CANBY, Ore. — 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. 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.
Action by some of the nation's largest supermarket and fast-food chains is 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.
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.
Legislation is a key factor in the switch, too, and is the backdrop to a "remarkable" turnabout 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.