Easter is a special time.

Church services, family dinners and Easter baskets filled with candy and the old favorite, hard-cooked eggs, make Easter Sunday a favorite day for many.Hard-cooked eggs have been the focal point of Easter baskets for many years, and it's a tradition in many households to purchase an extra dozen or two dozen eggs, get out the bottles for dyeing and then attach a variety of paper figures of rabbits, ducks and chickens.

Not only are the hard-cooked eggs hastily consumed later with some salt and pepper, but they also are turned into egg salad for several days of sandwiches for schoolchildren or workers carrying brown bags. Deviled eggs are a favorite for Easter dinner.

It's easy to know Easter is near because large stacks of cartoned eggs are displayed prominently in supermarkets. Wise store operators make certain their egg supplies are plentiful because they know most shoppers will purchase more than usual.

Not many people think twice about eggs, assuming they will be sitting in their cartons just waiting to be used. Utah consumers have come to expect fresh eggs because the Utah egg market is supplied by several local producers.

As with many agricultural products, the egg industry has had its ups and downs, the most recent down being in the past two years when the price of chicken feed increased and the price of eggs didn't. Had it not been for improved chicken breeding, better feed and processing by automation, the egg industry might have been in worse trouble.

In the past few weeks egg prices in supermarkets have increased from about 90 cents to $1.25 per dozen, and that has egg producers smiling. The past two years have been hard on egg producers because the drought forced feed producers to raise their prices.

"The amount of money an egg producer makes is a direct tie to the price of feed," said Mike Bromley, owner of Bromley Farms, who has 400,000 laying white leghorn chickens that produce 500 cases of eggs daily (each case has 30 dozen eggs). Experts say it takes 4 pounds of feed to produce a dozen eggs.

Another problem facing the egg industry in Utah has been oversupply, which has been caused, Bromley said, by a decline in the number of eggs people eat. Focus on the amount of cholesterol in eggs, a subject of many studies, has caused the decline in consumption. Bromley said the tests show a variety of results and insists eggs are the most nutritionally perfect food.

"Why would eggs exist in nature if there was anything bad about them?" he asked rhetorically.

The proliferation of egg producers in the Midwest is yet another problem Utah producers face. Because Midwest egg producers are closer to where chicken feed is produced, freight costs are lower for them.

In spite of the problems facing the egg industry, Bromley, a third-generation chicken rancher and egg producer, goes about his daily business, which is made easier by a large machine that does most of the work at Bromley Farms.

After an egg is laid, it rolls onto a conveyor belt in the long chicken coops and is joined by hundreds of eggs at the start of the processing operation.

The eggs go through a 110-degree chlorine wash to clean the shell and then pass through a natural mineral oil wash that maintains the quality of the shell. From there, they go through a candling process that allows an employee to look inside the egg and reject those with blood spots, meat spots or cracked shells.

Rejected eggs are used for animal feed, Bromley said, and occasionally an egg will have to pass through the wash cycle again.

Then high technology takes over. A large machine with eight stations can be programmed to weigh the eggs and then pack cartons or flats with one dozen eggs, 1 1/2 dozen eggs, 2 1/2 dozen eggs, with different sizes packed at various stations. The machine gently loads the cartons and employees put them in cardboard boxes for shipment to market.

Because eggs are perishable, Bromley said maintaining the proper temperature is important, so he stores the cases of eggs in a refrigerator until they are taken to market. Bromley's operation and several other egg producers ensure that Utah consumers get fresh eggs.

Bromley said if consumers don't get fresh eggs, it's because of poor refrigeration practices in the supermarkets. "Eggs will last a long time if they are properly cared for," he said.

Over the years there have been several organizations of egg producers, but the latest one, Intermountain Egg Producers, was reactivated in 1987, said Richard Fassio, president. Fassio is a third-generation egg producer and co-owns Fassio Egg Farms in West Valley City.

IEP was formed to promote use of area-produced eggs, and its members each have between 80,000 and 500,000 chickens, Fassio said.

Fassio said egg overproduction in the United States can be attributed to German and Japanese investors putting their money into egg production operations in the Midwest and not being afraid to absorb initial losses. "You can imagine how that affects the family operations because we have to make money to feed our families," he said.

Some of the problems in the egg industry can be traced to the coops of the egg producers themselves, said Fassio, who has 500,000 chickens that produce eggs in Erda, Tooele County, and Herriman, Salt Lake County, for his processing plant in West Valley City.

"We have been good at producing eggs, but we haven't been good at selling them," he said, in reference to formation of the IEP, which was designed to promote egg consumption.

Fassio said, "We have assumed that everyone knew how good eggs are, but we must tell people they are the most economical form of protein. We also must use freshness as our No. 1 selling point."

Between 1979 and 1988, the number of egg producers in the United States declined from 6,106 to 1,668, but the number of eggs produced declined only 6 percent, Fassio said. "The big producers keep getting bigger and waiting for the less efficient producers to go away," he said.

Fassio echoes Bromley's comments about the decline of egg consumption, noting that the cereal industry has advertised heavily to promote eating their products for breakfast. People's habits have changed dramatically in the past few years, and fewer people take time to sit down to a breakfast of eggs, hash browns and toast.

Regarding the cholesterol issue, Fassio said eggs have cholesterol, but a fair amount of it is "good" cholesterol. "In most people tested, they had trouble relating dietary cholesterol to serum cholesterol," Fassio said.

Brigham Young University professors are experimenting with removing cholesterol from eggs to overcome the negative connotations that have come from the studies.

Salt Lake Egg Co., owned and managed by Stan Williams, is an egg products business in Salt Lake City. Salt Lake Egg uses large machines to break eggs and separate the whites from the yolks.

The egg products are sold to various companies manufacturing frozen desserts or dinners and restaurants where they are used in cooking. Williams said the number of eggs available to his plant this time of year declines because many are sold for Easter eggs, but once that holiday is over his business will pick up again.

Williams said the demand for whole eggs in the shell has been declining for several years, but the egg products business has expanded. Even so, producers are looking for new ways to utilize eggs.

Salt Lake Egg has three production lines. After a machine breaks the eggs _ about 63,000 an hour - the process is more like a dairy than an egg production plant, Williams said. The components are pasteur-ized by heating them to 145 degrees and then cooling them to 38 degrees.

The egg components are put into large tanks and sold in containers of various sizes desired by customers. Williams anticipates $6 million in sales this year.