1. And really what it is everything that we stand for is the humane treatment of animals and what Proposition 2 did was ensure that these animals could be animals. Chickens, veal calves, pigs predominantly. That they could actually stand up, move around, if the chickens stretched their wings, they could actually have some semblance of normal chicken behavior and for animals that we rely on so much and most of us never see in production, this is really important because we do not want to have fairytales about what it’s like to be food producing animal and this proposition really let’s us shout loud and proud in California that we stand up for the humane treatment of animals. Maureen Cavanaugh: Now battery cages in of themselves, what I understand is they basically housed a chicken in an 8 inch x 8 inch, little cubicle, wire cubicle and there were chickens on either side, chickens front and back and it was and they never got to move at all. Dr. Gary Weitzman: And with all due respect to Frank who is my hero right now, it was not acceptable. It was wrong. It’s wrong to have animals in those kinds of conditions but you know we learned, it’s an evolution. Frankly at 6 to 7 square inches, it’s the size of the piece of paper or a little less as a matter of fact and now what the Proposition did was to say they have to be able to move, stretch their wings to turn around. That’s a little vague. But we’re hoping that that will, as this is implemented and it will evolve, we are really hoping that what most producers do as it hoped what Frank and Hilliker’s Ranch did which is cage free housing for chickens. Maureen Cavanaugh: I want to ask you just prop… okay, so we go into a supermarket and we see eggs that are labeled cage free and free range, okay, we see those kinds of labels are on cartons of eggs. Are the conditions that Proposition 2 asks for different that those categories? Dr. Gary Weitzman: Yes they are, actually what Proposition 2 can be defined as an acceptable production will be cage free, but you don’t have to have cage free chickens to fulfill the requirements of Proposition 2. So that’s where the difference is. If you have them cage free, you have fulfilled those requirements, but you don’t have to have the animals to be cage free. We of course, in the humane world, really believe they should be cage free. I love what the Hilliker’s Ranch is doing. I think it’s the best thing and they are really leaders in the industry now, but cage free is the best but they don’t have to be cage free. Maureen Cavanaugh: There was major opposition from the farming community at the time that this Proposition went to the voters. What were the arguments against the change? Dr. Gary Weitzman: Sure, there’s a lot and you can see why, I mean financially I believe it’s cost my hero over here to spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars to modify his ranch to be cage free and modified housing for the animals and of course, you know anyone whose livelihood is dependent on producing these animals for commercial use, they are going to take a hit. But it simply comes down to the fact that Californians, I am so proud of that really want animals to be treated humanely. Maureen Cavanaugh: It was passed by a wide margin. Dr. Gary Weitzman: Wide, wide two-thirds of Californians, 67% of people in San Diego County alone this legislation. Maureen Cavanaugh: Well, let me go to your hero. Dr. Gary Weitzman: Okay, okay. Maureen Cavanaugh: Frank, first of all, your chicken ranch is located in Lakeside, is that right? Frank Hilliker: Yes, that’s correct. We’ve been in business since 1942. Maureen Cavanaugh: Okay, so you are the second or third generation? Frank Hilliker: Third generation. Maureen Cavanaugh: Now what kind of changes has Proposition 2 required you to make to your hen houses? Frank Hilliker: What we have right now is we’ve had one hen house that we’ve turned into a cage free house. We gutted out all the cages, we put a nice concrete floor down. Then we build the aviary structures which they pretty much live on and fill that up with chickens and then we had to modify, we have another house under construction right now for cage free and then we modified our three other houses and then once I get enough capital then we’ll be turning another one into cage free. The goal is to have all five chicken houses cage free in about 10 years. Maureen Cavanaugh: Did these changes mean that you have to cut down the number of chickens that you raise? Frank Hilliker: Yeah, most definitely, pretty much almost half, but if 67% of the people in California want that and if they’re going to buy it, I’ll produce it. Maureen Cavanaugh: How much did this cost you? How much is this costing you this change? Maureen Cavanaugh: First barn costs $220,000, but I think my next one will come in right around $200,000 because I know how to put it together now. Maureen Cavanaugh: Did you ever consider selling out rather than converting to this new way of farming chickens? Frank Hilliker: Oh, we looked at it most definitely, you know we thought well we have been farmers our whole life, maybe it’s time to become a developer, but we decided we loved our lifestyle so much, we are proud that we can call ourselves famers, and we feel we have a responsibility to our community and employees that we just said, you know what let’s figure this out. So, we came up with this solution and while so searching and we figured it out. Maureen Cavanaugh: Okay, let’s get to the bottom line then. You’re obviously going to have to pass some of these costs that you are incurring in building these new facilities on to the consumers right, how much has the price of your eggs gone up? Frank Hilliker: Well, the egg market is a tricky thing because really it’s a supply and demand market. So, what I’m hoping is that right now demand is high so the prices are high and I’m hoping that across the United States demand will stay high and it will help me pay it off. The higher the demand, the higher the price, the quicker I can pay it off. If demand goes south and you know there is a chance, there’s times when we produce eggs and sell them for less than we have, you know, less than it costs us to produce them, it’s just the market. Maureen Cavanaugh: But at the supermarket, I think that people have seen the price of their eggs go up, by about how much? Frank Hilliker: I would say they’ve gone up depending on where you are at, anywhere from 50 to 80 percent Maureen Cavanaugh: Fifty to 80 percent. And does that encompass all of the idea of people going to free range and cage free all of that cost is coming out now. Is that what consumers are being asked to take? Frank Hilliker: Well again right now it’s just; it’s a high demand time. Maureen Cavanaugh: Okay. Frank Hilliker: This time of the year, Thanksgiving, Christmas Maureen Cavanaugh: We’re eating a lot. Frank Hilliker: You’re eating a lot of eggs, a little bit colder, we’re baking, but what we are going to see is I think we’re going to see around, towards the end of January, my crystal ball, as I’m thinking we’re going to see toward end of January, beginning of February we’re going to see really what’s going to happen and how it’s going to affect the industry and they might even go up more because again California can only have California compliant eggs and if there’s not enough California complaint eggs, the price will go up. Maureen Cavanaugh: Then the price goes up. All right I got it. Now Dr. Gary Weitzman, did advocates of Proposition 2 realize that this would increase the price of eggs in California, this change in the way that chickens are housed? Dr. Gary Weitzman: Sure, I think at the time, you know every parameter that was going to be affected was considered. But I think what I heard Frank said earlier to me and now is the prices have been going up regardless. So the implementation was only last week January 1, but prices have been going up because of the holiday season all of that. So I think there’s a lot of concern that this is all related to the implementation of the Proposition 2 and AB1437 when in point of fact it’s really all about supply and demand and the real beauty of this Proposition is that, it birth Assembly Bill 1437 which ensures that eggs not only are produced in California but coming into the state from anywhere else also have to adhere and comply with California law. And that’s where really the ground breaking legislation rests. Maureen Cavanaugh: Now as I said, Proposition 2 was approved by voters in 2008. Why did it take so long to go into effect? Dr. Gary Weitzman: Ah… to give my buddy over here sometime. Yeah, simply put, need some time to modify the cages and get to the cage free living and get to see chickens acting like chickens I think. Maureen Cavanaugh: Is that’s why you needed that time to just, weren’t there lawsuits involved, Dr. Gary? Dr. Gary Weitzman: There were. The lawsuits were not only in California but outside of California as I said because and they’re still going on. Most of them had been dismissed or withdrawn because they didn’t have any, any legislative substance to them. But there are lawsuits and I think they will continue to be but so far none of them have taken hold. Maureen Cavanaugh: Now Frank, I would imagine that you wanted to wait and see whether or not this was really going to into effect before you made these expensive changes. Frank Hilliker: Yeah, well again like I said first couple of years we were just kind of oh, my gosh, what are we going to, maybe we should just go, maybe we should close and then when we started looking at it, okay maybe we can make this work and talking to some people, I think for me my best thing I did was that I went to the world’s largest poultry show that’s in Atlanta, Georgia every year and I talked to 16 manufacturers of poultry equipment and I ruled it down to three, had three of them come and see me and settled on one of them and figured out that’s going to be the best for my operation. But you know, it was, I guess a little bit of wait and see. Maureen Cavanaugh: Right, it’s a little bit of lead up time to actually make the changes. Frank Hilliker: And save some money. Maureen Cavanaugh: Yeah, yeah. Dr. Weitzman, when this thing is a law now in California, this is something that California chicken farmers have to comply with. But isn’t the idea of free range and cage free, isn’t that catching on across the country as well. Dr. Gary Weitzman: Yeah, it is. We’re one of a number of states. California definitely has the strongest record in animal welfare. This past year alone legislative year, we passed 100 bills protecting animals in the State of California so there is no question by a landslide California is a leader in animal welfare and you know I feel like at the San Diego Humane Society, we’ve got the same precepts, we want animals to have the five freedoms; freedom from pain, freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom to express normal behaviors, freedom from discomfort and freedom from fear and what Proposition 2 and AB1437 did now was to ensure that our livestock have those same freedoms and that’s critical and California voters are one of that overwhelmingly. Maureen Cavanaugh: I have been concentrating on chicken farming because that was the, I think, major focus of this legislation. But it affects other farm animals as well, doesn’t it? Dr. Gary Weitzman: Yeah and that’s just fantastic as well. You know I mentioned veal calves of course and we all know that hunting image of baby and really in a cage and living in its own feces and that can no longer happen in California as well as the station crates for swine. So that, if people saw the way that pigs were raised in basically boxes as they grow to be hundreds and hundreds of pounds, they would probably not buy pork anymore. So California can be proud of having those animals in a much more humane environment now. Maureen Cavanaugh: Wasn’t that legislation about the pig crates, wasn’t that legislation that just got turned down, I think vetoed by the governor in New Jersey. Frank Hilliker: It did, it did unfortunately and that’s a whole story and probably a movie all itself but, you know, there is no question as you said. This is not just California any more. This is us waking up with a humane mentality to actually realize how we take care of animals very much reflects on what we value in life and I’m happy that California’s leading that charge but it’s definitely taking a lot across the country. Maureen Cavanaugh: Now Frank, have you seen changes in how your chickens behave since they are in this new sort of environment. Frank Hilliker: Well, when they are in cages we just didn’t see a whole lot. They’re just kind of chicken’s hanging out but now that they’re in this new environment, you know we’re watching the packing order get established, we’re watching the dust bathing, we are watching a lot of the scratching, we have a bunch of toys in there for them to play with. So I would like to call a Disneyland for chickens, it’s the happiest place on earth for them. Lots of fresh feed, plenty of clean water, we have got it set up, so they keep the feed clean. They don’t mess it up with their fecal matter. I mean it’s very clean and that was my big thing was I needed to try to keep it as clean as possible because there could be lots of issues. Maureen Cavanaugh: And does this affect how many eggs the chicken has produced, I mean apparently the number of your chickens you’ve decreased by half but for each individual chicken? Frank Hilliker: Well, I need a couple of years to run the numbers because this is the first time we’ve got new, we used the cage free barns so there’s a lot of things that we’re learning as we go and I’m talking to other farmers. It’s not like there is a manual on how to do it. So and then some other guy should try to talk to them but, you know, everybody has their own little trade secrets and whatnot. I have been fortunate there’s a couple of guys up in central and northern California that had been helping me out so if I encountered a problem I will call them up on the phone hey, what do I do about this, what do I do about that. But I need a couple of years to run the numbers because I don’t think, it’s my first year it probably won’t be as high, but we will work on it and I will try to get them to where we have got, you know 95 to 98 percent of them producing. Maureen Cavanaugh: Now, my final question is to you Dr. Weitzman and I’m just wondering what you would say to someone who, you know, may be on a really tight budget going into the supermarket seeing that the price of eggs is up, you know 50 may be 80 percent and saying you know, I’ve got more to worry about them chickens? Dr. Gary Weitzman: I don’t know that there are so many people that really feels or it’s the majority for certainly that don’t feel that way, but yeah, it’s definitely a factor. There’s no question. But the price of doing right is you can’t argue with that and there is no question this is the right thing to do. Maureen Cavanaugh: Okay. Well, we will leave it there then. I want to thank you both so much for coming in and talking with me; Dr. Gary Weitzman with the San Diego Humane Society and Frank Hilliker owner of the Hilliker’s Ranch Fresh Eggs in Lakeside. Thank you both very much. Frank Hilliker: Thank you. Dr. Gary Weitzman: Thank you Maureen. I’m going to go out and make a cake with one of our Hilliker’s Ranch, a couple of better eggs now. Maureen Cavanaugh: Coming up, some lessons on making the most of the little rain fall we get that as KPBS Midday Edition continues.
California farmers are trying to balance the price of eggs and the humane treatment of animals now that Proposition 2 has gone into effect.
You may have a dim memory of the state ballot initiative that voters approved in 2008 to ban cramped cages and crates for farm animals. It was largely aimed at eradicating battery cages in chicken farming. The law took effect this year.
"We are celebrating that this went into effect on Jan. 1," San Diego Humane Society President Gary Weitzman told KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday. "What Proposition 2 did is ensure that these animals could be animals — that they can stand up and move around."
Hilliker, who made a $1 million overhaul to the henhouses in his family business, said prices could change toward the end of January as the season changes.
"They might even go up more," Hilliker said. "California can only have California-compliant eggs, and if there aren't enough California-compliant eggs prices are going to go up."