How a Berks County woman used Facebook to rescue an egg farmer’s 80,000 hens amid the coronavirus
Egg farmer Joshua Zimmerman got the dreaded call. His bulk-egg processor had run out of storage for liquefied eggs destined for fast food breakfast sandwiches and cafeteria-style scrambled eggs.
Hamburg egg farmer Josh Zimmerman faced disaster about a month ago when his bulk-egg processor ran out of storage for liquefied eggs for cruise ships, hospitals, hotels, and school cafeterias. The yellow goo from millions of eggs, stored in bladder bags, had filled all the available freezer space. So processors had to shut off the flow.
With a veritable Ol’ Man River of eggs, 60,000 a day rolling out of his hen houses, Zimmerman, 37, faced a hard choice: either euthanize his 80,000-hen flock or find a new market for eggs.
Into that void stepped go-getter Timi Bauscher, 38, who runs the Nesting Box Farm Market and Creamery in Kempton, about 20 minutes from Zimmerman’s cage-free spread, both in Berks County. She proposed to sell some of Zimmerman’s eggs at her roadside market, offering a minimum of five dozen on flats for a discounted $2 a dozen.
Zimmerman, desperate but skeptical, thought "she’d move a skid or two a week.”
Bauscher — whose farmer husband, Keith, says his wife has “Facebook down to a 'T'” — posted Zimmerman’s story on Facebook and Instagram, describing Zimmerman’s hens and their existential plight. “Let’s do this, Nesting Box peeps!” she wrote. “It went viral within 30 seconds and reached a half-million people,” Bauscher said.
Traffic backed up outside the roadside Nesting Box Market on the first day of the egg sale, on April 27, with consumers excited to save the chickens and help a local farmer in a pandemic-induced financial crisis.
Bauscher relocated the event to the 50-acre Kempton Community Center, staffing a bulk sale on May 3 with 30 volunteers, mostly women and a few teenage girls from a Scout troop. Keith Bauscher buzzed around on a forklift, unloading big boxes marked “Eggs” on skids from a refrigerated trailer. Volunteers unpacked the egg flats on long tables. Buyers drove by for a contactless transaction.
She ended up selling 18,000 dozen eggs for about $36,000, which goes toward hauling, refrigerating, packaging, and keeping the chickens alive. As for the business arrangement, Bauscher said, it’s a “partnership between the two farms and I’ll leave it at that.”
Pegene Pitcairn drove more than hour from Bryn Athyn on May 3, loading her Subaru Outback with 360 dozen eggs in boxes for about 40 families and food pantries. She had read about Zimmerman on Facebook. “It really is a wonderful story of how humans come together to help people in our food chain,” she said. She reached home without any cracked cargo — “no big deal because there was no traffic,” she said.
Cindie Penzes, of Palmer, in the Easton area, bought 30 dozen. She had also connected on Facebook. “Small farms need support,” she said, adding that she had called around to family that morning taking orders for eggs. “I called everybody.”
Even as political leaders begin reopening the economy, the nation’s food supply chain remains disrupted because of the huge shift in eating habits, with more people dining at home. Meat plants also have closed because of COVID-19 outbreaks among employees. Each commodity seems to be dealing with a major disruption.
About 30% of the eggs produced in the United States are usually destined for the “liquefied egg market” for fast-food restaurants, hotels, school cafeterias, and food production for mayonnaise, salad dressings and other products, experts say.
But the near-standstill of the economy has closed off that vast market. Egg farmers such as Zimmerman who were under contract to bulk processors had to find new markets, such as exports or euthanize flocks, which continued to produce eggs.
Supermarkets could use the eggs. But those heading to the retail markets have to be washed, graded, packed in cartons, and shipped to stores — which are now a bottleneck in the farm-to-supermarket supply chain.
Brian Moscogiuri, director and egg industry analyst with Urner Barry in Toms River, estimated that 40 million to 50 million egg-laying hens have been idled by the pandemic. Some of those hens will have to be euthanized, he said. Urner Barry tracks protein commodity prices for eggs, fish, meat, poultry and pork.
Moscogiuri said that egg farmers in the liquefied market have to hold on to their business in whatever way they can until restaurants reopen.
As for when that could be, Moscogiuri said “you tell me when [restaurants] will be back after the outbreak. I don’t know. There is really no telling when demand will return to pre-pandemic levels. It turned off like a switch. It will not turn back as quickly.”
In Kempton, there’s a sense of pitching in to help a local farmer in dark days.
“Of course the price is very good at $2 [a dozen] but I’m flabbergasted myself," Don Meyers, president of the Kempton Community Center, said of the line of vehicles waiting to buy Zimmerman’s eggs the previous weekend. He directed traffic into neat lines on the center’s grass fields. "The word spread and here they came. It’s amazing.”
Meyers said they had a good crowd again Sunday in Kempton. “I am here and people are lining up already,” he said on the phone at noon, an hour before the sale would begin. “There are about a hundred cars so far.”
A few minutes later, Bauscher texted: “About to roll here again!" as another huge sale began. Bauscher said they sold about three-quarters of a tractor-trailer on Sunday, with the rest likely going to food pantries. She expects to sell 22,000 to 25,000 dozen a week.
For now, Zimmerman is holding on and grateful. Bauscher “totally shocked” him, he said. “She’s got connections. It’s her social-media platform and she’s energetic. She saw a need and she kicked the wheels into motion.”
Bauscher, who tends with her husband to 1,700 hens and sells 80 to 100 dozen eggs a day, said that even in good times, before COVID-19, farming was a “wing and prayer.” She views herself as "providing the link to Mr. Zimmerman to push those eggs out to the public.” As for the longer term, the frozen liquefied eggs in storage could last through November, she said.
“You have to remember," she said, "that if you’re not doing things in your life that give you goose bumps, you’re doing it wrong.”