The higher costs associated with consumer pressure for more humane, cage-free eggs is another factor, experts say. “The state has grown and grown, and urban encroachment is something that significantly impacts any farmer,” said Doug Kuney, a poultry expert with UC Riverside. “As the farmer fights off development, development fights off animal agriculture and all that comes with it.” The number of chickens in California fell to 19.2 million last year, down from nearly 40million birds in the 1970s, when egg production reached highs of more than 8.5 billion eggs. The state failed to reach the 5billion egg mark last year for the first time since 1959, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In fact, Iowa, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania have all passed California, once No. 1 in the U.S., according to numbers released in March by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Until 1991, California was an egg exporter but now brings in eggs from other states to meet demand, Kuney said. The amount producers were paid for eggs has also dropped over the past few years to $182million in 2005, down 37percent from 2004 and the lowest value since 1962, according to the latest figures from the state Department of Food and Agriculture. Consumers are increasingly interested in how the crops and animals that become their food are raised and treated. In March, Burger King pledged to begin buying eggs and pork from suppliers that do not keep their animals in cages. Many milk producers have stopped using hormones on their cows and organic products have become a booming business. Although quality of life and real estate values are a big concern, Courtemanche said she’s also worried about animal rights. “There are so many restaurants that are going cage-free, we can’t believe something like this can be proposed,” Courtemanche said. She began an animal sanctuary after another nearby egg ranch shuttered. The high costs of being in the egg business now has also been hard on the aging, smaller farms. The increased rules regarding animal treatment have added to already high costs for electricity and building coops, said Chuck Elste, president of NuCal Foods Inc., a Ripon-based egg distributor. Farmers have long complied with guidelines adopted by the United Egg Producers calling for lower density of birds in cages, said Debbie Murdock, a spokeswoman for the Sacramento-based California Egg Industry Association. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! FRESNO – Karen Courtemanche might be getting new neighbors, and she hears their stench is unbearable. Courtemanche lives a mile and a half from the site of a proposed 900,000-chicken farm, but she and other residents aren’t putting out any welcome mats. “I’m sorry, we just don’t want them here,” said Courtemanche, who lives in Lathrop, a city of about 15,000 about 60 miles south of Sacramento. As California’s agricultural heartland becomes increasingly suburban, the state’s egg production has fallen to its lowest level in 50 years. Residents like Courtemanche – as well as developers of a nearby 11,000-home subdivision under construction – don’t want the stench of egg farms near their homes.