San Diego's ever more efficient, ever more unpopular poultry farms

Chickens and eggs, eggs and chickens

The chickens eye visitors with suspicion.

There are more hens than there are people in all of San Diego County

“Without cholesterol you would die.”

“Without cholesterol you would die.”

San Diego County is the third largest egg-producing county in the nation. The 114 poultry ranches in San Diego, with more than six million chickens, do a $50-million-per-year business. Although the world’s largest egg-production operation at a single location, with 3.1 million chickens, is still Julius Goldman’s Egg City in Moorpark (Ventura County), San Diego’s Prohoroff Poultry Farm, with 2.5 million hens, could easily overtake the number-one spot in the next few years.

“Candling lights” enable the “candlers” to see right through the egg.

“Candling lights” enable the “candlers” to see right through the egg.

Nestled in the picturesque San Marcos valley, on a dead-end dirt road near newly built convenience stores, shops, businesses, and split-level suburban homes, the Prohoroff Poultry Farm is partially obscured from the nearby freeway, Highway 78, by overgrown shrubs, cacti, and rows of long, wide palm fronds. The surrounding green pastures; the mountains; the red, yellow, and violet carpet of spring flowers; and a clear, fresh blue sky could distract even the most determined sightseer from noticing the reflecting aluminum.

A-shaped roofs serve as homes for the two and a half million chickens.

A-shaped roofs serve as homes for the two and a half million chickens.

A-shaped roofs serve as homes for the two and a half million chickens. Once inside the poultry ranch, however, there is no doubt: a lingering odor of chicken manure, piled two to three feet high beneath row after row of elevated wire cages; curtains of bothersome small flies whose hypnotic, synchronized movements seem carefully orchestrated; and the cackling of millions of chickens. Three to a cage, they are lined up in endless rows, like those of an Iowa cornfield; their nervous, shifting, scratching bodies are confined to a twelve-by-eighteen-inch living compartment.

John Pohoroff, Sr.: “They couldn’t believe that a chicken could live in a twelve-by-eighteen-inch compartment and lay eggs.”

John Pohoroff, Sr.: “They couldn’t believe that a chicken could live in a twelve-by-eighteen-inch compartment and lay eggs.”

The chickens eye visitors with suspicion and begin to thrash about inside. Other neighboring chickens quickly sense danger in the air, and they, too, begin to bounce around, screaming, attempting to run or fly within their restrictive quarters. "They’re pretty high-strung,” explains Veralee Hakes, Prohoroff Farm’s executive secretary-turned tour guide. ‘‘But they do get used to the person who feeds and takes care of them. They usually only get nervous with strangers or if there are any large noises, like a passing motorcycle might set them off.”

David Lenhert: "Here’s the type of breed — Shavers. White Leghorns, Babcot, DeKalb — their life expectancy, their body weights, their egg production, diet."

David Lenhert: "Here’s the type of breed — Shavers. White Leghorns, Babcot, DeKalb — their life expectancy, their body weights, their egg production, diet."

These birds, specially designed for commercial purposes, are significantly and increasingly more high-strung than their barnyard ancestors. Young pullets, as they are called, are brought to Prohoroff’s from a nearby hatchery when they are twenty-four weeks old, are placed three to a cage, and remain there for about two years, to be removed only if they die or if, for some reason, they do not produce enough eggs. They never walk more than a few inches a day; their feet never touch the ground; artificial lights do not allow them to sleep more than a few hours a night; and should their egg count drop below a certain level, they are not given any food or water, which then leads to “force molt” — they lose their feathers and thereby, because of certain biological changes, produce eggs of a higher quality and at a faster rate.

1100 of Prohoroff’s neighbors wanted to shut down his manure-processing plant.

1100 of Prohoroff’s neighbors wanted to shut down his manure-processing plant.

Genetics, too, has played an important role in developing a creature nature never intended. The goal of scientists in the poultry industry is to breed a “superchicken” — an efficient, economical egg-laying machine that will deliver an egg every twenty-three hours. By using artificial light twenty-three hours a day and selectively breeding only the hens that lay every twenty-three hours, a flock of hens that lay an egg per day — the poultry farmer’s dream — may soon be possible. As late as 1930, the most eggs a hen of any breed could lay was two a week. At that time, hens on the average weighed five and three-quarter pounds and consumed nine pounds of feed to produce a dozen eggs. Since then, genetic engineers have vastly improved these figures. Today’s hens have doubled their output of eggs per week, weigh one-third less, and require half the amount of feed they used to consume.

There is nothing at the Prohoroff Farm resembling a child’s storybook hen, scampering about the yard followed by her family of cute, fuzzy, newborn chicks, a proud and colorful red rooster looking on nearby. Instead, at the beginning of each row of cages, there is a feeding machine, a system of conveyor belts which deposits the feed in front of the chickens. Another system of conveyor belts collects the eggs found underneath the hens, carries them to the end of the row, where the eggs are automatically sorted out and carefully placed in constantly moving cardboard cartons. In goes the feed, out come the eggs. It is a very simple and efficient system, indeed.

“A farmer from Kenya visited us a few days ago,” recalls Veralee Hakes. “He said that people don’t eat eggs in Africa because their chickens are still sort of wild and only ovulate a couple of times a year. He was interested in starting a poultry ranch in his country. We showed him around and he was absolutely amazed at what he saw. “ The farmer from Kenya may have recognized the farm equipment: tractors, trucks, barns, aluminum sheds, a feed mill, machine shops, silos, piles of discarded oil drums, dusty dirt roads, and dozens of farmhands going about their daily tasks. He was probably dismayed, though, to learn that a modern poultry operation needs computer technicians, engineers, chemists, and market analysts as much as it needs chickens.

The dramatic changes that have occurred in the poultry industry over the years are well illustrated in the differences between John Prohoroff. Sr., the founder, and his son, John Jr., the general manager of Prohoroff Poultry Farm. In 1945, John Sr. worked as a carpenter and builder and lived on his father’s North County farm. He started in the business of egg production simply as a hobby, a back yard operation with 250 Kimber chicks. The chicks brooded in his father’s old hay barn. John Sr. constructed what may have been the first laying house made out of wire cages. “Poultrymen from miles around came to see my layers in cages, ” he proudly recalls. “They couldn’t believe that a chicken could live in a twelve-by-eighteen-inch compartment and lay eggs.” During those early days, the profit margin on his hobby was so good that he was able to put his money back into the chicken business. At one point he felt that if he could maintain 2000 chickens he would be a success and perhaps then devote his entire time to the poultry business. He reached that goal: then there were 20,000, 200,000, and twenty-five years later Prohoroff Farm had well over two million layers.

John Jr. bears a close resemblance to his father — the same short, stocky build; the same friendly smile; and the same casual, plaid-shirt attire. Unlike his father, John Jr. knew that he would be in the poultry business. The days of innovative wire cages had long passed, and if he was to keep abreast of the competition in the egg industry, John Jr. would have to be suitably trained for the task. Consequently, he went to UCLA and studied chemistry, engineering, and perhaps most important, computer technology.

“Yes, computers are very important here,” comments David Lenhert, the Prohoroff ranch’s chief computer programmer. “We have a program called LPS front IBM; that’s the Linear Programming System. It essentially calculates the optimum solution to any given problem. Took some thirty man-years to write this program." From the large table in the center of the immaculate computer room, Lenhert reaches over to a shelf next to one of the busy machines and explains, “Now, this is a flock-performance report. It shows which group or subgroup we're working with. Here’s the type of breed — like Shavers. White Leghorns, Babcot, DeKalb — their life expectancy, their body weights, their egg production, diet, broken down by different ingredients. It’s all here. The computer has all the information.”

As an example, one of the weekly flock-performance reports was titled “Group 6. subgroup Shaver.” The data indicated that there were 179,942 birds in this particular group; they were twenty-seven weeks old; their diet consisted of fish, ”55 Protein,” “Meat 53 Protein.’’fiber, calcium, lysine, grape pumace — all ingredients broken down by percentages; there was no need yet for a “force molt”; and the weekly mortality rate of 1168 was well within the one-to three-percent average. “The computer contains the entire life file of the chicken,” Lenhert continues. “When we run a program, it will meet the exact nutritional needs of the chicken with what ingredients are present at the mill, while minimizing our costs. That way it arrives at the optimum solution.”

The diet of a chicken is a very important part of poultry farming, since what a hen eats will determine the quantity and quality of its eggs. For instance, if the computer notices that Group 58’s eggs are cracking at a disproportionate rate, the feed will be recalculated. Terramycin is a “broad-spectrum” antibiotic that has been shown to increase egg-shell strength by up to thirty-eight percent when mixed at one hundred grams per ton of feed. The computer responds accordingly, and the egg-laying machines are readjusted for peak efficiency.

While Lenhert’s computer at the administrative offices calculates the different feed formulas for the varying nutritional requirements of the chickens, another computer across the street, locked in a dusty, wood-and-glass enclosure within the feed mill, operates a series of conveyor belts, doors, and feed chutes. Seemingly on their own. hydraulically run conveyor belts begin to move, stopping only below certain mill doors that automatically open and drop a measured amount of milo; then below another chute, the appropriate percentage of grape pumace, fish protein, and meat is deposited. The computer then makes sure that the mixture is sufficiently blended for the particular group of chickens.

The first computer was installed at the Prohoroff Farm more than fourteen years ago. Within a year, the $100,000 investment more than paid for itself. Several other computers have since been added. One works the feed mill; another works the fertilizer plant; and still another does the administrative work. They payroll for 150 employees, the accounts receivable, inventory. profit analysis, and various other accounting tasks are quickly computed. And what used to take the Prohoroffs’ computer a week to accomplish, now takes twenty minutes. The results used to be typed out at fifty lines per minute; today, the computers spew out information at a rate of 600 lines per minute.

Computers, egg-laying machines, and the entire poultry industry have come a long way since the elder Prohoroff’s early days as a poultryman. The entire industry, including the Prohoroff farm, has become increasingly more specialized. Until six months ago, the Prohoroff Farm used to have its own hatchery, but that phase of egg production has been terminated and specialized hatcheries now provide the hens. Dead chickens are no longer wasted; they are sent to factories that prepare dog or cat food. (Chickens that survive their two-year stay are sent to other factories that specialize in preparing soups or chicken pot pies.) The chicken manure is moved up the side of a hill to Prohoroff’s Organo fertilizer plant. The finished product, the egg, once gathered and packed by hand, is now sent next door to one of the many packaging plants operated by Olson Brothers, Inc., a large corporation headquartered in Sherman Oaks, near Los Angeles.

Art Gibbons, the production manager at the Olson packaging plant in San Marcos, estimates that about eighty-five percent of his plant's eggs come from the Prohoroff ranch. He declines to specify the exact number of eggs coming out of his plant (“I’ve been in this business for thirty-one years, and you have to be real careful about your competitors; you don’t want them finding out too much about your operation”), but even casual observation indicates the volume is tremendous.

In the large, drafty warehouse adjacent to the Olson administrative offices, trucks load or unload eggs at a platform behind the large, high-ceilinged, refrigerated enclosure. Beside the huge refrigerator, several large automated machines weave eggs in and out stacks of red, yellow, white, or blue styrofoam egg cartons with names such as Golden Ranch, Ranch Fresh, or Vons printed on the top. Six-foot-high racks, filled with trays of eggs, are pushed around by electric-powered fork lifts called pallet jacks. A half dozen women, most of them of Latin descent, stoop over each of the five processing machines, their eyes fixed on the eggs moving about in front of them. While showing off his newest egg-processing machine, which processes 140 cases (4200 dozen, or 50,400 eggs) per hour. Gibbons remarks, "It’s like a car. If the girls keep on top of it, then it will okay. You really do have to give the guy who invented this thing a lot of credit, though.”

All incoming pallets of eggs are placed on a conveyor belt, which moves them along until an infrared light alerts a hydraulic apparatus. Two dozen eggs are quickly lifted over into the dish-washing machine, where thousands of small, fine, black nylon brushes carefully agitate and rotate the eggs through a mixture of USDA-approved detergent. The constantly moving eggs are hit by a spray of rinse, then chlorine to sanitize them, then by a warm dryer before they are coated with a thin film of processing oil which helps retard spoilage.

The automated journey continues as two women busily work inside a dark, curtained area where the eggs pass over a sheet of penetrating orange lights. These “candling lights” enable the “candlers” to see right through the egg. So far, a machine has not been able by itself to see well enough to spot the “breakers,” "bleeders,” or “leakers,” eggs that are not suitable for consumption because they are cracked, have blood inside, or have broken yolks. These eggs are set aside and sold to the ‘ ‘breaking plant, ” a factory that special izes in liquid or frozen eggs used by various food manufacturers.

Those eggs that pass the candling inspection proceed on to a series of highly calibrated scales that electronically weigh each egg. If an egg is too light for the Jumbo scale, it is automatically pushed over to the X-Large scale, or the Medium, Small, and eventually, if need be, the PeeWee scale, where the lightest eggs end up. All this information is fed to a computer, which decides what packing lane each egg will be allowed to enter. At the end of each packing lane, eggs are pushing and shoving each other on to the familiar dozen-hole styrofoam egg cartons. Electronic lights will spot any missing eggs, stop the machine, an alarm will go on and one of the women can take care of the problem. “It’s like a horse race,” smiles Gibbons, who is starting and stopping the machine, trying to trick it into making a mistake. "If there is a horse missing from the starting gate, the race won’t start. It’s just like this — the machine will stop unless all the eggs are there and ready to go.” The processor, however, is not completely foolproof. Eggs do break. Strategically placed paper-towel dispensers are a reminder that even machines make mistakes.

Before the eggs are sent to the local supermarket, there is one final step. Each egg-packaging plant is required to have a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector on the premises. From her small, wooden ten-by-twelve-foot office, built in a far corner of the warehouse, Diane Dentler, the USDA inspector for the past four years at this particular Olson plant, goes about her job, talking about what she does while deftly holding up to the candling light egg after egg from a randomly selected carton. “They call it candling,” she explains, “because in the old days they put a candle inside a box like this and did essentially the same thing I'm doing.

“Every egg has a little air space inside, and depending on the size of that air space you know if you have a double A quality egg, A grade, B grade, or C grade, which is the lowest grade. Most people know that a good egg sinks and a bad egg will float. Over time or without refrigeration an egg will acquire more and more air inside; a bad egg has a lot of air inside and that’s why it floats.

“Just look at the side of the egg carton," she continues. "There is an expiration date and this number here, 109. That’s the Julian calendar system, the 109th day of the year, or April 19, which is today’s date, and you know exactly when the eggs were packaged. There. ...” she interrupts herself after finishing another batch. She looks down at her “score sheet” and figures out how many she has rejected. “This group had three checks, one B, one A. That's a ninety-five percent. Good pack.“ The eggs are certified.

At 11:30 a.m. a buzzer sounds out over the public address system. It’s lunch time. All the machines stop, everyone leaves, and an eerie silence falls over the large, empty warehouse, interrupted only by the occasional chirping of a bird who has found its way inside. “That? Oh, that's probably one of those birds,” Dentler says with a smile. “They keep flying in here trying to build their nests in the ceiling. We try to scare them away, but they seem pretty determined, I guess, to lay their eggs here.”

For centuries, eggs have captured the imagination of man. Though eggs of various animals — turtles, crocodiles, sturgeon (caviar) — have never approached the popularity of bird eggs, the avian egg has been the subject of legends and myths; many cultures have long considered it a symbol of the earth, life, or the soul. Besides being eaten, eggs have served as good-luck charms; they have been worshipped, feared, sacrificed, used in fortune telling and fertility rites. As a vestige of early rites, the Western world has adopted the egg as a symbol of the resurrection of Christ, leading to the universally recognized, elaborately decorated Easter egg. (The first chicken to arrive in the Western Hemisphere — they are believed to have originated in the jungles of prehistoric India —came with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage, in 1493.) The ancient Chinese believed that an egg, dropped from heaven, eventually hatched man. Hindu scriptures describe how the world itself began as a golden egg. And TV viewers of the popular Mark and Mindy series will recall how significant eggs are for the visitor from outer space.

For most Americans, however, eggs are one of the few food staples that arrives pure, perfectly packaged in its own shell, its contents intact, without injections of chemicals and preservatives inside. Two eggs whipped up in a frying pan, at fifteen cents a serving, remains one of the most inexpensive meals around, and at today’s increased food prices, they are becoming a better and better bargain. (Last year 273 million hens produced 59.7 billion eggs in the United States. On the average, Americans eat 277 eggs per year.)

Eggs are easily digested; they're among the first foods given to infants, and are commonly included in the diets of ill persons or older people who can not digest all foods. Dieters appreciate the increased protein-to-calorie ratio offered by eggs over other high-protein foods. For instance, one-hundred grams of egg has only 144 calories, compared to the 203 calories of salmon, ham’s 374, cheddar cheese’s 398, and a hamburger with 377 calories. It is a high-quality protein source that provides all of the essential amino acids, all the vitamins (except vitamin C), and thirteen important minerals, such as iron, phosphorous, and magnesium. All these benefits, of course, are constantly touted by the American Egg Board, the organized voice of the country’s poultrymen. The industry’s sloganeers have even coined their own tantalizing expression for their product — "The Incredible, Edible Egg.”

In recent years, however, critics have begun to charge that the egg is hardly incredible, and perhaps not even edible. Many scientists have confirmed the significant role of cholesterol in regard to a variety of heart problems. Many consumers, heeding the advice of their physicians, have stopped eating eggs altogether. Ad agencies and companies promoting no- and low-cholesterol products know they don’t even need to mention possible health benefits; the public already believes that eating high-cholesterol foods is bad. Therefore, eating low-cholesterol foods must be good.

Poultrymen bristle every time they see, read, or hear about the new low-cholesterol industry that is profiting at their expense. “Wake up to a cholesterol-free breakfast with Kellogg’s Special K.” one ad suggests. “Contains no cholesterol,” is now a common boast made by a growing number of products. (The American Egg Board has petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to prevent advertisements that boost their product at the expense of eggs.) For five years egg consumption in the United States has been on the decline, and the powerful egg industry is coming out fighting on several fronts.

The egg industry's scientists dismiss the significance of cholesterol in one’s diet. Dr. Robert Olson, chairman of the department of biochemistry at the St. Louis University School of Medicine, says, for instance, that “scientific opinion on cholesterol ischanging. Many reputable scientists are challenging the formerly held views of the importance of dietary cholesterol.” Specifically addressing the controversial diet/heart theory. Dr. Olson adds, “One egg contains 250 milligrams of cholesterol and only fifty percent of it is absorbed in the system. Your liver synthesizes 8000 milligrams of cholesterol per week. I think somebody should say that!” Another authority in the egg industry, Dick Chilson, writes in the Poultry Tribune, a trade publication, “Cholesterol is vital to life. All hormones (including sex hormones) are synthesized from cholesterol. The dry weight of the brain is largely cholesterol. Nerve juncture, or synapse, occurs through cholesterol. Bile acid, necessary for digestion of fat, is made from circulating cholesterol.” He concludes that “without cholesterol you would die.” It seems from Chilson's analysis that eating more eggs will make you sexier, smarter, less neurotic. and help avoid indigestion. Though many would scoff at such an enthusiastic endorsement, most doctors would probably agree with the famed Houston heart surgeon, Michael DeBakey. who says that “while excessive consumption of eggs is inadvisable for people with high cholesterol levels, individuals with normal cholesterol levels run no risk in enjoying sensible amounts.”

Another criticism aimed at the egg industry. though much less widespread, is of no less concern to those directly involved. It concerns the inevitable by-product of thousands upon thousand of chickens—the obnoxious odor of tons of chicken manure and the countless millions of flies accompanying it. Arthur Patoff and his family, of El Cajon, are among those unfortunate people who live near a poultry ranch. “The flies are literally everywhere,” complains Patoff, who has been fighting the poultry industry for the last fourteen years. “You can’t hang your clothes outside. You can’t have a barbecue. If you wanted to build a pool, you’d never be able to use it. At night the flies sit on the house, spit up, regurgitate all this brown stuff over the house, so you have to keep painting your house. You got to make sure to close the doors real quick to make sure they don’t come inside. Oh. I could go on and on.”

During a public hearing before the San Diego County Board of Supervisors in March. Patoff dramatically illustrated the problem by showing eleven color slides of his house, or what could be seen of his house through the swarms of flies surrounding it. His wife. Lynn, told the supervisors that she worried about her children’s health, especially in the winter months, when heavy rains cause sewer lines to overflow and flies pick up the effluents from the leech lines. Other San Diegans from around the county complained about fly problems. Petitions from angry neighbors were presented. Patoff summed up the feelings of many residents plagued by flies when he told the supervisors. “My home now is not a castle; it is a prison.” The County Board of Supervisors subsequently directed the health department to take appropriate legal action against offending poultry ranches. Moise Mizrahi, the county's vectorecolgist and a spokesman for the county's health department, says that from now on they will work more closely with the district attorney’s office and the Corporation Counsel to institute criminal and civil actions against uncooperative poultry ranches. But he concedes that similar efforts in the past have only resulted in suspended fines. “If someone calls in a complaint about adult flies, we go out and investigate,” Mizrahi explains. “But by the time the flies have reached the adult stage, the source — where they breed in the chicken manure — no longer exists. The majority of poultry ranches do try to keep fly breeding to a minimum. The increases are usually due to climatic changes. These last few years have been wetter than others. Other years, during the drought, for instance, there were very few flies. ” Mizrahi says that the state health department docs not consider the flies to be a health problem, but simply a nuisance. “If it were a health problem — like flies were picking up pathogens from overflowing sewers or trash — if that occurred, we would force the elimination of the sewage and order the owner to install a new pump or build a new system.”

Arthur Patoff and others are not optimistic. “Having been at this for fourteen years, you’re skeptical of any promises,” he says. “We feel that the health department could be more aggressive. The board [of supervisors) has the authority to reenact the fly ordinance and toughen it up with licensing requirements and stiff fines. Why hasn’t the problem been solved? I don’t know. They can do a lot more and they haven't.”

Both the Hooper Poultry Ranch in El Cajon and the Prohoroff Poultry Farm in San Marcos were two of the five ranches mentioned in a recent health department report listing ranches with six or more fly complaints. The Hooper Ranch, with only 75,000 chickens, received twenty-five complaints in 1978, while the Prohoroff Farm, with 2.5 million chickens, showed only six complaints. “We’ve been fighting this thing for forty years.” argues Carlin Hooper, owner of the ranch that bears his name. “You have to understand that flies are constantly breeding. Springtime is the worst; you even get flies downtown; everything grows in the spring. Flies love chicken manure. We use chemicals, tractors, pile it up, turn it. compost it. But while we get ninety-nine percent of them, just those few we don’t get cause the problems.” Hooper feels that “it’s just nature's way,” and that neighbors have encroached upon his farm (“just like the airport”) over the years, and “we just have more neighbors than anyone else."

John Prohoroff. Sr., has perfected one of the most unique poultry-manure fertilizer-processing plants in the world, and he hopes it will be the answer that will mollify his neighbors. For a while, though, it seemed that the fertilizer plant was compounding his problems. As his farm was expanding, so was San Marcos. In 1945 there were only 200 people living in the vicinity. Today, San Marcos's 14,000 residents share the same air space with two and a half million chickens. A couple of years ago, 1100 of Prohoroff’s neighbors wanted to shut down his manure-processing plant because they claimed it was a public nuisance. After months of hearings and hundreds of pages of testimony, the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District granted Prohoroff Poultry Farm a permit to operate a pollution-control system. Attorney’s fees, according to the Prohoroffs, totaled more than $75,000. The sophisticated air scrubber that had to be installed at the fertilizer plant cost more than $300,000.

While the controversies over cholesterol and manure management have forced poultrymen to the defensive, the “incredible, edible egg” is by no means on its way to becoming extinct. Recent studies indicate that per capita consumption is beginning to increase, and the ever active chicken engineers continue their laboratory experiments. If the long-awaited “superchicken” is soon to arrive, it’s not impossible to imagine an egg with no cholesterol. manure that does not attract flies, and fertilizer plants that emit the sweet smell of lilacs.

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