MIDDLETOWN - If Randy Sowers were to buy a dozen small eggs at the local store, he would pay 69 cents. That's why the Western Maryland egg farmer became so angry that he began dumping his eggs on the manure pile when a processor offered him only 6 cents per dozen.
"We can't make money on 6 cents a dozen," he said recently.
"I would rather throw the eggs away, or give them away, than have some big business make a big profit on them."
In frustration, the Frederick County farmer dumped more than a hundred dozen small eggs on the manure pile last week. He and his wife, Karen, gave others away to local churches, soup kitchens and food banks. They sold eggs to neighbors for 10 cents a dozen.
"Egg farmers go through good times and bad times," said Gene W. Gregory, vice president of the United Egg Producers, a farm cooperative and trade association based in Atlanta. "We're into the bad times."
He said the nation's egg producers had good years in 1996, 1997 and 1998, "but now things aren't so good. Farmers have been losing money for about a year and a half."
Gregory said there is a big surplus of eggs on the market. "Eggs are like most farm commodities, when producers produce more than the market can accept at profitable prices, they're in trouble," he said.
R. James Lafferty, vice president of R. W. Sauder Inc., the Lititz, Pa.-based processor and marketing company that offered Sowers 6 cents a dozen for his eggs last week, said: "The whole egg market is depressed."
He said there is a surplus of eggs on the market and Sowers "is not getting paid any less than anyone else in his situation."
With a young flock of 106,000 hens, the Sowerses are producing mainly small and pee-wee eggs, which are smaller than small. As the chickens grow, they will produce larger and more marketable eggs.
Lafferty said there is nearly no demand at this time for pee-wee and small eggs.
He said most of the large grocery stores have stopped stocking small eggs. They devote the shelf space to the more profitable large eggs that consumers prefer.
Lafferty said the egg market normally strengthens during fall and winter as people do more baking. But, he said, there is such a surplus of eggs that he is not certain that prices will rise much in coming months.
Sauder buys eggs from farmers. After washing, grading and packaging the eggs, they sell them to major grocery store chains on the East Coast and to food service companies.
Ray Garibay, head of the Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service, said there are only about a dozen commercial egg farms in Maryland.
He said prices have declined steadily since 1996, when the average farm price for eggs was 72.3 cents a dozen. That year, Maryland egg farmers grossed $51.2 million.
Last year, the average price was 51.7 cents a dozen and farm sales totaled $35.3 million.
After declining for three consecutive years, egg production in the state jumped 5 percent last year to 820 million.
Randy and Karen Sowers acknowledged that they were hoping that other egg producers would have followed their lead. "If everybody dumped eggs," Mrs. Sowers said, "it would reduce the supply on the market."
Her husband added: "For every 1 percent we reduce the supply, the large-eggs market goes up 5 cents."