In 2008, when Don Gilardi heard that California voters might dictate the living conditions of laying hens, he began to take a keen interest in chickens.
Gilardi, a Marin County rancher, concluded that the looming issue signaled consumers wanted a different approach to egg production. So he traded some of his sheep for hens and began selling eggs to Bay Area restaurants already buying his lamb.
That fall, voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 2, which in 2015 will ban most existing chicken cages. About a year later, buyers from Whole Foods visited Gilardi to see if he would sell them eggs from the hens he raises a different way — not caged in warehouses but allowed to roam outside in pastures.
"I was the lamb guy and, at that point, I changed to the egg guy," he said.
Today Gilardi's 8,000-bird Red Hill Farms near Petaluma is a local leader in a fast-growing egg market, one where the hens spend their days in fields and their nights in mobile chicken coops. Pasture-raised egg farms rely on moveable electric fences, frequent rotation of birds to new grasses and a willingness by consumers to pay about $8 for a dozen eggs.
The operations are drawing attention for their strong growth and their high-priced products at farm stands, farmers markets and supermarkets.
"We can't keep up with the demand," said Bryan Boyd of Wise Acre Farm in Windsor.
Boyd and partner Raina Brolan began a few years ago with 30 chickens. By last year the farm had 600 birds. This year it has 1,200.
The hens, including white Wyandottes, speckled black Barred Plymouth Rocks and copper Rhode Island Reds, often can be seen along Arata Lane where the couple operates a weekend farm stand across the street from the backyards of a Windsor housing subdivision. Boyd and Brolan hope to soon keep the stand open seven days a week.
The pasture-raised operations constitute a small part of Sonoma County's $24 million egg crop, a farm segment that dates back more than 125 years to the development in Petaluma of the egg incubator. Observers say the growth of such farms demonstrates how consumers are learning more about the food they eat, with repercussions for farmers, food processors and retailers.