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Egg producers relieved by farm bill

Petaluma's egg farmers are celebrating the passage of the federal farm bill without a controversial amendment that would have given out-of-state producers an unfair market advantage by skirting a costly California regulation.

The amendment, proposed by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), would have denied any state the right to establish farming regulations that out-of-state farmers would need to follow in order to sell their product in that state. The farm bill that passed confirms that all eggs sold in California must come from facilities that meet state standards for containment and health, ensuring all egg farmers are on an equal playing field in the regulations they are required to follow.

It's a move that could push some out-of-state egg producers out of the California market, a state that has the most stringent farming production standards in the country, said Arnie Riebli, president and CEO of Sunrise Farms and NuCal Foods with more than 1 million egg-laying hens across Sonoma County, including a farm in Liberty Valley west of Petaluma.

King's proposed amendment targeted a more recent California law related to confinement standards for egg-laying hens. In 2008 California voters passed the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, which required farmers to utilize larger cages that allow the hens to practice their natural behaviors such as perching and scratching, by Jan. 1, 2015. Riebli said overhauling his farms cost "$20 million plus" to comply with the new requirements, a cost out-of-state producers initially avoided since they weren't required to obey the new law.

As president of the Association of California Egg Farmers, Riebli worked with state legislators to expand the law and ensure out-of-state farmers had to meet the same requirements if they want to sell eggs in California. The move kept the market fair for in-state farmers, who feared they would be put out of business if out-of-state farmers were able to sell eggs at a lower price because they weren't required to spend millions overhauling their farms. King, a representative from Iowa, the country's largest egg-producing state, sought to block that requirement with his proposed amendment to the federal farm bill, which would have made it impossible for any state to regulate out-of-state production.

"I am pleased that the King amendment, which would have gutted California's food and animal safety standards and put our state's egg industry out of business, was defeated," said Congressman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who worked with Riebli to expand the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act to out-of-state farmers when he was a state assembly member. "Removing the King amendment is a win for consumers and humane food producers, including California egg farmers who can now continue doing business on a level playing field with out-of-state competitors."

Riebli said that while he's relieved the King amendment didn't pass with the farm bill, there's still the issue of overhauling his farms to meet the new standards of the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act. He plans to start construction on the expanded cage system soon, a project that will last until the fall. He expects he'll need an extra 100 acres at each farming site to make room for the larger cages, and is still determining if he has the land available at his current farms, or if he'll have to purchase more property.

"It's certainly been a lot more than I thought it would be. And it's not going to be over until early 2015," he said. "But we're not doing all of this to go out of business tomorrow. We've been here for 100 years, and hopefully we'll be here another 100 years."

(Contact Emily Charrier at emily.charrier@arguscourier.com)

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