It's 7 a.m., and the fluorescent light in the Mountain View Colony egg barn lends a bluish tinge to the austere coats of the Hutterite men waiting for Joe Kleinsasser to trip the switch on the "Big Dutchman."
The men, in their traditional beards, home-sewn black pants and shirts buttoned up to the neck, are so 19th century. The Big Dutchman is so now. The machine rumbles to life, one cog turning another and another splayed across 40 feet. On one end, the day's collection of eggs trundle through 12 holes in a white, antiseptic wall and down a wire conveyor that delivers them wobbling to a long, rubber treadmill.
The eggs are washed white, regimented and rolled across a light table, where Kleinsasser scrutinizes each one for cracks or signs of fertilization before feeding them into the clacking, spring-loaded fingers of a mechanical egg loader, which sorts them by weight and then drops them into cartons.
Eggs have become a big business for the Mountain View Colony, representing about a fourth of the business done at this religious community 15 miles northwest of Billings. Its 20,000 hens produce eggs for Wal-Mart, which sells them at its Billings and Laurel stores.
Culling cracked eggs and either setting them aside for breakfast or dropping them into a bucket pooling with yellow goo, Kleinsasser proclaims that Mountain View's eggs are best. In his breast pocket, he keeps a news clipping about whole eggs containing more essential vitamins and minerals per calorie than any other food and the chlorine needed to break down fat for energy.
"We produce about 18,000 eggs a day, seven days a week" Kleinsasser said. "They are healthy, very good for you."
Of late, the only unhealthy thing about eggs has been the state of the industry. The egg business hasn't been all it's cracked up to be for producers. Nationally, large-scale egg producers worry that free-range-animal laws, such as California's Proposition 2, passed last November, could soon knock the industry off its perch countrywide. The California measure requires that hens, calves raised for veal and pregnant pigs have enough room to stand up, lie down, fully extend their limbs and turn around. California egg producers, who deliver 5 billion eggs a year, have said the requirement could drive them out of state.
In Washington, a Seattle-based animal rights group this month sued the state for giving farms and ranches undue control over how farm animals are housed and slaughtered. In Ohio, the Humane Society of the United States met with farm lobbyists this week to encourage meat and egg producers to stop using crates voluntarily.
Things haven't been much better on the financial front, where chicken feed and chump change are no longer synonymous, and energy prices are a little too jolting. The result, of which is higher egg prices in the supermarket refrigerator case. Eggs, the grade A variety, locally jumped 75 cents for a dozen from 2006 to 2008.
The cost of feeding hens has skyrocketed as corn and soybean prices doubled from what they were a couple of years ago. Corn can comprise roughly 60 percent of chicken feed. Soybeans can account for roughly 20 percent.
In Montana, when corn proves costly, egg farmers turn to barley, but lately barley prices have risen as beer companies' thirst for Montana malt grows, said John Wipf, of Montana Eggs LLC in Great Falls.
Montana Eggs is the state's largest egg distributor, and its product is entirely raised by Hutterite colonies, though Mountain View Colony is not a contributor to the company. Wipf, who is also a Hutterite, said the colonies are the only egg producers left because "they're the only one's dumb enough to do it without making money."
"The last year has been pretty decent, but the five years before, there's not a colony that made money raising eggs," Wipf said.
Aside from feed costs, producers face higher energy bills. Hens do their best work when the thermostat is turned up high, as warm as 78 or 82 degrees. Chicks, maturing into young egg-laying adults, or pullets, need about 18 weeks, during which time they live in torpid warmth, comparable to a retirement home, which takes a lot of natural gas.
And hens don't like to work in the dark. The egg layers like a consistent amount of light and won't lay if they're shorted, Wipf said. Conversely, the hens start fighting if the lights burn too long.
All told, 10 million eggs a month are produced in the state, said Steve Merritt, of the Montana Department of Livestock. With the exception of a few eggs sold at small markets and between friends, Wipf's assessment is correct; Hutterites account for all the state's commercial egg production.
Back at the Mountain View Colony egg barn, Peter Kleinsasser is closing the carton lid on the last of the morning's 18,000 eggs, all of which have gone from hen to crate in an hour and 15 minutes. The men have stripped off their ascetic black jackets, distinguishable from one another only in the name stitched inside the lower left panel of each garment. There's a frothy pile of "Super Kleen Shell" detergent beneath the egg washer, which drips from the perspiring mechanical workhorse. The room grows quiet as each man heads off to a dairy barn or the hog pens, wherever he is needed next. They are ant-colony efficient.
"I like eggs," Peter Kleinsasser said. "I eat them every day."