By Marlee Moore
Lily-white eggs take on the rainbow — rose, teal, sky-blue, forest-green — as the Haynes crew of Cullman County prepares for their annual Easter egg hunt.
The dyeing extravaganza is similar to many families’: lay the tablecloth, count out cups, drop in dye tablets, fill with water.
But when sourcing eggs, parents Lee and Sara Haynes skip the grocery store and visit Nature’s Best Egg Co. Their family’s table egg farm weekly ships over 100,000 dozen eggs to groceries and food service warehouses across the Southeast.
“We see the process all the way through,” said Lee, 36. “We take pride in producing a fresh, quality product we can put on store shelves and get directly to people.”
Lee’s father purchased the Fairview farm when Lee was in high school. After studying business at the University of Alabama where he met Sara, Lee came home to the farm — and its more than 250,000 hens.
To keep up with demand, the Hayneses need 75% of hens to lay an egg daily. The white leghorn hens live in a temperature-controlled environment and consume a grain-rich diet. Lee said it’s important for consumers to realize there’s no difference between brown and white eggs — whether raised in a backyard or commercial poultry house.
“The chicken type determines the egg color,” said the Cullman County Farmers Federation board member. “The yolk color can change because of what the chickens eat.”
The eggs move via conveyor through the packing facility adjacent to the poultry houses. The eggs are machine-washed with water and soap; they’re also graded for quality (cracked eggs are shipped for further processing, like Egg Beaters).
A scale determines egg size; as a rule, the younger the bird, the smaller the egg. The eggs are nestled in foam cartons for retail delivery or two-and-a-half-dozen flats for restaurants, where cooks will take a crack at transforming the protein powerhouse into incredible, edible goodness. Lee’s favorite is simple: scrambled eggs with cheese.
The Haynes family has just four table-egg farming colleagues in Alabama. In contrast, 2,000 of the state’s farmers grow broilers, or meat chickens.
Egg production was formerly rampant in Alabama and Southern states, said the Alabama Farmers Federation’s Russ Durrance. But grain availability is greater in the Midwest, leading to lower production costs and a higher concentration of egg farmers.
“The egg market has been volatile this year because of the pandemic,” said Durrance, the Poultry Division director. “That’s affected farmers’ bottom lines, but folks like Lee couldn’t halt production; they had to innovate and bide their time till the market leveled.”
When the coronavirus began spreading, consumers cleared grocery store shelves, spiking the market. That fell off as restaurants closed. In recent months, egg packaging has been scarce as hen’s teeth, but Lee says there is relief in sight as restaurant capacity returns to normal.
Easter is approaching, too, causing families to scramble for perfectly dyeable eggs.
Last year’s stay-at-home order canceled the Haynes’ annual Easter egg hunt with extended family in Clay County. This year, the hunt is on. The Haynes children — Clara, 10; William, 7; Thomas, 6; and Andrew, 3 — will dye, sticker and decorate eggs, accompanied by coos and giggles from 5-month-old John.
The family will don brightly colored clothes and leave the farm for an afternoon of fun before returning to their routine the next day, ready to provide a nutritious product for other families.
“It’s been tough at times,” Lee said. “We just dig our heels in deep and go for it, just like anyone else in agriculture.”