CANBY — A red glow from LED lighting bathes Greg Satrum and his father, Gordon, as they slowly lead the way through a sea of chickens. The hens, offshoots of the classic Rhode Island Reds, warily cluck and part; some instinctively hop to the safety of perch pipes that run the length of their new $1 million henhouse. They settle quickly enough, however, and soon approach to inspect visitors and make exploratory pecks at rings, pens and notepads.
The chickens' new home is state-of-the-art, one of two new henhouses built to increase cage-free egg production at Willamette Egg Farms.
The construction represents a significant pivot for Oregon's largest egg producer, and is a response to rising consumer demand as well as legislative changes on the horizon.
Most of Willamette Egg Farms' production will still come from hens in conventional — and controversial — cages. But the 40,000 hens roaming each of the new houses, one in full operation and the other nearly so, will have three levels of perches, nesting boxes in which to lay eggs and ground space to move around. Hens cannot go outside — it's not a free-range system — but they can hop down to dirt floors to socialize, flap their wings and scratch the dirt.
The red spectrum produced by energy-efficient LED lighting calms the hens, and the system is programmed to simulate a gradual daybreak and sunset. Feed and water are dispensed automatically, and conveyor belts remove 95 percent of the manure. The nesting boxes have gently sloped floors, allowing eggs to roll out the rear for collection.
The company, established in 1934 and still family owned, produces about 1 million eggs a day in Oregon and another 600,000 daily at a site in Moses Lake, Wash. With the new houses, the company's cage-free production will amount to about 8 percent of its total. It will increase that percentage as its old buildings are phased out and replaced by more cage-free facilities over time.
Nationally, cage-free production was 5.7 percent of the total as of March 2012, according to the American Egg Board.
"I have to expect it will continue to grow," said Greg Satrum, who is co-owner with his father and the third generation to run the company.
Sharon Harmon, executive director of the Oregon Humane Society, said the Satrums are at the leading edge of an industry that recognizes that the public largely opposes tight confinement of farm animals.
But it is egg producers who have to bear the cost of change, and it can't be accomplished overnight, she said.
"We want better care for hens now, but that's an incredibly expensive infrastructure to change over," Harmon said. "Credit is due Willamette Eggs for standing up and saying the winds of change are coming."
Satrum describes the new system in measured tones. Given the average life of hen houses and equipment, it is a 40-year investment, he says. Whether it's "better," he says, depends on your values.
Hens raised cage-free are eating the same food as those in conventional cages and produce the same quality egg. Cage systems are more cost-efficient, curb hen-to-hen aggression, and result in fewer bird injuries because they can't jump or fly around, he says.
"But then you look at cage-free, and there's more freedom to perform natural behaviors," Satrum says. "They have private nesting areas, the ability to perch and to scratch around on the floor.
"What we've seen is sort of a shift in the whole idea of what humane means," he says. "For years it was all about being healthy, clean and efficient. Now there seems be more interest in natural behavior."
Action by some of the nation's largest supermarket and fast-food chains are helping drive the industry shift.
Aramark, a national food services company that supplies institutions ranging from prisons to schools, has announced it would use nothing but cage-free eggs by the end of 2014.
Safeway, with more than 1,600 stores nationwide, set a goal in 2010 of increasing cage-free egg sales to 12 percent of its total in two years. The company easily surpassed it, with cage-free sales reaching 15 percent in 2012. In December, Safeway announced it will require all of its cage-free and organic egg suppliers to be certified by Humane Farm Animal Care, an independent organization.
Trader Joe's, Albertson's, Costco and other stores also carry cage-free eggs. Elsewhere, Burger King committed to using 2 percent cage-free eggs in 2007 and more than doubled that in a year, and by 2008 reached 6 percent of the total. Wendy's, Dunkin' Donuts and other chains have followed suit. Wal-Mart's Olympia Valley brand of cage-free eggs come from Willamette Egg Farms.
It's big business, in part because we produce and eat so many eggs. American hens lay about 6.5 billion table eggs per month, and we consume them at a per capita rate of 247 eggs per year — 172 directly and 75 as ingredients in other products, according to the American Egg Board.
Other large egg farms are moving in the same direction. Wilcox Family Farms, headquartered in Washington but with an Oregon operation in Aurora, began transitioning in 2005 to cage-free and organic-raising methods, according to the company website.
Legislation is a key factor in the switch, too, and is the backdrop to a "remarkable" turn-about among egg producers, said Josh Balk, spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C. After years of banging heads over egg-farm conditions, HSUS and egg producers now jointly back federal legislation that over 15 years would phase out wire enclosures that limit hens to about as much floor space as a sheet of paper. Often in that setup, the birds can't even turn around, and spend their lives confined.
The legislation, proposed as an attachment to the Farm Bill, establishes a minimum enriched colony housing standard that doubles living space and provides room for nesting, perching and scratching.
The Oregon Legislature approved a similar bill in 2011, and the Oregon Department of Agriculture is finalizing rules to phase-in the requirements by 2026. The bill requires a minimum of 116.3 square inches of floor space per hen. Satrum worked with the Oregon Humane Society to get the bill through the Legislature.
Harmon, the group's executive director, says the Oregon bill was a worthy compromise. "It's asking a lot of industry, to within 15 years change their practices over," she said.
Satrum believes many consumers will continue to buy eggs based on price, and conventional cage eggs cost less to produce. But a significant percentage of consumers is keenly interested in locally- and humanely-produced food.
"It wasn't just a fad that came and went," he says. "They're interested in the story behind the food."