Lightbulb Moment in Food History

Susanne Freidberg, a professor of geography at Dartmouth, has been guest blogging here about the food supply. This is her final post; we thank her very much. You can thank her too by picking up a copy of her just-released book, “Fresh: A Perishable History.”

INSERT DESCRIPTIONPhoto: Stephen Ausmus A White Leghorn hen.

Last week’s post talked about early-20th-century “egg gamblers” who bought eggs cheap in spring in order to sell dear in winter. Their kind of speculation proved not just controversial but also pretty risky, and ultimately doomed. Why?

Egg gamblers won only if they sold off their cold-storage stocks before fresh ones arrived in spring. They faced two major unknowns: housewives who sometimes protested egg “hoarding” with organized boycotts, and hens who might start laying earlier than expected. Because hens are acutely sensitive to shifts in daylight and temperature, all it took was a February thaw to set them off, sending egg prices plummeting.

Poultry farmers, meanwhile, just wanted to know how to get their own flocks to lay more eggs when fresh ones were scarcest and priciest. They knew that some chicken breeds laid a few more winter eggs than others, and that warm housing and a rich diet generally helped. But the most dramatic results came with the flick of a switch — literally.

Although few farmers in 1910 to 1920 had electricity, those who did discovered that hens couldn’t tell the difference between the sun and a light bulb. One early adopter in Cambridge, Mass., called it “the most definite control of production that we have.” In 1919 a Minnesota farmer wrote to Scientific American describing how his hens responded to a 50-watt bulb by “cackling and behaving in the liveliest fashion, and laying practically all their eggs in the night.” The magazine called it “a miracle.”

Some farmers worried that too much artificial light might backfire. As Hen Coop magazine reported in 1922, “A bird cannot be kept off her perch from 4 a.m. until 9 a.m. without showing the effect of the daily grind for eggs.” But by the mid-1930’s studies showed that all-night henhouse lighting paid off. If farmers could sell twice as many fresh eggs in winter, it didn’t matter that their hens wore out by spring.

As New Deal electrification projects brought power to rural areas nationwide, henhouse lighting caught on. For some poultry farmers, it took priority over electricity for the family home. By the early 1940’s, the results spelled the end of egg gambling. Thanks to “millions of modernized hens,” said Business Week, consumers no longer had to settle for storage eggs in winter.

You can probably guess what happened next. As egg production became less seasonal, agribusiness moved in. The postwar decades saw the rise of mechanized “egg cities,” each home to tens of thousands of caged layers. Enriched feeds replaced the vitamin D from sunshine, while antibiotics prevented henhouse epidemics. Unfortunately, they also fostered the spread of antibiotic-resistant salmonella.

Today’s average layer produces 250-300 eggs a year, and the niche market in fresh-laid winter eggs is long gone. The new niches range from several variations on “natural” (cage-free, organic) to the ultra high tech (traceability codes laser-etched on each shell). Among other qualities, both options cater to demand for genuine freshness — the same demand that brought us the industrial egg in the first place. Moral of the story? Be careful what you wish for.


holly loudly

Little Jackie said, "Not for nothing, but what came first , the chicken nugget or the egg mcmuffin?"

Tim

Wow. There's everything here in this egg story. Supply and demand. Stock , er, egg options. How technology can alter the dynamics of a market (lighted hen houses). Community reaction to perceived exploitation of consumers. It's all here.

And it makes one wonder how much of the egg and hen history applies to our recent economic downturn. How various banking institutions were selling bad eggs in ever sophisticated ways? A lack of integrity, in whatever form it takes, is like a pillar to a building. If it begins to compromise, some kind of fall is in the future.

The Fascinating Story of Eggonomics. Could it be the title of a small book?

Thanks, Tim

leavethejobbehind.com

jonathan

IF you haven't seen it, rent the movie The Egg & I with Claudette Colbert. She becomes an egg farmer. Funny movie and quaint.

aaron

I'm not sure what the "Be careful what you wish for" comment is about. But there this is definitely a good lesson for people in the energy trading.

Lee

There's more to this than just electrification and use of antibiotics. Egg and poultry production is also affected by prices of the feed components. When corn, soybean meal and additive prices rise, there is pressure to lower or slow production. Sometimes, in extreme cases where the costs can not be passed on to consumers, culling is necessary even to the point of destroying hatchery chicks since it would be uneconomical to feed them and sell at a loss. The same is true for other livestock but on a longer cycle. Egg production in recent years can also be smoothed out with the conversion of fresh eggs to pasteurized and frozen or even powdered products.

ted

I hardly ever comment, but I really enjoyed this piece, almost like a story.

ktb

I truly enjoyed these posts. Make sure you get her back for some more guest posts in the future!

Gary

I finally remembered - there's a Jack London "To Build a Fire" kind of short story about egg-speculation (sp-egg-ulation?) called The One Thousand Dozen - the story of a hustler who sought a fortune selling eggs in Alaska during the gold rush. It doesn't work out well in the end. http://www.readprint.com/work-1048/Jack-London

Herb

In Canada eggs come under a supply managed system, also known as regulated marketing, whereby producers' "cost of production" are met. This drastically reduces the boom and bust market cycles prevalent in the US.

Dr Anurakshat Gupta

My favorite snack with Rum & Cola at the Officers Mess is Egg-on-Toast. Really, eggs are just there.