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Chicken Little and the big business of eggs

Local farmers crack the egg business, and make no yolk about putting the care back into Island food
Murray Hull’s Kildonan Farm has become popular with local foodies who want to know where their chickens, turkeys and eggs come from, and how the animals are treated.

Murray Hull’s garage isn’t stocked with the equipment you might expect to see on a private farm. There’s no room for a spare car, pieces of fencing, old tires or tractor-trailer parts. Instead, Hull’s garage is filled with weigh scales, wash basins, industrial metal sorting tables, packages of cardboard cartons and so many eggs it could, in fact, be the Easter Bunny’s warehouse.

This garage is the actual production plant and home of Island-renowned and locally loved Kildonan Farm: the North Saanich hotspot for eggs, and the raising ground for chicken, turkey and all the products in between. Hull is one of the Island’s dozen or so small farmers making a big stab at the business of local farming and Island sustainability, and his efforts — as well as the efforts of his fellow farmers — are turning heads around Victoria.

Henny’s pennies

“When you break it down, we probably make about $1.50 per dozen eggs sold, and — labour aside — that dozen might cost us $2.50 to create,” says Hull. “But you do it because you love it and, somehow, at the end of the day we are able to pay our bills.”

Hull is a third-generation farmer. His granddad came over from England after the First World War, setting up a small ranch in Saskatchewan with a land grant he was given as a war vet. Hull’s dad later joined the Navy and nursed his own cattle ranch into fruition in Kamloops. After moving to the Island, his dad ran the small North Saanich farm. When his dad retired, Hull and his family decided to purchase the farm, fix up the house and enjoy rural life. As a housing contractor, Hull never had any intention of bringing in animals or farming. Then, nearly 20 years ago now, they picked up a few cows and a backyard flock of chickens to invest in their own food supply.

What started as a backyard hobby quickly grew as friends and neighbours would marvel at the Hulls’ farm-fresh products. Soon, surrounding “customers” would ask to buy a dozen eggs here, or a whole chicken there. It was that pressure, Hull says, that made the family realize the business model that was developing before their eyes.

Fast-forward 10 years and Kildonan Farm would look close to what it does today — though back then the Hulls were allowed to butcher and market their broiler chickens in-house. Add another 10 years to bring us up to 2012, and Hull has become one of the South Island’s most welcome farmers, with his products sought after not just through his private farm, but through the Root Cellar, Lifestyles Markets, Ambrosia Markets, Pepper’s Market and other small Victoria businesses.

“People have the right to buy what they want to buy, and we can stand behind our products knowing that they are asked for by name in the stores,” says Hull, who does not send his eggs through a grading system but must label his cartons as “ungraded” as per regulations. “If your animal husbandry is good, you’re not going to see a big loss in your product, and it all comes down to how well you care for your animals and your farm.”

Despite demand, Hull is only allowed to host 399 laying hens, 2,000 broilers and 1,500 turkeys per year. While those numbers might sound high to a backyard farmer — Hull considers his farm mid-sized — it’s restrictive when considering the amount of resources that must go into maintaining the birds and their products, and the return he can get on that work. He also has to turn over his hens every 18 months to maximize egg production. Hull doesn’t count his own labour into the costs, but says he works 60 to 70 hours a week on the farm, and has hired one part-time staff person.

For that return, hens take 20 weeks to mature into laying age, broilers take seven to eight weeks of development in order to butcher, and turkeys 18 weeks. Whatever Hull manages to sell to the stores, he estimates a 35 to 40 per cent mark-up in price. Which means, for all the work Hull does to supply buyers with local and free-range products, he only sees a fraction of the payment. Still, he says, it seems to work out in the end.

“The only reason we’re able to keep the business we do is because of where we are living and how much people on the Island value buying local products,” says Hull. “They want to know where their food is coming from, and they want to be able to stop by the farm and see the chickens and know this is what they are eating. And so we can vary our market, and our turkey sausage is just as popular as our jumbo-sized eggs, because people want that.”

Hatching into large scale

Four hundred hens is little more than a chick in the bucket to Dwayne Vanderkooi. Vanderkooi Poultry is one of the Island’s top two commercial egg producers, located just a couple hours up Island in Nanaimo. Vanderkooi maintains 40,000 birds on his farm, and owns the licenses for a number of farms in the surrounding area.

“Eggs are our bread and butter around here — there’s no market in meat for us, so we have to be as efficient as possible,” says Vanderkooi, who is also president of the Vancouver Island Egg Producers Association. “I’d say the number-one misconception people have about big business egg producers, however, is that we are all big factory farms that mistreat our animals … we’re in this business because we love our birds, and their products.”

Vanderkooi came to the Island six years ago, trading in dairy farming in the Fraser Valley for a “more laid back way of life” with poultry in Nanaimo. While he used to grade and market his own brand, Vanderkooi’s eggs now largely make up the “Island Gold” brand — sold through the grading station Island Eggs — and are found in nearly every commercial grocery store on the Island. He agrees that his market is vastly different from the small-farm market, but he acknowledges that there are thousands of people on the Island who want to buy local eggs, and not always at the organic, free-range price point.

“Farmers have to be willing to go where the market demands, and we’re no exception to the rule,” says Vanderkooi, who runs four different barns on his property, with hens of varying ages and arrangements. “When Island Eggs tells me they need more farmers willing to produce free-range, or omega-infused eggs, we rise to meet that demand. And I always say, if it’s a cHullenge, I’m interested.”

Unlike Hull’s small-farm case, Vanderkooi says he likely spends 50 cents on every dozen eggs with a greater return, and turns over his flock every 12 months. However, his farm is entirely computer controlled, from the temperature regulation of the barns, to light and feeding. And Vanderkooi doesn’t have to worry about the fox in the hen house so much — electronic alarms let him know if anything is off balance. Still, it takes hands to organize much of the operation, along with the 30,000 or more eggs he collects each day, so Vanderkooi along with one full-time and two part-time staff man the barns from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. Because Vanderkooi is a commercial egg farmer, he’s also funded in-part through a provincially regulated subsidy — but while his costs on the Island are slightly higher than his mainland counterparts, his pay is the same.

“One of the biggest problems we’re realizing is that this is becoming a dying industry, especially on the Island. We’re seeing young people selling off their family’s farms instead of running them, and it’s a shame,” says Vanderkooi. “Increasing feed costs are what’s making this tough for any size farmer, and down the road for the consumers as well.”

The good egg

It’s confusing enough to walk into the egg isle of any grocer and scan through the selection of white versus brown, free-range versus free-run, veggie fed versus omega and vitamin infused, local versus cheaper and a popular mix of other options. But how do you know which egg is really the “best”?

Cheryl Guay, director of operations at Island Eggs, says it really comes down to what you want your dollars to support. While there can be a fraction of difference in nutritional quality, she says that fraction pales in comparison to a number of other factors that consumers are now choosing when selecting their eggs.

“Unless you are getting eggs that have been infused with omega 3s or vitamin D, the nutritional value of one egg over another doesn’t change — you’ll see the same protein content, the same everything,” says Guay. “What changes is what you are ‘buying’ in terms of how the birds are raised, and what they are being fed.”

Island Eggs, which produces the brand “Island Gold,” collects eggs from 10 Island farms and a variety of farms on the mainland. In B.C., all eggs are required to go through a grading station to be sold at the commercial level, making it cheapest for most farms to sell their products to a station like Island Eggs. Some smaller local farms, like Hull’s, however, have found their loophole by labelling their eggs as ungraded.

“For us, we only market Grade A eggs, which means the yolks are perky, the shells are not cracked, the air pocket in the top is the correct measurements, and professional grading is the only way to ensure that,” says Guay. “When you’re seeing cracked or rough shells, runny whites or yolks, we class that as Grade C — but that still doesn’t mean that the nutritional value has changed.”

In terms of other comparisons, brown eggs might seem like a heartier (and slightly more expensive) choice, but the difference in price only comes from the hen’s ability to lay: white breeds, like Vanderkooi’s Leghorns, will lay close to 325 eggs in a year, while brown ones, like Hull’s Bovan and Highline hybrids, will lay closer to 310 a year. The difference can mean more than a dozen eggs per bird, yet brown breeds tend to be calmer and better suited for outdoor and free-range climates, while white breeds tend to be flightier and harder to control.

Meanwhile, “free run” means hens are allowed a specific area within a barn to move about, while “free range” means the birds have an allotted area outside to move about. If a farmer adds “organic” into the mix, all food sources and all surfaces the birds are exposed to must be regulated and free from any non-organic substances. Registered organic egg farmers are also subject to inspection at least once a year.

“When people ask, ‘Why would I want to pay more money just so that my eggs can say ‘local’ or ‘free-range’ or whatnot?’ The answer is because it’s worth it,” says Hull. “On my farm, everything is done by hand, from the cleaning and feeding to washing and packaging the eggs. There’s a lot of care that is put into that, and there’s a lot of care put into those chickens.” M