When Proposition 2 qualified for the 2008 ballot, J.S. West & Cos. took a leading role in opposing the initiative requiring more space for egg-laying chickens.
When voters approved the measure, many in the egg industry began making plans to move their operations out of state or shut down altogether.
But not J.S. West. While others were giving up, the 100-year-old Modesto-based agriculture company was going to work.
Last week J.S. West once again showed itself to be a leader, by becoming the first egg producer in California to construct a barn intended to comply with Proposition 2's requirements.
The company is proud of the $3.2 million air-conditioned barn located at the company's facility near Livingston.
And it should be, based on what we saw on a tour of the new barn.
The hens hadn't yet arrived; some fake fowl filled in. That's because poultry farms limit visitors to functioning barns because of the disruptions to the chickens and, far worse, the risk of spreading diseases that can wipe out an entire flock.
But even without happily clucking "residents," the barn was impressive. Instead of small cages holding six hens each, it features cages 4 feet by 12 feet, with areas for nesting (darkened areas to lay their eggs), perching and scratching and dusting. Each hen has 116 square inches, nearly twice the space in most barns.
The Humane Society of the United States, which was the driving force behind Proposition 2, indicates it doesn't believe J.S. West's facility complies with Proposition 2. Even though the measure didn't contain specific requirements, the Humane Society insists hens need at least 216 square inches each.
Regardless of what J.S. West would have done, though, it probably wouldn't have appeased the Humane Society or other Proposition 2 proponents, whose real desire is to do away with cages altogether. It doesn't seem to matter that uncaged chickens face more serious problems with cleanliness, disease and mortality -- birds pecking each other to death.
While the Humane Society isn't pleased, other groups are, including another animal welfare program, American Humane Certified, which has given the new system its seal of approval.
J.S. West is using a system -- called "enriched colony housing" -- designed and approved in European countries that have already responded to demands for more humane treatment of egg-laying hens.
Company vice president Eric Benson says many of J.S. West's customers have requested eggs that comply with Proposition 2. It will be up to those stores to determine how to market them -- and how much to charge for them.
With the new system increasing production costs by 12 to 15 cents per dozen, we would imagine consumers will end up paying somewhere between regular egg prices of $2 or so a dozen and the $4 or more per dozen for cage-free eggs, but less than the price of organic eggs.
We're not sure if the hens will be happier in their new, more spacious digs than they were in the old ones. After all, as we said in this column when we strongly opposed Proposition 2, chickens by nature tend to crowd together. And, as we also said, the best way to tell if an egg-laying hen is happy is if she lays eggs. And in the pre-Proposition 2 era, California hens happily laid plenty of eggs.
What we are sure of, though, is that J.S. West is to be commended for once again leading the pack -- or, more correctly, the flock.
We won't be surprised if some of the state's egg producers give up, either closing down or moving to states such as Idaho, which is already recruiting California firms.
But J.S. West didn't give up. It moved quickly to comply with Proposition 2, and with its new barn up and running it can now move to retrofitting or replacing others before Proposition 2 goes into effect at the beginning of 2015.
We commend this longtime, family-owned company for making a commitment to stay in our area.
That's a good thing for everyone -- the entire ag industry, our local economy and consumers throughout California.