Long time poultry producers hatched the “Cutest Little Chick Contest”
Someone who isn’t familiar with Petaluma might think that the Butter & Egg Days Parade is only about celebrating a period of time in our past; a throwback to an era when family farms typified the community and almost every household kept chickens.
But Petaluma’s significance as an egg producing community didn’t stop when Bert Kerrigan and the Egg Day Parades left Petaluma in the late 1920s. Family farms are not an anachronism; they are thriving, evolving, and forward-looking enterprises. And none personify this better than the Mahrt family who began selling eggs when Petaluma was known as the “World’s Egg Basket,” continue to succeed as one of the few independent egg farms in Northern California, and are training the next generation to carry the business into the future.
With the 2018 parade theme celebrating the “hatching” of the first Egg Day Parade in 1918, Steve and Judy Mahrt are honored as the Grand Marshal; literally millions upon millions of eggs have been hatched on their two farms during their 35 years in business. And another feather in their cap; the Mahrts hatched the “Cutest Little Chick Contest” in 1984 and continue to organize and sponsor the crowd-pleasing event.
The history of the “Cutest Chick Contest” started when the Mahrts were approached by Linda Buffo and Alice Forsyth who two years earlier had reinvented the “Egg Day Parade” as the “Butter & Egg Days Parade.” “Because the original parade had an ‘Egg Queen,’ they wanted us to sponsor an ‘Egg Princess Contest,’” says Steve. Instead, he suggested a “Cutest Little Chick Contest,” a natural association for an egg producer.
Because it would be impossible to judge which toddler dressed in pounds of feathers is the “cutest,” the winner is chosen by whose costume interprets the parade and chicken theme the best. In addition to taking sign-ups for 80 children and running the busy event on the day of the parade, the Mahrts make a big investment in time and manpower prior to the parade, decorating “Judy’s Barnyard Stage” to tie into the parade theme.
“Since we’ve been running the contest for almost 35 years, we now have kids of kids participating. It’s a lot of fun to see the next generation involved.” The “Cutest Little Chick Contest” takes place on parade day, April 28 at 10:15am on Kentucky Street in front of Copperfield’s Books.
For the Mahrts, being a commercial egg producer is also a multi-generational endeavor. A family of immigrants, Steve’s great-uncle came to Petaluma in the 1920s, and then in turn sponsored his father in the 1950s. “When my dad worked on my great-uncle’s farm, it was at the end of the heyday of Petaluma being the ‘Egg Basket.’”
Growing up in the business, Steve says, “You could say that I was raised in a chicken barn.” When he graduated from college, he returned to the egg farm, eventually having the opportunity to buy a 35 acre ranch in 1986 in west Petaluma from a chicken farmer who was ready to retire. Judy’s family also worked in the poultry business, operating a hatchery in Calistoga dating back to the early 1900s.
The Mahrts pioneered producing cage-free eggs; their Rock Island brand were the first cage-free eggs to be in stores in 1983, and “we have been 100 percent cage-free all along,” Steve says.
In addition to packing his father’s eggs under Petaluma Farms label, the Mahrts produce several other brands of eggs including “Judy’s Family Farm,” the first organic eggs to be produced in California. The name was inspired by Judy’s desire to feed their four sons the most healthful food available.
Steve says “one little label, our Super Eggs,” is his favorite. The Mahrts started developing the brand in 1999 and after extensive testing, it reached the market two years later. “We feed a special diet to the chickens and that translates to more nutritious eggs.” Steve adds that these eggs were one of the first functional foods which provide slow-release nutrients and can promote optimal health.
Eggs from the Mahrts farms are available in most grocery stores in Northern California,” and at Skippy’s Egg Store at 951 Transport Way in Petaluma which sells flats of 30 eggs and by the dozen, as well as canned and paper goods, dairy products and kitchen staples. Skippy’s specializes in selling “checks,” eggs that have a slight crack but the membrane is still intact. They are sold at a lower price making them a real value for the home baker.
Skippy’s will also be the location of an egg museum, currently under construction and expected to open by the end of 2018. Steve says, “Judy has been collecting chicken and egg related memorabilia forever” and we are eager to have people to experience the farm through the museum’s educational displays.
After graduating from college and pursuing other careers, three of their four sons, ranging in age from 24 to 29, have returned to the farm. And Steve hopes that the youngest son will do the same after graduating from college next year.
Whether it’s families returning year-after-year for the “Cutest Little Chick Contest,” the Butter & Eggs Parade celebrating a 100th anniversary, or a family such as the Mahrts continuing a farming legacy started 100 years ago, it should be honored. As Steve says, “It’s what makes Petaluma, Petaluma.”