There are a few ways to spot Hilliker's Egg Ranch on El Nopal Road in Lakeside near Santee. One is to look for one of several chicken signs — the animated white chicken will be extending his right wing toward the ranch. Another is to spot the five-by-five roadside sign that reads, "WARNING, notice to all surrounding properties, you WILL be affected by flies, odors, dust, noise, and other irritants, inconveniences, and disturbances from this existing egg ranch. This is an existing agricultural operation with the right to expand."
You can't use your nose to find the ranch because the sharp ammonia odor you may associate with chicken farms is absent. Harold Hilliker, second-generation owner of Hilliker's Egg Ranch, explains why. "It's called the coning and drying method. The manure piles up and it cones. The more surface area it has, the faster it dries."
The drier the manure, the less odor it emits. Twice-yearly removal also helps. "We take out fertilizer in October and May. A lot of it goes down to Imperial Valley, and I have some local people who use it for their gardens. It's excellent fertilizer, very high in nitrogen. And in October, I will spread about three acres [by the road] with the fertilizer because we farm those acres. There will be a little odor...but we spread it and then we'll disc it in and turn it over so we don't have that problem."
Removal of the chicken manure and keeping it as dry as possible also cuts down on another agricultural byproduct, flies, "because flies breed where there is moisture," Hilliker explains. "So we use the coning and drying method, and we manage the fertilizer. How do we do that? Just by working at it. If you see a wet spot, you've got to go get the wet spot out and get it dry. So it's a continual management process."
The year-old Pinery Grove housing development lies immediately to the east of Hilliker's Egg Ranch, which has been there since Hilliker's father opened it in 1942. An eight-foot wooden fence separates the farm from $275,000 homes. Mario Busalacchi has owned one of the tan stucco houses for a year. "When we first moved in," he says, "we had a fly problem. It was almost enough to make you want to move. You'd have company coming over, and flies would be sticking to the walls and ceiling and hovering all around. A lot of the neighbors were complaining."
Busalacchi says the fly problem was solved when a homeowner contacted Hilliker and came to an agreement. "He was in contact with [Hilliker] about everybody complaining about the flies," Busalacchi recalls. "He typed up a letter and walked it to all the neighbors and said, 'Don't call the county; he's going to try to control the flies more.' Now, we get a few here, but last year this porch area would have been covered with flies. It's not bad anymore. Once in a while, you get a smell, but not usually. We leave our windows open all day because the breeze comes from that direction, and it's not bad at all."
A block east, Bert Lemons has lived in his new house since March. "Once in a while," he says, "we get some flies in here, and once in a great while we have some smell. But it hasn't been a great problem for me. I usually don't smell anything."
Lemons says he would never consider complaining to the county about the egg ranch. "I wouldn't want to cause [Hilliker] any grief," he says. "After all, he was here first."
Complaints or no complaints, Hilliker points out that the State of California and the County of San Diego both have "right to farm" ordinances under which he is "grandfathered in." A man of medium build, Hilliker displays the vitality of a man used to physical work. Trim and tan, at 59 he looks about 42. That's partly due to the Wally Cleaver flat-top haircut he wears. He speaks with a fast-paced style, though he quickly tires of talking about flies and odors. He'd much rather talk about chickens and eggs. "We've got 25,000 chickens on the ranch," he says. "They're strictly for laying eggs."
Hilliker also keeps some cattle and a few sheep, pigs, and geese. A couple of emus roam the field between the road and the chicken houses, attracting passersby. Spot the ostrich-like bird as you whiz by on El Nopal, and you're likely to spot the chicken sign advertising ranch-fresh eggs. "We do a lot of tours for schoolkids," says Hilliker, a member of the Lakeside school board, "and the kids love the emus. We try to have different animals for them to see when they get here because they want to see 'a farm.' "
A couple of roosters strut around the farm, but they're not used for breeding. "They're for aesthetics," Hilliker says. "Our eggs aren't fertilized. We buy day-old chicks from a huge hatchery up in central California, and we raise them from a day old to egg layers."
The breeds of hen Hilliker buys, white leghorn and brown leghorn, are not the same breed of chicken you buy to fry. "They're bred specifically for laying," he explains. "There's a lot of genetics behind it. I always compare chickens to horses. Racehorses are bred for speed or endurance. A big draft horse is bred for muscle, to pull. It's the same with chickens, believe it or not. A meat bird is a big fat bird like that draft horse. These ones here are bred to lay eggs. An egg hen only weighs three and a half to four pounds. All she does is lay eggs. She's thin and trim, like a racehorse."
Hilliker quickly adds, "Don't misunderstand me, these are healthy birds. They're just smaller."
When the day-old chicks — sometimes 1000, sometimes 2000 of them — arrive by 18-wheeler from the hatchery, they're put in the brooder house, which has heating elements built into the concrete floor. They stay there until they are nine weeks old, when they are moved into the "grow house," Hilliker says. "We also call it our teenager house because they mature physically and sexually in the grow house."