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Feature Story - Clean, White Eggs–It’s a Dirty Job!

USDA NRCS Feature Story

How USDA’s search for innovative conservation ideas found its way into your refrigerator–

photo of eggs on conveyer belt.When you buy a carton of eggs, you open it and inspect them to see that none are cracked. But have you ever thought about what eggs endure to reach your shopping cart? You might be surprised! Besides the obvious journey it takes leaving the hen’s reproductive system, each egg travels and endures many trials and dangers on its way to your refrigerator. One of the most dangerous legs of that trip is that which ensures your egg has been properly washed.

Eggs get dirty. They get covered in all sorts of stuff--chicken poop, mud, nest litter or wood chips, and dried white or yolk from broken eggs. So how do you clean an egg? And how do you do it in an environmentally-friendly way? And still make a profit? Very carefully. And with great INNOVATION.

Eggs can be dry cleaned, (not like your suit!), but cleaned without the use of water. Producers use light abrasives, sanding sponges/loofas, even steel wool. These methods are slow and tedious but work well for small flocks. For larger operations, wet cleaning is best; however, strict rules and procedures are required to secure safe wet egg washing operations.

The goal when washing eggs is to remove bacteria--salmonella and other disease-causing bacteria and viruses. Keep in mind that egg shells, while sturdy, are in fact living membranes; they are permeable. Once wet, surface bacteria can absorb into the egg itself and cause early spoilage or potential health of man point at computer while describing egg cleaning process.

In addition to careful handling, wet washing involves critical temperature control and sanitation methods. When performed properly, egg washing reduces bacteria levels by 90-100%. This process requires strict attention to standards. Because it is so precise (and potentially dangerous if done incorrectly), it is not permitted in some countries.

There are a limited number of egg producers in Illinois. Nationwide, 76% of poultry operations are facilities with more than 100,000 laying hens. Larger operations permit more streamlined, high tech, consistent and sanitary conditions. Only 58 U.S. operations manage more than one million chickens. NW Illinois has one of them - Pearl Valley Eggs. It started with Dave Thompson back in the 1970’s as a school teacher’s pet project. It’s turned into a million dollar business and the birth place for new and innovative technological advances in the industry.

Photo of the Thompson operation.Thompson continually finds new ways to solve problems and 'makes lemonade from lemons’ in industrial and business applications that have a rather potent by-product: chicken poop. His innovative approaches effectively process agricultural waste in an environmentally-friendly manner that reduces odor problems and uses sustainable and non-chemical means of recycling waste by-products that returns crystal, clear water to the watershed and simultaneously creates an effective and marketable fertilizer. With pulverized compost and pellets, Thompson’s team creates high quality turf grass fertilizer and sells it to golf courses and resorts across the country.

“Imagine using aerobically-composted poultry manure to improve soils and enhance biological activity in soils while simultaneously creating a marketable mechanism to grow healthy green grass with less added nitrogen.” Dave explains. Thompson’s other innovative sister company, Pearl Valley Organix, produces Healthy-Grow products, which target turf grass managers all over the United States and some Caribbean islands. According to Dave, Healthy-Grow fertilize characteristics maximize nutrient efficiency while providing balanced plant nutrients. Keep in mind, all products from Pearl Valley Organix are created from leftover by-products of hens who produce 80,00photo of waste drainage0 dozen eggs a day - the ULTIMATE recycling program!

Accolades aside, Pearl Valley Eggs is a working livestock operation with safety, environmental and production goals just like beef or swine operations. Helping poultry operators address resource concerns, protect their product and consumers is certainly something the U.S. Department of Agriculture supports. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has a program designed to assist and support private landowners who pursue new and innovative conservation solutions on the farm. To tap into technical standards, conservation assistance and financial help to make it happen, Thompson and Pearl Valley Eggs submitted a Conservation Innovation Grant application to NRCS.

Thompson’s large and growing egg operation had a resource challenge. The old egg wash water treatment process involved septic systems which failed repeatedly, producing an unwanted air quality by-product (odor) that had to be addressed. Thompson had innovative ideas to solve this problem and recycle valuable nutrients at the same time. NRCS liked the ideas and has helped explore and perfect it for use by others.

Using technical and cost-share assistance from USDA’s Farm Bill programs, NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Thompson and partners, the United Egg Producers, are developing and will photo of wash waterdemonstrate and monitor new innovative technologies in wash water treatment techniques. Technologies explored are environmentally safe, economical, and technically feasible for other egg laying operations to install and operate successfully. Wash water will be aerobically treated with bacteria that digest nutrients in egg wash water. This innovative water treatment operation's end products are clean clear water and treated bio-solids. The clean water goes to an underground drain field where it is released back into the watershed. The bio-solids from treatment are treated and ultimately transferred to natural vegetative reed beds where they are broken down into a final product that resembles topsoil. All this is accomplished without odors often generated from anaerobic treatment lagoons.

A similar application process was successfully used for municipal waste systems in Wisconsin. With Thompson’s large egg laying operation, 1.2 million laying hens who produce aboutphoto of wash water sample 80,000 dozen eggs per day, the amount of egg solids found in egg wash water are sizable enough to test and perfect techniques and standards necessary for others to emulate. This new venture of capturing and using nutrients found in wash water -- water that was once lost and disposed of--represents yet another way to fully use and reuse agricultural byproducts to improve the operation- productively and economically. USDA’s Conservation Innovation Grant funds has been used to help Dave’s team perfect the technology and share information and procedures with other Illinois poultry operators.

Thompson’s CIG project was initiated in 2008 and was funded for $443,000 in federal funds. Total cost estimates for the project were $901,000. The wastewater treatment and disposal system project was eligible for EQIP funding and is scheduled to be completed in 2011.

Side Bar
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offers Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) as a way to stimulate development and adoption of innovative conservation approaches and technologies for production agriculture while leveraging Federal investment in environmental enhancement and protection. CIG projects are designed to lead the way in the transfer of conservation technologies, management systems, and innovative approaches (such as market-based systems) into NRCS technical manuals, guides, and references and to the private sector. According to Illinois NRCS’ State Conservationist Bill Gradle, “It’s important to note that CIG does not fund 'research projects.’ It is more a vehicle to stimulate the development and adoption of conservation approaches or technologies that have been studied sufficiently and promise and value with operations here in Illinois. It’s a way to find candidates and successful ideas for eventual technology transfer or institutionalization.” CIG funds projects that target innovative, on-the-ground conservation, including pilot projects and field demonstrations. CIG grants are sought and awarded in the following areas: energy, soil quality, air quality, water quality, and invasive species. Do you have an innovative conservation solution that could meet the intent of NRCS’ Conservation Innovative Grants program? Give your local NRCS office a call or visit

Words that describe Dave Thompson, owner and president of Pearl Valley Eggs:

  • Innovative
  • Persistent
  • Passionate
  • Thorough
  • Quality-minded
  • Conservationist
  • Dynamic
  • Visionary
  • Collaborative
  • Dedicated


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For more information, contact:
Paige Mitchell-Buck, IL NRCS State Public Information Officer
IL NRCS State Office
2118 W. Park Court
Champaign, IL 61821
(217) 353-6606