Future of egg industry uncertain
Co-owner of Petaluma Farms says effects of Prop. 2 are not clear
Published: Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 22, 2009 at 4:33 p.m.
As Petaluma prepares to celebrate the annual Butter & Egg Days Parade on Saturday, April 25, the co-owner of one of the two remaining egg ranches in the city is uncertain if he will be able to stay in business.
"Now that Proposition 2 has passed, I have no idea. It is so vague and can be interpreted so broadly that I don’t know what we will be required to do,” said Steve Mahrt, who, along with wife Judy, owns and operates Petaluma Farms at 700 Cavanaugh Lane.
The proposition, known as the Standards for Confining Farm Animals Act, was passed by California voters on Nov. 4. It stipulates that “calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely.”
It also states that violations can result in “misdemeanor penalties, including a fine not to exceed $1,000 and/or imprisonment in jail for up to 180 days.”
Hens make up about 19.5 million of the 20 million animals that are directly affected by the measure, which becomes effective on Jan. 1, 2015.
Some critics of the measure say that due to the cost of cage renovations and the necessity for more space for hens, California egg producers now will be at a competitive disadvantage with producers in other states and Mexico, thereby forcing them to close their businesses or move to another state.
Critics also have claimed that the proposition doesn’t provide specific standards for how animals need to be contained, and the amount of area they will need. Mahrt says that it also is unclear if the proposition applies to cage-free businesses such as Petaluma Farms, which has provided a cage-free environment for egg-laying hens for the past 25 years.
“The proposition mentions cages only once. The measure is so ambiguous that no one knows how it will be interpreted, or what will be considered a misdemeanor,” he said.
The Humane Society of the United States and other supporters of the proposition have asserted that cage-free operations will not be affected.
Mahrt and Arnold Riebli, co-owner of Sunrise Farms, share concerns about how the proposition could affect the egg-producing business in Petaluma and throughout the rest of the state. Riebli estimates that it would cost him $15 million to $20 million to convert to large cages, and $30 million to $40 million to switch to a cage-free business.
“But we can’t wait until 2015 to institute changes,” Riebli said. “It will take three to six months to redo our production facilities, and the only way we could do this would be to take them out of production.”
He identified two possible options for dealing with the overall situation.
“The industry could take the proposition to court, and try to get it tossed out. Another option would be to develop a set of guidelines to allow the industry to go forward and be productive,” he said.
Mahrt says that the proposition could result in a two-thirds loss in egg production at Petaluma Farms, and could end Petaluma’s illustrious history of egg production.
“But we don’t know, because of the vagueness of the proposition and how it will be enforced. And nothing is more frustrating than not knowing,” he said.
Mahrt, who represents the third generation of his family’s poultry business in Petaluma, always envisioned that his four sons would have an opportunity to continue in the business.
“But now, I don’t know. They’re 11 to 19 years old — one of them is taking a poultry class, and from time to time, I’ve had discussions with them about working in the business,” he said.
The proposition was supported by 63 percent of statewide voters, as well as by a majority of Petaluma residents. Mahrt was disappointed that local residents supported Proposition 2 — but he wasn’t particularly surprised.
“Anyone who saw only the ads for the proposition (showing slaughterhouses and mistreatment of animals, among other things) would have supported it, but the ads weren’t very accurate and had nothing to do with the measure,” he said.
Local residents’ support of the proposition caused Mahrt to reassess his sponsorship of the Cutest Little Chick in Town contest, in which parents dress their infants and toddlers in costumes that match the theme of the year.
“I had several conversations with him about it,” said Jeff Mayne, vice president of the Petaluma Downtown Association as well as the announcer at the contest. “He had made a presentation to the Chamber of Commerce about what the proposition meant to him in terms of increased costs, and said that he wouldn’t be in a position to pass them along to consumers.
“After the vote, he was disappointed that voters didn’t take the time to try to understand the proposition, and he wondered why, at the end of the day, the community wouldn’t support him.”
Mahrt, who has sponsored the event for the past 24 years, said that he plans to continue doing so, beginning this Saturday, outside Copperfield’s Bookstore, at 140 Kentucky St.
“We started it 24 years ago because we thought it would be good for Petaluma to be known for its eggs. We hope to continue the contest, and to produce eggs in Petaluma beyond 2015,” Mahrt said.
“I told Steve that I would be a more vocal supporter and get the word out (about Proposition 2),” Mayne said. “The Cutest Little Chick in Town contest is one of the largest draws of Butter & Egg Days, and it would be a big loss to not have it.
“Steve supplies an elaborate float for the contest on a big, flatbed truck. It’s a labor of love for him.”
(Contact Dan Johnson at email@example.com)
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