As voters, Californians on Election Day decided overwhelmingly to phase out the caging of laying hens.

As consumers, how willing will they be to pay for cage-free eggs?

The answer could determine the future of California's egg industry, which must change its animal practices when the ban on cages become effective in 2015.

A day after the decisive passage of Proposition 2, the initiative's supporters and opponents continue to dispute its impact on the state's egg industry.

Arnie Riebli, a partner in Sonoma County's largest egg business, predicted he will phase out his Sunrise Farms operation in six years, largely because consumers will prefer lower-priced, caged eggs produced in other states or countries.

"These people voted for this," Riebli said of the initiative, "but that's not what they're spending their money on."

But Jennifer Fearing, spokeswoman for the Yes on 2 campaign, said the message of humane treatment for farm animals "will resonate with consumers" as it did with voters.

Shoppers will increase their purchases of cage-free eggs, she said, and "there's no reason California producers can't compete in that market."

Proposition 2 passed Tuesday, 63 to 37 percent.

The initiative prohibits farmers from confining egg-laying hens, veal calves and pregnant pigs in ways that prevent them from standing up, turning around or extending their limbs without touching the sides of an enclosure or another animal. Hens make up about 19.5 million of the nearly 20 million animals that would be directly affected by the initiative.

The initiative was the first of its kind in the nation to attempt to regulate the treatment of laying chickens and was touted as the most expensive animal-rights campaign ever. Preliminary figures reported the two sides raised more than $15 million.

About a million hens are laying eggs today in cages in Sonoma County, where Petaluma once was known as the egg basket of the world. In the past six years the county's egg production increased to levels not seen in a half century, mostly due to growth of the Petaluma-based Sunrise Farms.

Sonoma County Farm Bureau Lex McCorvey predicted county residents will develop "a growing dependency on eggs from other states or other countries."

"Land is too expensive here," McCorvey said. "Nobody is going to go into the industry."

But Fearing called such predictions an "empty threat." She said caged-egg producers in other states will "see the handwriting on the wall," and consumers will favor locally produced goods.

"There is a clear market for these cage-free eggs," Fearing said.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat

.com.