Let’s do the math. There were 76 billion eggs laid by US chickens last year (not counting hatching eggs), laid by 280 million hens (23 dozen eggs per hen). The vast majority of these hens are in factory farms. Suppose we wanted to get rid of factory farms. What would it take?
Well, before factory farms there were ordinary farm flocks. Between about 1900 and 1950, a typical “egg farm” held steady at about 1,500 hens. Some had more, some had less, but a farm family making most of its income from eggs typically had a 1,500-hen operation.
This makes sense when you realize that studies of labor efficiency on old-fashioned egg farms measured productivity at 2.0-2.5 hours per hen per year. A 1,500-hen operation would take between 3,000 and 3,750 hours of labor, which will soak up the time of two wage-earners.
Factory-farm techniques allowed the number of hens per attendant to increase to the current astronomical levels (around 150,000 birds per henhouse, with multiple houses per installation, and only one attendant per henhouse.)
280,000,000/1,500 = is about 187,000 egg farms that would have to be created, providing jobs for 187,000 new farm families. A 1,500-hen flock should lay (at 23 dozen eggs/hen) 34,500 dozen eggs per year.
Now, the median household income last year was about $50,000. Presumably, we can’t get rid of factory farms without paying an average wage, so we need to extract $50,000 of wage income per 1,500 bird flock. $50,000/$34,500 = $1.45 per dozen (as opposed to only about $0.0145 per dozen for the factory farm). That pays the farmer. Because the farmer only receives about half the retail price of the eggs, the consumer will have to pay about $2.90 extra for non-factory-farmed eggs.
This cost premium is more than the price of a dozen factory-farmed eggs (around $2.25 the last time I looked). Various other economies of scale that benefit factory farms won’t be available to smaller farms, so I figure that, in rough terms, non-factory-farmed eggs will triple the cost — in round numbers, $7.00 a dozen.
That’s for old-time confinement operations, which would have eggs that taste just as bad as factory-farmed eggs. Real free range eggs (not the fake kind that produces the eggs in the stores) cost more to produce. The labor efficiency isn’t that much worse, but production plummets in poor weather and there are predator issues. I figure that the costs will work out to around five times as much as factory-farmed eggs — $10-$12 a dozen.
True free-range farmers are thin enough on the ground that most of them can sell all their eggs locally, which is why you can’t get them in the city. Eggs are cheaper in the country, so eggs you buy from me for $5 would cost you $10 in the big city.