Over 200,000 Missouri residents have filed for unemployment since March 20, as businesses are forced to close because of the coronavirus outbreak.
COLUMBIA — Over 200,000 Missouri residents have filed for unemployment since March 20, as businesses are forced to close because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Don't count egg producers among them. Their demand is so high, they're struggling to keep up.
Before COVID-19 shaped our new reality, 55% of eggs nationally went to retail, according to the Columbia Missourian. Now, 80% of all eggs are going to the grocery store.
According to Jo Manhart, director of The Missouri Egg Council, that reflects the change in how egg producers are operating until restaurants and schools reopen.
Columbia Public Schools closed March 18, causing food producers like Dustin Stanton to lose business.
"They all literally have gone to zero. We lost a lot of sales on half of our business," Stanton said. He's co-owner of Stanton Brothers Eggs in Centralia with his brother, Austin.
But because of the increase in retail demand, sales are now higher than ever. Demand has increased so much, Stanton's now having to choose which of his clients get to fill their shelves with his eggs.
Other egg producers across Missouri have experienced the same uptick. Indiana-based Rose Acre Farms has two egg-laying operations in Missouri, one in Knob Noster and the other in Hawk Point. They have seen "an unprecedented surge in egg demand," Communications Coordinator Clay Brown said.
Smaller producers also are benefiting from the demand for eggs.
Ben Roberts, who operates Ben Roberts' Heritage Poultry & Eggs in Fortuna, said he's also seen an increase in demand. He's been selling eggs for 65 years.
"It has been the best thing to ever happen to me," Roberts said.
Jim Hayes owns Hayes Happy Hens in Tunas. Hayes and his wife began cultivating pasture-raised hens in 2016. With 10,500 birds, they're collecting about 10,000 eggs a day, but they're not selling directly to retail.
They sell to Vital Farms, an egg processor based in Springfield. Vital Farms takes Hayes' eggs and sells them to grocery stores around the state.
According to Vital Farms, demand from retailers has increased up to 150% compared to last March.
Hayes says he's continuing to operate as normal. Because he only gets a finite amount of eggs per day, there's no way to increase supply.
Most grocery stores were not prepared for what March brought. Panic buying and stockpiling by consumers left many shelves bare. Inventory is improving now, but stores big and small are still competing with each other to restock products such as eggs.
Patty Clover owns Clover's Natural Market, with two Columbia locations — off East Broadway and at Chapel Plaza Court. She gets her eggs from the Stantons and has been buying from the brothers since 2012.
"We immediately got hit as soon as people started getting scared," Clover said. "The panic hit, I think every store in Columbia and the throngs of people that were just clearing off our shelves."
Clover worries that her local supplies might be swayed by the bigger stores offering bigger orders — and a higher price.
"They can't supply everybody, so we're just praying that they remember us and don't just cut us out to go for the big guys," she said.
Stanton insists that he's doing his best to make sure that doesn't happen. He and his brother have maintained their commitment to supplying to locals first.
"We've had all sorts of calls from states hours away, and we really just turned all of them down. We really just turned them down to supply our local stores the best that we can," Stanton said.
Most producers are doing the same. Rose Acres' is only guaranteeing each retailer the number of eggs it's historically purchased. Vital Farms is increasing production where it can to meet the higher demand.
Because of fears that eggs will never get back on the shelves, a number of people are taking an alternative route to ensure they'll have eggs in the coming months.
Jeff Smith's family has been selling egg-laying chickens at Cackle Hatchery in Lebanon for over 40 years. They've seen a spike in the number of birds being purchased in the recent weeks.
"Right now, certain breeds, we're booking out two and three months out into the future," Smith said.
Even Stanton has had requests to buy his hens, but he said he's turned down everyone.
There might not be green pastures ahead for some.
Stanton is relieved his business has been insulated from the challenges producers from other commodities are facing.
"I think if there's any industry to be in right now, I'm in the right one. So, I'm actually at a lot of peace," he said.
Even for producers like Stanton and others who have seen increased demand, there is still uncertainty.
When social distancing ends, it's unclear exactly how many restaurants will be left to open up again. Stanton depends on them. Once demand in grocery stores returns to normal, he may not have as many restaurants to pick up the slack.
But for the time being, producers are doing their best to give back and support communities where they can.
Vital Farms donated 650,000 eggs to Ozarks Food Harvest in Springfield, and other food producers around mid-Missouri are donating extra food to support essential workers.
"I'm very optimistic about the future of it all, and I think that's important right now," Stanton said. "I'm really optimistic about agriculture, the industry, the food we're eating."
Clover, who depends on people like Stanton to keep providing food to the community, remains grateful.
"I think we're all helping each other. So, to me, that's the huge takeaway that, yeah, this is scary. And yeah, there's some panic, but we're basically going to be stronger and better from all this," Clover said.
Right now, the stay-at-home order will continue until at least May 3. Stanton said the sooner schools and restaurants open, the faster his farm's future will look sunny side up.