Elliot Gibber spent his childhood toiling in the chicken houses and likes to quip that he "started as an egg".
After nearly 45 years in the business, Gibber still works on his father's old farm site in upstate New York. But today's egg business is "completely different" from the one Gibber's father and uncles knew when they started the family business in the 1940s in Thompsonville, New York.
For one thing, there is the proliferation of what Gibber calls "designer eggs," fresh eggs labelled "organic," "cage-free" and, finally, "GMO-free" for those hatched from chickens fed only grains with that certification.
Once an egg farm, the 165-acre Thompsonville site today is an industrial egg-cracking facility that receives thousands of fresh eggs each day from neighboring states and then churns out dozens of products from egg whites, yolks and whole eggs.
Gibber led a visitor past a giant vat containing 50,000 pounds of egg yolk, which will be salted and shipped to Mexico later this week for mayonnaise production.
Other products will be directed to candy makers, bakeries and ice cream makers. Deb El sells egg scramble mix and egg whites from cage-free eggs.
Gibber sees parallels between the evolution in eggs towards more "value-added" products and the meat industry's growing emphasis on branded prepared products, as reflected in this week's bidding war for Hillshire Brands. Both US giant Tyson Foods and Brazilian titan JBS seek Hillshire assets like Jimmy Dean sausage and other branded prepared foods.
"It's for convenience," Gibber said. "You work all day and you want to be able to go to the store and buy something that's already made."
Deb El today employs about 30 people around the clock. It stopped producing fresh eggs in Thompsonville after a fire in 1969 killed the chickens, but has 2.5 million chickens in Pennsylvania, where there is closer access to chicken feed.
About 12 years ago, after buying the Thompsonville property from his parents, Gibber installed industrial egg-breaking equipment. The move ultimately raised production from about 800 cases of eggs per week from eggs cracked by hand to 40,000-50,000 per week.
Gibber is spending $1.8 million to add more egg-cracking capacity, as well as $2 million to meet state regulations on sewerage treatment. He is also adding freezer capacity.
Egg whites are the "biggest boom right now," but other segments are also strong, he said.
"Our business is growing. We need more product."