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A look inside Willamette Egg Farms

Like other industries, the egg business has seen significant consolidation over the last few decades. The tightening of the industry has pushed businesses to adapt or fade away. Willamette Egg Farms chose to adapt. by: COURTESY WILLAMETTE EGG - Rolling down the line.

The company’s head offices are just down the road from Molalla, where the owners graduated from high school.

Greg Satrum, one of the owners and the recipient of the Agri-Business Council’s 2011 Agriculturist of the Year award, stood in the processing plant near Molalla recently. In front of him, eggs were swept up by conveyor belts, positioned, and cleaned by machines. The cleaned eggs then rolled down the line, where a man checked them for cracks and cleanliness.

A machine next to him double checked his work: Dozens of little robot fingers tapped the eggs, 24 times per egg. The machine listens to the sound reverberating off the eggs when tapped. If they’re cracked, they’re swept up and used in other products, but they don’t make it to grocers’ shelves in cartons.

“It’s not new technology,” Satrum said, explaining that most of the computerization and mechanization was installed in the 1990s.

Behind the scenes, USDA inspectors sat in a small closed area, inspecting eggs.

One million eggs roll through the processing plant near Molalla every day. Another 700,000 are processed each day at Willamette Egg’s Washington facility.

The Portland-metro area goes through about that many eggs (1.7 million) a day, Satrum said.

To keep up with that kind of demand, it’s not surprising the industry has moved from small farms to large operations

Along with the two processing plants, Willamette Egg has multiple hen houses and they distribute most of the eggs with their own fleet.

Willamette Egg delivers mostly in the Northwest, but a few of their eggs end up as far away as Guam. From the hen to the shelf, an egg’s journey takes between 24 and 72 hours.

“A lot of the work in the houses is just checking hens,” Satrum said. by: COURTESY WILLAMETTE EGG - Inside one of Willamette Egg Farms' cage-free houses.

Those houses have seen a lot of change over the years as well, and more change is expected.

CEO Gordon Satrum and President Dan Cunningham both have spent most of their lives in the industry, and they’ve seen a lot of changes in the egg biz.

“I was born into [this business],” Gordon said. That mentality has kept Willamette Egg a family business since it began.

In 1934, Tom Dybvad began selling eggs to grocery stores in Portland, delivered in a Model A Ford. He started with 400 hens.

Small is how Willamette Egg started, but it’s not where the business remained. Today, Willamette Egg has more than two million hens.

“The rule of thumb is one hen per person,” Greg said, speaking of consumption/production ratios.

Though the company has grown significantly, the owners haven’t found it necessary to take the company public, Gordon said. The changes he sees on the horizon revolve around operations.

Willamette Egg is trying to stay at the forefront of a changing industry, Gordon said. There used to be a limited selection in egg options, he said, but now you have cage free and organic, a larger variety across the board.

The industry is falling under more and more regulation, Cunningham said, and Willamette Egg is making decisions based not on how they find it best to operate, but on how the consumer would like them to operate.

Consumer demands are driving the larger selection in egg type, which in turn has changed how the industry operates—or perhaps the consumer has demanded the industry operate differently, which has increased the selection of eggs. It’s the old egg and chicken debate. In either case, Willamette Egg is keeping up.



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