Bird flu, inflation threaten California egg farm

STORY: Bird flu and inflation have Frank Hilliker worried about the future of his farm.

The fourth-generation egg farmer says an outbreak of the deadly bird flu virus at his Lakeside, California, farm could wipe out his entire flock of nearly 25,000 chickens.

“If I get the bird flu, it has an 80 to 90 percent mortality rate. So, pretty much if we were to get it, we would have to depopulate all the birds.”

In the worst outbreak since 2015, bird flu has wiped out more than 19 million egg-laying chickens on commercial U.S. farms this year, eliminating about 6% of the country's flock, according to Reuters calculations of federal and state government data.

And yet, Hilliker says the threat of bird flu is not his chief worry – inflation is.

“Bird flu and the health of the birds don't keep me up at night because I know we do a good job, and if the bird flu happens, there's really not much you can do, it is what it is. You just got to accept it and move on. So, what keeps me up at night is the inflation. All my costs, all my raising costs.”

At Hilliker’s Ranch, the cost of everything is up. Way up.

“My feed is up over one hundred percent, so I'm paying over double for what I was paying a couple of years ago. Fuel is up forty percent, package is up depending on the packaging, twenty-five percent. Labor ten to fifteen percent.”

Those soaring costs have in turn hiked up the price of eggs. At the store on his farm, Hilliker says customers buy eggs at full retail price, but at grocery stores consumers are being more cautious.

“Egg consumption has slowed down. Some of our biggest stores that would take two or three pallets of eggs a week, we figure there's 900 dozen on the pallet, went down to like just taking one pallet a week because they've gotten so high.”

So far, production hasn’t slowed on the farm, with his chickens laying an average of 20,000 eggs per day.

Assuming the birds stay healthy, it will be the farm’s humans who feel the heat, as Hilliker says that cutting back on labor will be his first move in fighting rising costs.

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