Bird flu in Washington cracks Alaska’s egg supply chain
An outbreak of the avian flu in Washington state has drastically slowed egg shipments north. Alaska’s communities are feeling the shortage acutely, especially rural areas where options are limited.
On a recent, snowy afternoon, Michael Yingst scanned the dairy section at the AC grocery store in Dillingham.
“I came here to look for eggs," he said. "Tomorrow is my birthday and I was hoping to make some banana cream pie. But it looks like we’re going to be out of luck for a while.”
Like Yingst, people across Alaska are running into egg shortages. Many are posting pictures on social media of empty shelves and trying to crowdsource where they can buy eggs. Even large grocery chains like Fred Meyer are limiting how many cartons of eggs people can buy. Meanwhile, prices are spiking. Rural areas are getting hit especially hard, because many only have one or two grocery stores, which leaves them with fewer options. And the shortages aren’t expected to let up any time soon.
“It’s not good news in any way," said Kyle Hill, the president of the Alaska Commercial Co. "It’s really farm-dependent.”
The Alaska Commercial Co., or AC, has 35 stores in the state and calls itself the “largest retailer in rural Alaska.” It gets most of its eggs from Washington state, and one of those providers, Oakdell Farms, was recently hit hard by the bird flu.
“They've had to unfortunately deal with over a million birds that have had avian flu in that farm," Hill said. "So there's huge supply issues, in the sense that we're struggling to get any eggs at all.”
When they can get eggs, it’s just a trickle. Hill said AC is telling its suppliers that rural communities don’t have a lot of options when it comes to groceries. If AC doesn’t have eggs, that means an entire community might not have eggs, which then becomes a food security issue. But Hill said it’s tough, because AC is competing with large, national chains.
“They are trying to leverage their national scale and their national distribution to get eggs from elsewhere," he said. "But, you know, when it comes down to it, there's only so many eggs out there.”
Hill said pressuring suppliers only goes so far. It’s a supply and demand issue, and all retailers are pushing their suppliers.
“It is a fight, because every retailer is making their case to the same suppliers," he said. "And then this isn't even just a Pacific Northwest issue. Down in Texas over the holidays a friend said that they saw eggs at $9 a dozen, because they have a farm down there that's having avian flu issues. So it's really farm-dependent.”
Prices aren’t going to be any cheaper in rural Alaska. And when supplies run low, costs go up.
At the front of the Dillingham AC store this week, Sarah Nanalook waited for fellow shoppers. She had traveled with them about 30 miles over the tundra on snowmachines from their hometown of Manokotak to Dillingham to go shopping.
“We only have one small trading store which is owned by Manokotak Native Limited. There’s no other store,” she said.
She said she has watched the price of eggs skyrocket.
“For Christmas I had to buy two dozen for, I mean, almost $20,” she said.
A smaller group of Alaskans, like Alicia Swan, are leaning on their backyard flocks of chickens. Alicia Swan perused the dairy aisle, but not for eggs. That’s because she and her family own chickens.
“Out of 17 birds we’re averaging six to nine eggs a day," she said. "That’s pretty good.”
But it’s not easy to keep chickens in rural Alaska, particularly in the winter, when chickens tend to produce fewer eggs.
“It can be complicated getting feed here," she said. "Especially during the winter, you have to continually give them water because it freezes, keep them warm. We give them extra light to keep them laying eggs. They kind of have a vacation during the winter.”
And what about Michael Yingst and his birthday banana cream pie? He’s trying to come up with a new plan.
“Researching egg substitutes and see if there’s anything else I can use as a replacement for eggs," he said. "But they’re kind of irreplaceable when it comes to a lot of things. So hopefully we’ll figure that out.”
Dillingham’s other grocery store, Bigfoot, is also out but hopes to get an egg delivery early next week. Meanwhile, AC expects a shipment to stores throughout the state by the end of next week. But it anticipates the shortage will last for at least a couple months.
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