Egg Business Quite a Coop
At the Singing Hen Egg Ranch, a barn-red shack and a few cages of egg-laying chickens on a side street in Cypress, it’s egg-buying the way it used to be: 15 cents each, cackling hens laying them before your eyes.
But nothing else about the 42-year-old business is the way it once was.
Before the city of Cypress existed, when pavement and subdivisions had not yet been laid over the region’s dairy farms, the egg ranch was big business, its 30,000 chickens in 12 long rows of cages, part of a veritable egg empire.
The ranch, one of four owned by Calvin Meekhof, had 50 employees in those days, washing and grading and packing 500 dozen eggs a week and sending them off to 200 wholesale customers in five trucks a day.
Meekhof still owns the ranch, but he long ago sold off all but 65 of his hens.
The employees are down to one.
The children are grown.
The egg business just isn’t what it used to be.
But don’t cry for Calvin Meekhof. Like a small-scale Segerstrom family, which built bean fields into South Coast Plaza, this is one farmer who knew how to diversify.
When the eggs stopped paying the bills two decades ago, Meekhof sold off his other three ranches and half the Singing Hen Egg Ranch land for subdivisions and made a bundle. Today he rents the rest of the remaining ranchland for RV and car storage, and says he does better than he did in the ranch’s biggest egg-producing days.
“It was more of a way of life along with a living, if I would even think about selling now my family would be terribly upset,” Meekhof says of the egg business, and of why he still keeps the last of his hens, even though they don’t bring in much money anymore.
“I had to adapt, sure, but the hens, they’re probably the only thing that’s still the same as the old Cypress. People like that.”
Calvin Meekhof prides himself on knowing what people like. Back in his Michigan home, where he took his California bride after World War II, Meekhof, now 73, raised chickens for frying, because that was what people liked. When the couple moved to California in 1955, the chicken fryer business was all sewn up. But Meekhof liked chickens, and he liked a church near Cypress. So he bought 2 1/2 acres and a house in the middle of some fields for $16,000 and started selling eggs.
Meekhof and his wife made enough to raise five children and send them all to college. It wasn’t a lucrative life but, Meekhof says, satisfied, “they all learned how to work.”
In 1976 the economics of the egg business changed. After two years of widespread crop failures in the Midwest, the price of grain to feed chickens more than doubled. The price of eggs stayed the same.
Meanwhile, the Orange County developers were everywhere. Meekhof didn’t miss a beat. He traded in chickens for real estate profits.
“When I look back, it’s probably been the hardest damn job: seven days a week, the chickens would get sick, and the price of feed was always too high or the price of eggs too low,” Meekhof said. “But I’m my own boss. I’ve never worked for someone else.”
Now the acre and a half Meekhof still owns at 9731 Walker St. is worth about $1 million.
All around are subdivisions behind sound walls, shopping centers and street lights. But people who have lived in Cypress a long time still come by looking for eggs. And Calvin Meekhof is still there to sell to them.
“He’s been here forever. I don’t know his name--it’s sort of a hometown habit to buy here,” said Lana Bandy, who stopped by to pick up a dozen eggs from Meekhof on a recent day. “Cypress was a very small town when I moved here. And I always bought my eggs here.”
Meekhof says he’ll keep the last of his hens as long as his grandchildren keep finding delight in them. And he says he’ll live with his wife in the house behind the chicken coops, which developers would still love to get their hands on, until he dies.
“California is so transitory, and people just can’t imagine staying this long in one place,” Meekhof laughs, rolling an egg warm from the hen between his hands.
“But here we are.”