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Which Came First? The Growth of Egg Production in Marin County

Don Gilardi of RedHill Farms can tell you, starting from scratch in the egg business can be a rough road – but one that has potential for success.  Word has gotten out and the number of Egg Handlers Licenses issued in Marin County doubled in 2013.

These producers have different reasons for starting their egg production, but all were convinced early on that there was a market.  For Joy Dolcini, becoming an egg producer happened by accident. She began three years ago with twelve hens. With too many eggs on her hands she started sharing with friends. Soon after, she had a waiting list and decided to add 24 more hens. The idea of tripling her flock was unnerving, but by the time the new hens began to lay, she had another waiting list! Each time she added new hens, it would happen again, so finally, she made a business out of it.  “Farmer Joy’s Eggs” now tends to 500 laying hens and has plans to increase to 800 by the end of 2014.  

For David Evans of Marin Sun Farms, it was another motivating factor: Joel Salatin’s whole farm system at Polyface Farm in Virginia.  Now with 2,000 hens, Dave continues to see that people love high quality eggs, which are still difficult to find and as a result command a much higher premium than other foods.

Don and his helper
Don Gilardi’s story is a little different.  He had a friend in Petaluma who needed a spot to spread out all of his chicken manure, and Don just so happened to have pasture that really needed a boost…  so for Don, the manure came first, not the egg.  The rangelands in Marin and Sonoma County are an ideal setting for raising laying hens, especially in conjunction with other ruminant animals.  Don was raising sheep at the time, and the more healthy grass he could grow, the more he could feed his flock.  Then, in 2008, California voters approved Proposition 2, which will end the use of conventional cages in California egg production by 2015 (Economics in the Hen House).  For Don the writing was on the wall, the market was obviously there, the people had voted.  He started with 70 chickens five years ago and made a ton of mistakes. Mistakes that he is now happy to share with new producers to help save them hundreds of dollars, a whole mess of headaches, and get them into production quickly to help meet demand.

According to Dave Evans, raising laying hens on livestock ranchess is a complimentary enterprise to the whole farm plan, adding more income to the operation.  It is a great way to add value to the ranch without needing to expand the size of the ranch.  

Ed Mann and folks
Ed Mann, of Mann Family Farms, is excited about utilizing dual purpose breeds.  His chickens make great laying hens, but are also good for the stew pot – he is happy to be creating two sources of food from one animal type.  He is also pleased to be feeding his hens from his own garden and as much as possible, integrating more of his egg production within his whole operation.  Ed and his wife, Amanda decided to start their path towards farming with eggs, so for them, the egg really did come first.  Now they raise beef cattle, sheep, kale and cucumbers.  They also operate a community event space that they utilize to feed their community in lots of different ways.   Their 50-acre ranch on Horseshoe Hill Road in Bolinas has a lot of fun stories attached to it.  From being photographed by Ansel Adams in 1940 when it was still an operating cow dairy to its last owner, Warren Helman, of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, who kept his horses there and willed it in part to Ed’s sister, Gabrielle Mann, who tended the horses.  Ed and Gabrielle grew up in Bolinas and are more than pleased to now be tending to this historical property.  They feel that growing food on the ranch will hopefully tie the property back to its history and forward to the future of agriculture in the region.

Each one of these egg farmers is increasing their flock or directly growing the number of egg farmers through contract growing, which is a good thing.  Marin Sun Farms is growing by adding other producers in the area to bring more pasture raised eggs to market as well as transitioning Dave’s farm and another of his producer’s farm to become certified organic.  RedHill Farms is contracting with four other producers who are growing to Don’s specifications on all aspects of their egg production, a combination of what the market wants: certified organic, beautiful, healthy eggs that meet safety guidelines.  He is even helping them set up their water – so that they can do it right the first time.  

RedHill Farms founder, Don Gilardi, found out pretty quickly that there are a lot of local ranchers and farmers who are specifically interested in growing a great product and working on the ranch, but have little interest in the marketing and distribution of their product.  His first producer partners, Jessica and Neil McIsaac, didn’t even need to tell him their needs with words, they just pointed to their twin babies.  They could produce eggs but were not able to get them to customers.  With that, Don embraced the marketing and distribution challenge and now loves going to San Francisco and to build relationships with all of the buyers.  

However, Don does not operate RedHill Ranch alone. His star helper is Tyler Tuck, Don’s nephew, who has helped write the story of how RedHill Ranch became what it is today. Tyler is 21 years old and is very enthusiastic about the growth he has seen in the market. He honestly loves the work and hopes that someday he will also be a producer of chicken eggs to sell to RedHill. From the looks of it, Don and his producer partners are super-grateful to have Tyler’s now experienced hand in setting up mobile chicken coops, waterers, electric fencing and the list goes on.

Joy Dolcini’s daughter Emma, who is now 12 years old, hasn’t missed a beat either.  She has been watching her mom and saw her opportunity to start raising quail for quail eggs.  From the day they hatched she has been the sole provider of all of their needs.  She collects, washes and packs the eggs.  She also attends the Larkspur Farmers Market.  She uses her income to purchase feed, supplies, cartons and fuel to get her eggs to market.  She has been saving up for college and hopes to have enough money to purchase a car when she turns 16.
MSF Eggs

Petaluma was the “Egg Capitol of the World.” Butter and eggs were what Marin and Sonoma Counties were famous for.  Today you can see dilapidated chicken houses on ranches or Craigslist postings for apartments converted from these old chicken houses as a testament to that era.

It is heartening to see a new era and the supportive relationship between consumers and producers.  It is obvious that without consumer demand, there would be a lot less opportunity for producers.  With the community efforts we have seen so far, consumers are helping farmers be able to stay home and raise their children, fertilize their grassland, increase their enterprise mix, and inspire the next generation of farmers.  Voting with your fork really does work!

By Paige Phinney, Sustainable Ag Coordinator

Local producers and where you can find their eggs:

Clark Summit Farm - Multiple Retail Locations throughout the Bay Area, including:

  • Good Earth Organic and Natural Foods in Fairfax is long-standing customer
  • El Cerrito Natural Grocery in El Cerrito near Berkeley is a new customer for our eggs
  • Whole Foods in San Rafael, Petaluma, Santa Rosa, and Sebastopol*
  • Woodland Meats in Kentfield: The butcher shop within the Woodland Market store
  • CIBO restaurant in Sausalito: They have a very yummy café that features our eggs (but also uses other eggs for baking, etc.)
  • Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco sells a lot of our eggs
  • Falletti Foods, a nice high-end market in San Francisco and a long-running supporter of our farm
  • Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco’s Mission District*
  • Other Avenues in San Francisco’s Sunset District*

*In peak season

Dolcini’s Red Hill Ranch, Chiken City by Kitty - Farmstand at the Farm: 6970 Red Hill Road, Petaluma, CA 94952

Farmer Joy’s Eggs - Larkspur Farmers Market: Saturdays, 9:00am-2:00pm

Hands Full Farm Farm - Marin Civic Center Farmers Market: Thursdays, 8:00am-1:00pm

Just Struttin Farm

Mann Family Farm - Pick up at the farm: 605 Horseshoe Hill Road, Bolinas, CA 94924

Marin Sun Farms - Restaurant and Butcher Shop: 10905 Shoreline Highway 1, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956; Multiple Retail Locations throughout the Bay Area:

  • Rockridge Market Hall: 5655 College Avenue, Oakland, CA 94618
  • San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market:  Saturdays, 8:00am-2:00pm
  • Marin Civic Center Farmers Market: Sundays, 8:00am-1:00pm

Nicasio Valley Farms

RedHill Farms - Multiple Retail Locations throughout the Bay Area, including:   

  • Bi-Rite Market
  • Petaluma Market
  • Alameda Natural Grocery
  • Berkeley Bowl
  • United Markets
  • Good Earth Natural Foods
  • Whole Foods

Strode Poultry and Eggs

Tacherra Ranch

Woolly Egg Ranch