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Science of the egg

Egg production in Florida is big business, and those in it worry about the loss of a UF program to train poultry scientists.

By KELLY VIRELLA
Published June 14, 2004

ZEPHYRHILLS - At the egg farm on Singletary Road, the conveyor belts are rolling off 700,000 eggs a day. In these Atkins Diet-crazed times, that means Zephyr Eggs is making money hand over fist.

The Pasco County company's sales have been so strong during the record egg price increases of recent months that its owners are planning to build a new chicken house, outfitted with state of the art computer systems.

With $145-million in sales last year, Florida turned out 2.8-billion eggs, making the state the 11th largest egg producer in the nation.

But when Danny Landville, Zephyr Eggs co-owner, looks to the horizon, he feels uneasy.

This year, Florida joined dozens of other states in a trend that could affect poultry and egg producers nationally. Under budget constraints, the University of Florida eliminated its program to educate poultry scientists.

If that doesn't sound like a problem to you, you don't understand what it takes to get a chicken to lay an egg, say industry leaders.

"People think food comes from the grocery store," said Beth Nelson, president of Midwest Poultry Consortium, a trade group that represents the country's largest egg producing region. "It doesn't work like that."

Poultry science students go on to play key roles in advancing the egg industry.

They divine the right genes for selectively breeding the most prolific chickens. They determine the most nutritious and cost effective corn and protein mix to feed hens. They cure diseases. They devise strategies to fight big industry problems such as salmonella.

And they track, interpret and forecast business trends.

"If you were going to be a business manager for a big poultry company, it would help if you had some idea what was going on over in the plant," said Chuck Smith, the executive vice president of the Florida Poultry Federation, a trade association.

Three of the state's four egg producers operate plants and employ 200 people in Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties. Between these three counties, the Tampa Bay area houses one third of the state's 12-million laying chickens.

The industry is flush now from a rebound that began in April 2003, partly inspired by low-carb diets. As dieters flocked to high-protein foods, they helped double the average price of eggs in Florida within a year. In March 2003, farmers were getting 51 cents per dozen. By March 2004, they were getting $1.01 per dozen.

Zephyr Eggs and two more of the state's producers say their sales rose 30 to 35 percent during that time.

Florida farmers think the growth will continue in the short term, despite UF's withdrawal from poultry science education. Hillendale Farms, the state's largest egg farm, still can train people who don't have their degrees, said Eddy Hazen, president and part owner of Hillendale. The company has a farm in Hernando County and employs 250 people across the state.

"It's not a huge problem right now, but it might be in 10 years," Hazen said. "If you end up without any students going to the university, we wouldn't have any people committed to our industry. If someone has their degree, they're more likely to stay in the industry."

Landville said only one of his 150 employees studied poultry science in college, but as Zephyr Egg's production manager, he is an indispensable part of the company.

"You need to have somebody who understands the nutrition part of chicken," Landville said. "He writes the program to teach people how to take care of the chickens."

Too few students were majoring in poultry science at UF to justify the costly renovations that laboratories needed and to pay the faculty, said Jimmy Cheek, dean of the Institute for Food and Agriculture Science. Since Cheek began teaching at the institute 29 years ago, enrollment in poultry science has remained steady at about 20.

Meanwhile other departments such as the new equine program and the animal biology specialization, which prepares students for vet school, were enrolling at least five times as many, he said.

Moreover, egg producers, who traditionally provide much of the funding for the university programs and research, were saying they wanted to divert their limited dollars from nutrition, genetics and diseases, Cheek said.

"When we talked to the industry, they told us their biggest problem is how to manage the waste from an operation," he said. "That's not a poultry science problem. It's a science and engineering and soil and water scientist problem."

The story was the same at most other universities. "There's not as much political pressure from the poultry industry," said Mary Beck, a University of Nebraska professor of avian physiology who published a paper a decade ago documenting the trend.

In the past four decades, about 40 states have seen their only poultry science studies program fold or merge with other fields. Although the egg industry says it is concerned about a potential shortage of scientists, "They haven't supported the universities," Beck said. "Most of the companies are not run by poultry scientists. They're run by businessmen."

The same pressures that have curtailed poultry science studies have affected other agricultural sciences, Beck said. But poultry science has been battered harder than most because the industry has been less vocal, she said.

Brigid McCrea, a graduate student at Auburn who has researched the subject, said it's because the industry no longer needs as many graduates. Early researchers have transformed the once manual-labor intensive industry into one with mechanical egg collection, sorting and packing. "We've researched ourselves out of existence," McCrea said.

With Alabama and Georgia as neighbors, Florida's egg farmers have a labor cushion that Midwestern states don't. Farmers here often hire workers from Auburn University and the University of Georgia, two universities that are bucking the nationwide trend toward consolidating and eliminating poultry science education.

Moreover, Smith, of the poultry federation, is working with University of Florida officials to restore student access to poultry science by enrolling UF in a consortium of Midwestern schools that share instructors and labs.

If the plans succeed, by 2005, Florida students will be able to take poultry science classes during two summers at the University of Wisconsin.

The Florida Poultry Federation has pledged to give students scholarships to defray the cost of living in Madison, Wisc. But one of the obstacles to training new workers will be finding candidates.

At a community event in Clearwater last month, Smith tried to build goodwill with a group of 50 middle and high school students, potential poultry industry employees. A circle of 12- and 13-year-old girls eating the free omelets he prepared shrugged their shoulders at the mention of 4-H.

"What's that?" they said.

"I heard of that because it was in a Dixie Chicks song," one girl said.

Tommy Ford, president and owner of CFMG, an egg farm in Polk County that employs 25 to 28 people, said it's too early to say what the changes at UF mean. "They've only been shut down in the last month," Ford said. "It's not been a problem so far, but it will."

Smith is more pessimistic.

"As an old man who has gone through a number of years of change, my biggest concern is we want to have enough people involved in the production of food and fiber to keep it affordable," he said. "We're down to only 2 percent of people being involved in agriculture and that's scary."

[Last modified June 13, 2004, 10:38:09]

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