"Do you have any normal eggs?" a shopper asked the Olivera Egg Ranch salesman at a recent Campbell Farmers' Market. I chuckled, because I figure we go to the market to get something special, not the standard grocery-store fare.
Then I dug deeper into the egg vendors at the market, and I found that some are more "normal" than I assumed. As a market shopper, I wanted to sort through all the buzzwords on egg packages: cage free, free range, pastured poultry. What does it all mean?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's definition of free range is that the birds are allowed access to the outside—which doesn't mean they ever actually go outside, just that they could. There's no such definition for cage free.
Olivera Egg Ranch's package shows an old red barn and chickens roaming in a field, with nary a fence in sight. It boasts a lot, too: no cages, no antibiotics, no forced molting, an organic and vegetarian diet, hand gathered.
After learning more about Olivera's operation, I found this image a bit misleading. I called San Jose-based Olivera multiple times asking to talk with the owners, but received no response.
I think that when we shop at the farmers' market, we're trying to consider the health of agricultural communities, animals' quality of life, environmental impacts, and the safety and quality of our food—not just price. I like buying eggs and meat from pastured poultry—chickens that run free outdoors all day and only come inside at night for protection from predators.
There are a number of pastured poultry vendors at the market, including Tomatero Farms and Capay Organics. While their supply is limited, if you get there early, you can get some hard-shelled, rich-yolked, organic beauties. Isn't that why we shop at the market anyway?
Without being able to talk with the owners or visit the ranch, there's only so much I can learn about Olivera's operation in French Camp, near Stockton. I'll share what I found out to help me make my decision, and I leave it to individual shoppers to make their own decisions.
The company is licensed to house 675,000 laying hens in 14 large barns at its French Camp ranch, produces 14 million dozen eggs per year and generates nearly $1 million in annual sales. I found the ranch on Google Maps.
The Humane Society sued Olivera in 2008, on behalf of 10 neighbors of the ranch who complained that the ammonia stench from the ranch is unbearable and causes nausea and throat, lung and eye irritation. The suit claims the birds live in wire cages, and that the ranch pumps the chicken manure through white pipes (visible on Google Maps) into a lagoon that sits between the chicken barns and nearby homes. The complaint also claims that the lagoon may be seeping into groundwater.
That lawsuit is going to trial on May 16, court records show. Already, Sacramento Judge John A. Mendez has sanctioned Olivera for "willfully and systematically" destroying evidence by dredging the manure lagoon and dumping manure where it could run into the San Joaquin River (see the .pdf affadavit from David Parker that I uploaded). He required Olivera to pay $143,000 in legal fees to the Humane Society.
In February 2010, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District found six violations at the ranch, including operating without required permits and management plans for years.
This lawsuit seems to have had some positive results. Olivera is apparently installing an anaerobic digester, in which microorganisms turn the manure into methane and generate electricity through a fuel cell power plant. It was expected to be operational mid-2011. That's great, if it means the elimination of this manure lagoon.
There's a lot more information, and I've uploaded some of the court documents and other information. You can also read a story by News10, an ABC affiliate in Sacramento, and an Associated Press story from last year. You can read the legal documents through Justia.com.
Ron Pardini of Urban Village Farmers' Market Association, the manager of the Campbell market, said he had been notified in late 2010 that Olivera was selling eggs raised on a factory farm.
"That's kind of disturbing," Pardini said in a recent interview. "That's not the type of vendor that we want in our market." When he received the complaint last year, he called Edward Olivera, the ranch owner, who promised to sell only cage-free organic eggs in the future.
Pardini, who was unaware of the Humane Society lawsuit, said he would investigate the matter to determine whether Urban Village would allow Olivera to continue selling in Campbell. I haven't heard an update on that front, so it looks like Olivera will continue selling at the market.
Capay Organics is another source. It sells pastured eggs from Gillham Eggs in Guinda. The saleswoman told me the eggs are all brown, except for one chicken that lays blue eggs.
The trick is to get there early, even before the market opens. Capay sold out on a recent Sunday by 9:20 a.m., and Tomatero has a Twitter following that keeps up on when and where it'll have eggs—they run out quickly too, even at $8 per dozen.