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Greenawalt Farms, home of 24,000 hens

Sunday, August 19, 2001

By Suzanne Martinson, Food Editor, Post-Gazette

WEST NEWTON, Westmoreland County -- The timeworn "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" may best be left to theologians, though the thousands of people who visit Greenawalt Farms each year get a glimpse of that eternal question.

Debbie Woloshun packages fresh eggs in the processing room at Greenawalt Farms, which is small by industry standards. Egg producers in Eastern Pennsylvania often have 500,000 laying hens. The Greenawalts have 24,000. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

"They see where eggs come from," says Ina Greenawalt, the chipper 63-year-old maven of egg education. "I tell the children, 'Now you know that when you eat an egg, you're not eating a little baby chicken.'"

Visitors discover that a hen does not need a rooster to lay an egg, and a brown egg is just like a white one inside. The farm even has a mascot, Grech'hen the Greenawalt Chicken, who wants everybody to learn where food comes from.

Despite the anthropomorphic charm of Grech'hen and the chickens in cartoon movies like "Chicken Run," a laying hen's heroism is limited to providing an inexpensive protein source in eggs. (Different breeds provide the breasts, legs and thighs for America's dinner tables.)

As species go, chickens are not at the top of the IQ chart or the most pleasing of personas. Compared to, say, hogs, which select a "bathroom" space in their pen and won't sleep in their own excrement, chickens will peck through their own droppings for undigested corn. If sheep are followers, chickens are mob rule, turning on their own kind if times get tough. They are dusty, too, and there are few smellier spots than a chicken coop that needs cleaning.

The vast majority of the eggs we eat are produced in roosterless laying houses much larger than Greenawalt Farms. The family also sells a few "free-range" eggs at the Cooperative Farmers' Market of East Liberty, but these are produced by a neighbor. On their farm, they have opted for automation. They've been in the egg business for 50 years and count on today's technology to help them survive.

"My husband quit school at 15 to start his own egg business," Ina says of husband John, now 65. She joined the business three years before they married in 1955. "His family never weighed an egg. My father-in-law sat on a stool and sorted the eggs. He'd say, 'That's a Jumbo, that's a Medium, that's a Small.'"

The eggs were fresh then, and they're fresh now. Most Greenawalt eggs are sold at stores within an hour's drive of their farm. "I would never want a customer to have what I wouldn't eat myself," she says.

Agriculture meets automation

Ina Greenawalt is the consummate diplomat when she explains how around 100,000 eggs begin their trip each week to the breakfast table, restaurant or refrigerator at home. She uses concepts city people understand to explain the steps in a process that's about as automated as agriculture can get.

Visitors get few whiffs, though. Inside the laying house -- it's not a chicken coop, says Ina -- the 24,000 hens are closed off and viewed through a glass window. It isn't just for show, but a way to prevent contaminating the flock. "They won't even let me in there," says employee Debbie Woloshun. "I have birds at home that might carry a disease."

The hens get only the rare glimpse of a rooster (separating the boys from the girls when they are fluffy yellow chicks is not foolproof), so Ina's tours are no intro to sex education, though when kids ask questions, she answers them.

"This is an all-girls dorm," she tells the children. Asked about a stray rooster strutting in the aisle between the cages on the December day we visited, she jokes, "We keep him around for morale."

Two or three hens share wire cages that are stacked three high with a corridor in between in the 300-foot-long structure she calls a "country apartment house."

The hens' water cups are automatically refilled, and they get fresh feed every 15 minutes from an automatic feeder. "You know how children will pick at their food and only eat the dessert? Chickens would waste food the same way."

Watching a 270-foot line of chickens poke their heads out of their cages -- Ina doesn't like that word -- and peck from a rolling feed trough is as mesmerizing as watching the rhythmic up and downs inside a player piano. They never seem to stop eating.

When the hen lays an egg -- at her prime, she'll produce one a day --it drops onto a slanted surface and is carried away by a conveyor to be washed. Another conveyor carries away manure, which is dried and sold for fertilizer or used on the 500 acres the family farms.

The eggs ride a 270-foot-long belt -- the farm's "subway" -- and it takes 36 minutes to reach the processing machine. Except for the rejects, "The eggs never touch human hands," says Ina. Most of the eggs will be delivered to stores when they are less than 24 hours old.

Each egg goes through a hot bath and is sanitized and dried. Next it is candled by employee Nan Hildenbrand, who sits behind a curtain where 120 eggs at a time are laid out on a light table. She looks for cracks, rough shells, hairline weaknesses and blood spots. After 30 or so years at the candling table, she spots most every egg with a double yolk.

"People love double yolks," says Ina, recalling only a rare triple or two.

The eggs are weighed by machine and sorted into Super Jumbo, Jumbo, Extra Large, Large and Medium. Sometimes they also sell pullets, the smallest of all. The older the hen, the larger the egg and the higher the price -- but the fewer she lays. "They do sing when they're happy," Ina says.

The cartons are labeled -- color-coded by egg sizes -- and refrigerated. The Greenawalts experimented with packing their eggs in Styrofoam cartons, but stayed with paper because the eggs cooled more quickly.

Hens, which begin to lay at 18 to 22 weeks, live productive but short lives. Depending on demand, supply and price, a hen may survive one or two controlled molt cycles when she stops laying and loses her feathers. She might remain in the flock for 18 months or so. Most end up at canneries for pet food or other uses. Ina deftly skirts this issue in the Grech'hen activity book for children: "At the end of one or both lay cycles, she will be retired from laying to spend the rest of her time reflecting on all the good nutritional value she has laid for you to enjoy."

Noncompetitive prices

For the Greenawalts, a half-century of experience in the egg business may not be enough. They're getting about the same wholesale prices farmers were getting when John Greenawalt's father proclaimed, "That's a Jumbo."

Their break-even point for production costs is about 80 cents a dozen, yet some stores sell them even cheaper. She says farmers have sometimes received as little as 25 cents a dozen wholesale.

The farm had 48,000 chickens at its peak, but scaled back because of poor egg prices and other factors. All five children chose other careers, though they help out. They have diversified with produce and livestock, and Ina gives educational tours as part of their marketing. The tours are free, but she charges for entertainment, such as hayrides or egg coloring.

When we first visited Greenawalt Farms, it was in the throes of winter weather in the teens, yet chickens create their own warmth in the laying house. Heating wasn't a problem this month when we caught up with Ina one Saturday at the farmers' market in East Liberty, where she greets customers like longtime friends, even letting them hand-pick each egg.

"I come here on Saturdays, because I like to buy from small businesses," says Dr. Patrick Laing, a retired orthopedic surgeon who lives in Fox Chapel. "I like to encourage local farmers."

Health and safety concerns

The egg industry has seen rough times. It is finally recovering from the cholesterol paranoia that intensified in the 1980s, when Americans spurned their breakfast eggs for bran. Today's emphasis has shifted to the linkage between heart disease and saturated fat (a large egg has only 1.5 gram of saturated fat), and yearly egg consumption is up to 258 a person.

Then there was salmonella enteritidis. That problem was attacked in 1992 with the Pennsylvania Pilot Project, a cooperative effort of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and industry to find out the causes and remedies for SE in eggs.

Those efforts dramatically reduced salmonella through the Egg Quality Assurance Program, which now covers 85 percent of the eggs produced in Pennsylvania. For farms in that food safety program, SE dropped from having 25.7 percent of the flocks testing positive in 1994 to 7.5 percent that tested positive in 1999. "That's a 3 1/2-fold reduction," says Phil Debok of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. In any case, properly cooking eggs kills SE.

The stringent program, unique to Pennsylvania, will be mirrored in the national Egg Safety Action Plan still being formulated by the Food and Drug Administration and USDA to replace a hodgepodge of state regulations. In some states (not Pennsylvania), eggs don't even have to be refrigerated.

At one time, everybody -- and nobody -- seemed in charge. Egg safety on the farm was the purview of USDA, though the Pennsylvania Ag Department inspects the farms on the federal agency's behalf. However, only farms with 3,000 or more layers must be inspected.

As for the trucks that hauled the eggs from the farm to the supermarket, was that the FDA or FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service)? Turns out that's also PADA, says John Stella, director for the 10-county Pennsylvania Region 4 based in Gibsonia.

In Allegheny County, the Health Department inspects restaurants and joins PADA in supermarkets, but the Ag Department alone inspects in counties without health departments.

As for whether egg cartons will be labeled with a Use By, Sell By, Good Until or the date the eggs go into the dairy case, that's still being decided, says Donald McNamara, executive director of the Egg Nutrition Center in Washington, D.C. The industry spokesman says 80 percent of eggs are in the stores within three days of being laid.

Greenawalt Farms now stamps its eggs with a date, though Ina tells customers that properly refrigerated eggs can usually be safely used in baking for an additional month.

"What you ought to look for on the package right now is the USDA grade shield," says Henry Weaver, a USDA employee in Harrisburg, who works with the state Ag Department. "That shows that the eggs have been inspected for quality."

Federal grading is voluntary, as is participation in what ag insiders call PEQAP. Consumers may find logos from both on some cartons.

The USDA's Weaver remembers going over eggs with sandpaper as a kid to eliminate stains. But if he had his druthers today, after eggs are washed, dried and sanitized in chlorine or quad-ammonia solution, every egg would be treated with mineral oil to seal its porous shell and protect again contamination. "It's not required, but it seals the pores," he says. "It also extends the storage life of the egg. Now the shelf life is 45 days from the time of lay to using it."

It's already against the law to repack eggs from cartons where an egg has broken. Cracked eggs, as well as the "checks, dirties and leakers," Weaver says, go to what the trade calls the "breakers," companies that pasteurize the eggs before they can be used.

The fresher the better

A fresh egg will stand up tall when broken onto a plate, and the yolk will be thick and centered in the white."When an egg is old, you get the white watery liquid where it's broken down and the yolk is flattened," Weaver says.

Though consumers can't be sure of mass-produced supermarket eggs' origin, the state Ag Department can tell from codes on the carton. "The way the industry is going, many farms have operations in three or four states," says Kim Miller, chief of Pennsylvania's Eggs, Fruits and Vegetables Division

Sea changes have affected how egg producers do things. "I grew up around my uncle's farm in northeast Pennsylvania," recalls Stella. "The family ate all the cracked eggs. You don't do that today."

And, in the battle of public relations, there's the beak-trimming controversy promulgated by animal rights activists, who are pressuring fast-food chains such as McDonald's not to buy eggs from producers who clip the beaks of young birds. It's done to prevent cannibalism of injured birds. "That's where the term 'pecking order' comes from," says McNamara.

Much ado about nothing, says Stella. "McDonald's is crazy. This does not hurt the chicken."

Says Ina Greenawalt: "It's just like trimming your fingernails."

Not that things won't continue to change. A less aggressive breed of chicken may be developed, for instance. Another massive salmonella outbreak, and consumers and health officials may be arguing that all shell eggs be pasteurized.

On the recent Saturday in East Liberty, Bryan Greenawalt had loaded the farm's refrigerated truck to make the hour's drive to the farmers' market so that he arrives by 5:30 a.m.

Evelyn Hesch of Shadyside appreciates it. She once took in the egg festival that the Greenawalts sponsor each spring. Her car broke down, and she'll never forget how Bryan fixed her muffler so she could drive home. "I probably should have lived on a farm," she says.

Customers like Jean Hutson of Penn Hills says her romance with farm-fresh eggs was a gradual awakening. "My mother always said these eggs were the best, and I always argued with her, but here I am today, and I brought my daughter."

Grech'hen would be thrilled.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. Also at the Cooperative Farmers' Market of East Liberty Saturday mornings. Directions: 724-872-8342.

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