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When Nuffield Becomes A Social Experiment #NuffieldAg

John, Matt, Ray, Luke, Debbie, Adam, Ben, Clair & Jess

Nine strangers, 44 days, 6 countries, shared accommodations and personalities as diverse as our farming backgrounds; this is a potential recipe for disaster. But what happened in fact was the complete opposite, a group committed to learning, experiencing and above all having fun, while making the most out of the Nuffield Global Focus Program. 

It has been a true honour travelling with this remarkable group of farmers and professionals. I’ve spent time writing about the places and meetings we’ve had, but I want to dedicate this blog to my fellow travelling partners, known as Team India as we ventured through Singapore, India, Qatar, Turkey, France and USA.

John Keely

To start, let me introduce you to the senior member of our team, John Keely. Although we loved to remind him of his age, John was truly young at heart. A dairy farmer milking 340 cows in Victoria, Australia, he left the business in good hands with his son Harrison in charge along with his father and wife Michelle.

John was nearly always the earliest riser who thrived on being on time. If it was cows or more cows, he was ready to talk, about the only thing more that John loves is his Collingwood Football team. 

What I value in John, was his life experience of growing his business, at the same time as being in very regular contact with his wife and family back home. John spoke with excitement about each of his three adult kids and I know he couldn’t wait to share the next leg of his journey with Michelle.

Adam Coffey

Adam Coffey has perhaps been the busiest of the Nuffield group. Since meeting back in March, Adam and his wife Jacynta and two young sons have not only sold their livestock in Nothern Territory Australia, but moved three thousand kilometres to Queensland, where as first generation farmers they’ve acquired their first farm. As exciting of times are at home, Adam only had a few short weeks at the new farm before departing across the world. 

Family wise, Adam and I are most similar with his kids being 5 and 2 years old, we both must have amazing wives. I really appreciate Adam’s outlook on life, an optimist that is willing to try new ideas and create a future for his family. 

What I appreciate about Adam is that he is easy going and rolled with the punches, however it was early in the trip I discovered his very short attention span with a need to keeping meetings informative, yet efficient.

Debbie McConnell

Debbie McConnell was one of two women on the journey. Originally from Northern Ireland, Debbie has a PhD and quickly became our resident research expert, particularly around dairy nutrition. Debbie currently works for the dairy levy board in England linking research with farmers. I’ve never met a person who gets genuinely excited about research, laboratories and extension work.

As well as the youngest member of the group, Debbie got everyone’s opinion on everything, whether she asked for it or not. Travelling with 7 other men, Debbie was resilient in dealing with us, or as she referred to ‘The Male Species’.

Definitely not a morning person, Debbie always came into fine form with her note taking, questioning, interviewing and genuine interest in gathering data and knowledge. I have to thank Debbie for bringing her ‘A’ game, a balance of intelligence and humour everyday.

Matt Abbott

I can now say I am friends with a banana farmer, Matt Abbott of Queensland, Australia. By far the most quiet and reserved traveller, Matt tested the competitors bananas at nearly every stop. As an athlete, it was tough to keep pace with fitness on the trip and I know he’ll be anxious to get back in form once home. Farming with his brother, Matt is engaged to be married to Naomi next year.

Matt was full of surprises on the trip and by far on our last night when he and his compadre Ray made a memorable video, highlighting his humour and acting skills by recreating moments of our journey.

But in all seriousness, Matt had one of the best knowledge on soil health from his business of organic banana production with a constant quest to learn more to improve his local business. What I appreciated from Matt the most, were our one on one discussions, he had a genuine interest in my opinion for his business, but offered ideas, suggestion and wanted to know more about my life and farming business at home.

Ben Edser

Ben Edser, the dark horse in my books, known for his humour and Australian abruptness, became a great travel mate. Not raised in farming, but now involved in poultry production and more specifically organic compost production near Brisbane, Australia. Ben brought his legal training to conversations and tactics of questioning. If there was manure, a by product from crop residue or wasted food he was always questioning why they weren’t getting more from their waste. 

Ben announced early in the trip, that he and his wife Steph are expecting a baby later this year, which is very exciting and definitely life changing. 

I have to say, it was Ben’s non ag approach and perpetual quest for efficiency that I appreciated in Ben, that and his booming laugh and sense of humour. 

Jess Bensemann

Jessica Bensemann, perhaps the toughest nut to crack of the group. I finally felt as though we connected through the last couple weeks of the trip. Jess works for the New Zealand government in foreign aid and international extension through agriculture. 

Like everyone, we are all searching for something in life, in this, Jess recently decided to live a healthier lifestyle. The fact that Jess travelled for over 6 weeks with us, in an environment where food and drink go hand in hand with business functions, society or even a night in the town, Jess stood true to her values. 

Jess brought a different perspective to the group, often touching on global outreach and how knowledge is transferred between experts to farmers. What I appreciate most about Jess is her sheer excitement for new things, whether it was the countryside, fresh fruit, or the Eiffel Tower.  But like many in our group will attest, she was definitely the most indecisive of the lot!

Ray Hunt

The friendliest of the scholars was by far, Ray Hunt from Ireland. A man that talked to anyone and everyone, he was most certainly the most photographed on the trip. Ray is a first generation dairy farmer who started milking cows a couple of years ago, in addition to making everything work, he also has a career with a local artificial insemination company. Ray is interested in looking a genetic trends in the dairy sector as they relate to Irish agriculture. 

What I learned the most from Ray was about putting people at ease. Whether it was his Irish humour or desire to include everyone in a conversation, Ray left no one behind. There were numerous occasions where Ray’s phone would be out, snapping random group photos and always looking for the humour in life.

Luke Mancini

Last but not least was our trip accountant, Luke Mancini from Griffith, New South Wales, Australia, a grape, olive and row crop farmer. Luke volunteered to handle our team finances which was a thankless job. He did a tremendous job of reviewing, compiling and ensuring every dollar was accounted, as if his own. 

Luke was a terrific travel mate who learned more about dairy farming than his own desire, but once we moved into crop production regions, he was in his glory. I will be particularly interested to learn about his new grain business venture in the future. 

I can’t say thank you enough to Luke and the work he did accounting for our funds and being a guy always willing to step up, drive one of the rental cars, or ensure our group was functioning efficiently, hence his assigned nick name ‘The Little General’. But don’t be fooled, the General likes to have fun too!

For me, I am the lone Canadian and perhaps the only turkey farmer my crew will meet, but for a guy that likes to work hard, have a bit of fun, I know I accomplished both. It has been a fascinating experience travelling with this group of Nuffield Scholars. As different as we all may be, we each picked up the slack when tasks needed doing. Even though we each had our strengths and personalities, when the meetings were done and the notes filed away, I can honestly say I have met a group of people who will be friends for life!  

9th and final, Clair Doan

A Gastronomical & Agricultural Experience Collide in France #NuffieldAg

Cheese and more cheese at Rungis Market

French cuisine!

I thought we had tested our senses in India, Qatar and Turkey, but France was a true pleasure in experiencing everything that a European country has to offer. My expectation of visiting a mature agricultural economy was exceeded, not because the French often seem remiss or disconnected about farming practices, but rather tradition and history reeked in almost all aspects of food and farming life which severely contrasted our first four weeks of global travels.

To be honest, the first couple of days after we ‘extracted’ ourselves from Turkey, were a real treat to head south and taste the best of French wine, grapes and spectacular food. It also helped the fact our group known affectionately as ‘Team India’ has forged strong bonds of comradership, friendship and a passion for making the most of our global program. 

Flax harvesting

Flax processing into linen

We just scratched the surface of French agriculture, spending the majority of our formal time in the north of France in the Normandy region. Perhaps the pivotal visit of the week was learning about transforming flax into linen. The agronomical aspects of this 100 day crop, then laid out for another 40 days to allow the retting or breaking down of the cellular stalks before processing was interesting, but a key word resonated from this visit ‘romantic’. Linen production is romantic because of the way it is grown, harvest and processes that involve luck and fortune of the weather and a term used by the French, themselves.

Only in France have I ever heard that word, romantic, used in conjunction with food, fuel and fibre production. The commonality of romanticism in agriculture also relates to the idea that 70% of crops are marketed through age old cooperatives or that a desire to modernize crop production has been burdened by social aspects of farming. We heard more than once that the French have a high regard for food production and farmers, it’s just that people don’t want to see large, modern and progressive farms. It was a running joke that French farmers are not afraid to strike and protest to stand up for their perceived rights. 

Vast acres of wheat in the north if France

Laure , 2016 Nuffield France Scholar

The north, a large arable farming area with significant hectares of wheat, sugar beet, potatoes, corn, barley, canola and flax grown in the fields.  Impressive swaths of land graced the countryside with considerable field sizes and more flat than I was expecting. Unfortunately, French farmers have been plagued with excessive rainfall since early May with nearly daily rainfalls totalling more than an extra 300mm of rain to date. With barley and wheat harvest just beginning, typical yields of nearly 10t/ha are expected to be nearly halved this harvest season, not to mention the four passes of fungicide applied to the crops. 

I was taken aback by the strong cooperative structure whereby farmers may be part of separate cooperatives for cereals, sugar beets, flax, alfalfa and even equipment sharing cooperative schemes. The opportunity in group buying and selling of good theoretically gives market strength however a few farmers we met felt the cooperatives were becoming too focussed on their own viability versus filling all available markets and met the needs of average farmers and not those being more progressive. 

Charolais cattle

Nice line of equipment

Seeing the best and most innovative sectors is interesting, but I value meeting average farmers who embody the everyday life of French farmers. We met with a few farmers who seemed to farm the 200 to 350 ha of crop land, these included Michele and Catherine that also raised Charolais cattle, a breed that makes up about 20% of the French beef herd. Common discussions with them and other farmers will see their subsidy payments of close to 300€ per hectare reduce by about 50% over the next couple of years. In addition, 2016 is a year of transition outside of quota based sugar beet production to that of the open market. Having said that, impressive lines of equipment seemed to be stored away in the storage sheds for their short windows of harvest.

We were granted a full tour of the Massey Ferguson plant in Beauvais, where most large tractors are built for the Euopean market. Any French visit wouldn’t be complete without a four course lunch at Massey where Marketing Manager, Campbell Scott spoke about their commitment to agriculture and in particular youth and educational commitment.  

Rungis Market

We wrapped up our French experience the way we started, with food! A visit to the worlds largest mixed food market that sees over €9Billion of meat, poultry, fish, cheese, fruit, vegetables, flowers and anything else you can eat at Rungis Market. It was an incredible site of food produced locally and internationally that is sold at this wholesale market. 

My blog would not be complete without mentioning the food we actually consumed. Wow is the only word I can use to describe the essence of a food culture as a part of almost every interaction. The fois gras, pate, baguettes, duck, beef, poultry served with wine and almost always ended by cheese is enough to make anyone into a foodie.

Nuffield France did a thoughtful job of hosting our group, including Laure Figeureu and her family that hosted an authentic French BBQ, Philppe Quignon allowing us to dig soil on his farm, Thierry de Fremont, a character in himself who escorted us for the week, Benoit Pesles current chair of Nuffield France and Romain Vacherot who visited Rungis Market with our group. A big thank you to my fellow French Nuffielders who made this leg of Global Focus Program not only memorable, but gave a fascinating perspective to European food production. 

Group shot at alfalfa drying co-op

Monet’s turkey art!

What is your food culture? #NuffieldAg

View of the Siene River


Lunch time views

I am literally sitting along side the Seine River with my half eaten lunch. You see, we were tight for time today and opted out of an extensive French, four course lunch; instead we stopped by a supermarket for a baguette. But, I made the mistake of starting to eat in front of the store to save time. To our French hosts disgust, she insisted to at least travel to the river to sit and enjoy our simple meal. 

Simple Indian cuisine, served at the sugar factory


It dawned on me, our culture is fast food! It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always McDonalds, but rather we as a nation are always eating on the run!  Think about it, how many Timmies have you drank today? Was it in your car or the perpetual pot brewing in the office? Throughout my travels, the tea and coffee has been served strong, small and always with time to enjoy.

Traditional Qatari Meal


In four weeks on the road through India, Qatar, Turkey and France we have always taken time to eat and enjoy. The food may have been simple rice and curry in India, the numerous soft drinks and water at every stop to the Turkish coffee that was served multiple times a day through our abbreviated trip to the troubled nation. You see the food and drink is equally as important as the conversation that comes with it. 

Typical French, multi course meal


In France, I think it’s all about the food, literally the four course lunches, the cheese that accompanies each meal, pastry and how could I forget about the baguettes!

When it comes to diversity of food the amount of lamb, duck and seafood I have eaten in the past few weeks out weighs these quantities in my diet over the past year.

It’s the company you keep


But it’s interesting to consider, I’ve found other nations have a closer understanding to their food, whether it’s the Halal market where people watch their lamb slaughtered. The Indian’s eat their rice, naan and largely vegetarian cuisine. The Turks enjoy fresh and simple meat and produce served on platters to enjoy in groups. Then there is the French where red wine flows with duck, pate and plates of cheese. 

So I ask myself, what is our food culture?  So next time you take an extra large double double, eat while you drive or watch television with dinner, what is your food culture?

The French love their wine!

No Place Like Home, Happy Birthday Canada #NuffieldAg

Media at Ataturk Airport

So long, farewell, until next time!


If the past three weeks have only taught me one thing, it’s that Canada is a wonderful country to call home. We have safety, security, food, land, water, respect for others and an approach to life that respects culture, as well as a legal and economic system which supports a very large middle class. 
I know Canada isn’t all roses, we’ve had our own issues with violence, we have homelessness and people on the fringes struggling through mental illness, some of you may not agree with our government leaders, and as farmers it’s always too dry, too wet, or the price is too low.

The turning point for me this week  happened in Turkey. For the first four days of our visit, having been warned about violence from family, news reports, and country experts, I was very optimistic about this country. The people we met were genuine and friendly in this country that has this odd appearance of part eastern European, part Mediterranean, but what we didn’t see is the part of the country bordering onto the Middle East! 

On Tuesday evening, three suicide bombers killed 40 people and injured 200 more in Ataturk Airport, in the same area we walked through four days earlier. Even more remarkable is that the airport reopened within hours, the blood was cleaned up and I walked back through the building 39 hours after so many lives were destroyed!     

I asked a young fellow who interpreted a meeting at a local dairy, were you shocked about the violence the day before at the airport? His response was no, he is more surprised on days where somebody isn’t killed! Given the large military, the shared borders around Syria and Iraq, frequent attacks on military gave way to many casualties never picked up by foreign media, it is that which makes me sad for Turkey. You see Turkey is a country where there is diverse culture, on the ballet to potentially join the European Union, one where they control shipping channels to Russia, where land, water and labour are still available to produce food, a place where 80 million people call home, it’s the gateway to the Middle East. 

So as I end this post about Turkey, it is a great country with so much opportunity. At no time did I feel unsafe, it’s that the attack did create uneasiness for me and others in our group and particularly those at home, so as we departed through a well secured Ataturk airport, analyzing every face I saw, it made me realize how appreciative I am of Canada! 

In the past three weeks I’ve seen congestion, massive population, and a historical class system that divides poverty and wealth in India. Qatar, a country of wealth, driven by oil, but ruled by Islamic culture and now Turkey, a land of opportunity, but tarnished by varying fractions of cultural difference. 

Oh Canada, our home and native land, 19 more days and I’ll be home. Happy 149th Canada!

Gallipoli War Memorial

Turkish Flag

India, where to begin? #NuffieldAg #IndiaGFP

My Nuffield experience has been filled with sights, sounds and smells that can overwhelm anyones senses. Without a doubt, the first few minutes of India provided insight into this country that straddles the boarders of extreme poverty and significant wealth. The basics of life, including access to clean water and sewers, employment and continuity of an orderly life were not easily recognizable to me, a simple guy from Canada. But what is clear, the Indian population has evolved with a social and economic structure that relies heavily on local communities, villages, simply trade among local people to make this enormous country of 1.3 Billion people function. 

I am not going to lie, my very first images were people, congestion and the public filth and garbage was shocking, something that I can’t still wrap my head around. My initial reaction was one of ‘it’s not my problem’, however in contrast it is their lives and I am a visitor, but it begs the question of respect of others and property.

As an outsider visiting the country interested in farming practices, production and marketing systems for 11 days, gathering highlights from the south in Hyderabad and Mumbai to the north in Punjab has been a whirlwind task. There have been several key visits and hosts that graciously gave us a taste of India. Perhaps above all, my key learnings have focussed around the culture and sorting through the hierarchy of how agriculture business is done here in India.

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) was an excellent place to begin our study in India because they got us into a local village to meet farmers and see first hand the extension projects being done. Hosted by Dr. Peter Carberry, the first words out of their mouths was ‘water’, a theme that followed us all through India. Situated on 3500 acres, donated by the Indian government in the 1970’s, the program provides research focussed on seed development around their core crops of millet, peanut, sorghum & chickpea. The institute maintains their core genetic seed material used in Asia, but also in semi arid regions of Africa, thus their global reach of developing nations is significant.


The village of Kothapalli has been a model project where ICRISAT invested in the village to develop water dams, reservoirs, wells and channels to better utilize the high rainfall during the monsoon season to offset requirements throughout the years through irrigation. As simple and life changing as providing water can be, it wasn’t without challenge as these farmer villages needed buy in, long term support before change was accepted. A fascinating look into village life made us all realize women do much of the work, but the men like to handle the money. Going back to ICRISAT, they have strived to empower women as key agents of change to ensure social and economic value is shared. Remember, these farmers have only a few acres of land, trade through ‘infamous middlemen’ and rely heavily on the social mechanisms of cooperative farming. It was a fascinating glimpse at this local business where people seemed quite content. 


Research is one area at home that is highly disputed with anecdotal and non factual information through social media clouding reality; to me here in India, research at the basic level is about feeding the hungry. I gained a new appreciation their work because it is aimed a vast populations to improve the fundamentals of life. Fortunately, the Indian government has identified core food staples like rice and wheat as crops that protect access to food for all. The ideas of developing crops outside of widespread commercialism will continue to be necessary, particularly given the limitations on certain technologies like genetic engineered seeds.

Understanding the local food trade was eye opening as well at the vegetable market in Hyderabad where wholesales sell good to locals who peddle the food down city streets to their 10 million residents. The people, produce and those making a Rubee along the way highlights the importance of trade and this developing economy where as much as 70% of food is sold in this unorganized way. A local farmer and consultant Ashok Jalagam toured us to the main market as well as his organic mango farm. Ashok suffered significant drought last year because unauthorized residential and commercial development are drilling wells and using the water, that and a theme park was randomly built and dropped the natural water table; a sign of corruption.


With food itself, I can honestly say I ate as the locals do, or at least I tried. Not being one to have an adventurous pallet, I’ve enjoyed the food, short of the minor case of a gastro bug. By local, it consisted of curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner! But remember, eat you’re your right hand, clean with your left, if you know what I mean. Fortunately, our ‘Team India’ has faired very well and we are enjoying the gracious hospitality.


Singapore; Gateway to Asia #NuffieldAg #IndiaGFP

So it begins; I am off on my 2016 Global Focus Program known amongst our Nuffield peers, I am on what is referred to as GFP India with 8 other scholars. My travel mates are two dairy farmers Ray and John, Adam is a cattle rancher, Matt operates a banana farm, Jess is a government project manager, Ben is a manure specialist, Debbies works in farm extension and Luke is a crop farmer. These peers are sure to generate diverse perspectives to all of our upcoming meetings.

The GFP is focussed on comparing major aspects of food production; however I think it will be a very personal experience, drawing on aspects of a live social experiment by mixing farmers from various countries and industry backgrounds, assigning an intensive agenda and expecting a cohesive relationship to occur as we manage a group schedule, budget, research objectives, all while acting as national advocates for our agriculture industries back home. I feel very confident after our orientation in Singapore, that we are all up for the challenge! Our agenda through Singapore, India, Qatar, Turkey, France and America is sure to be rich in agriculture and cultural learning.

Fortunately, the three GFP groups known as India, China and Japan assembled in Singapore for a three days intensive orientation program fixed around team building, rule setting and encouragement of team dynamics in a neutral setting in whereby we are all adjust to time, food and cultural differences. At the same time, the industry speakers, visitors and visits set the stage for the agriculture economy in Asia, with Singapore acting as the hub of trading and logistics for the movement of good throughout the region. 

Our Singapore orientation began with behavioural analysis to understand ourselves and team members known as a ‘DiSC’ assessment’ whereby people naturally fall into the categories of Dominance, Influencer, Stabilizer and Consciencious. No surprise here, I was a strong ‘C; consciensous contributor, focussed on accuracy with logical and systematic approaches to solving problems while adhering to a high standard. Fortunately, our group had a balance of contributors, including 2 Dominators, “the do it, and do it now” approach, 4 ‘I’s the ones who like to have fun, be involved with people and enjoy freedom of responsibility, we even had one ‘S’ who benefits from involving everyone in a safe, secure environment. Regardless of any testing, so long as we bring our best each day, respect others and have some ability to adapt, we are sure to have a great trip.

Essentially a city state, Singapore consists of a mere 716 square kilometres with 5.39 million people. This urban nation is known as the financial city of Asia, but more so over the past decade has evolved into the agricultural trading hub of the region with many corporate offices housed here. The annual GDP of Singapore is about $297Billion or a per capita of $55,000. It was great to be in a city so clean, organized and virtually no poverty was visible; admittedly the city was relatively expensive within the region.

Being hosted by ANZ Bank, an Australian and New Zealand based bank, we used their regional Asian offices for our meetings and speakers. Learning about the opportunities of agricultural goods and valued added products in the food and beverage space is one thing, but hearing a logistics specialist and driving through the he port area of the city triggered a high degree of interest about the vast amount of goods handled through Asia.  

We were fortunate to have a speaker from each of Monsanto and Syngenta speak to the Nuffield group about supporting farmers and increasing their business into the Asian region. With limited support networks in place, these multinationals are attempting sell their goods, but also act as farm advisors. Comparatively, both firms bring their ideas of ‘sustainability’ in their goal of feeding the 9 billion people by 2050, but it still begs the question about simply selling more seed or chemical into a region. It will be interesting to learn as we travel into India if in fact these large firms carry the respect of farmers and are meeting their actual needs.

In learning about doing things differently, we visited Sky Greens, a vertical farming technology company that is developing hydroponic growing equipment that can be used in greenhouses, roof tops, urban buildings and beyond, all with an effort of producing more foods in less space. Coming from Canada where land, water, and space typically come with ease, it generates the question of what potential this technology has, particularly if food can be procured and consumed in close proximity.

The speaker which brought the most perspective more me, was that of Glenn Maquire, Chief Asian Economist with AZN Bank, in speaking about the challenges that lie ahead in the Asian markets, he brought to light the shifts that occur over time. Particularly in the changing wage and wealth structure in China shifting from a manufacturing powerhouse to services oriented economy, with the cheaper wages of Laos, Vientman and Myanmar becoming the next industrial based powerhouses of the region. This region is seeing unprecidented poulation growth, shrinking land base and pressure on water usages.

So many people, so little space and the continuation of change through wealth development, urban migration and changing diets have all created fascinating perspectives that I look forward to thinking about. So as we venture off into India with our GFP team, I am pretty excited.


  


 

A Cagey Situation: Consumers Have The Right To Be Confused #Nuffield16

Consumers are confused, and I am too! There was an article in The Globe and Mail over the weekend by Ann Hui, National Food Reporter, which supports the ongoing conversation of egg production from battery cages to enriched cages or free range housing for laying hens in Canada; this compares to my recent Nuffield Canada research trip to Holland where I had opportunity to live for a few days with a large, commercial layer farmer who was proud of his 120,000 unit laying farm where all eggs sold in Dutch grocery stores come from aviary barns, where these birds are not confined to any sort of cage.

Who is right? Eggs produced in cages or eggs produced in free run systems? This question creates a major problem because we attempt to have conversations about bird health, safety and what farmers deem as ‘sustainable’. However this conversation about the wellbeing of the bird is somewhat misleading; it is entirely economic driven. It is economics from retailers selling cage free eggs to economics of farmers looking to protect their own profitability and investments. A contradiction is that North American scientists have produced reports that support the benefits of enriched cage systems and scientists in Europe have produced research that supports birds are happier without confinement; again we have developed research which supports each system, with their own merits.

I found myself, a lover of this is seemingly perfectly packaged, concentrated, affordable form of protein, known as an egg, questioning our system in Canada. Through my Nuffield travels I had the opportunity to spend a day with Scotland’s largest egg farmer, John Campbell, who has about $2.5 million laying hens, 40% of which were free run and the balance in cages. I also met one of Irelands largest egg farmers who farmed nearly 1 million hens, most of which were in caged systems. In both circumstances they referred to their caged birds, I insisted on clarifying what they meant by ‘caged’, on both farms it is what Canada would call an ‘enriched cage’. In other words, the idea that Canadian egg farmers have operated with traditional battery cages for this long, seemed almost impossible to these gentleman. In speaking with Mr. Campbell, it was the opportunity in marketing free run eggs where his growth of business growth occurred, not caged, and organic to this point has limited market potential.

This idea of caged versus enriched versus free run made me think; do consumers really care or do they simply want a low priced and high quality food? To develop an answer to this question, I am not entirely sure, but what I have learned is that consumers, retailers and end users are asking more and more questions about the welfare practices on farm and how these birds are raised. To this, no matter the system, I am a firm believer that the differentiator is the management between farms, perhaps more so than the system itself. As for consumers, some are looking for details, but many are want to have a connection to their food, but do not always want the full extent of the details.

It was best described to me by Roy Tomesen, my Dutch egg farming Nuffield friend; as they converted their barns nearly 10 years ago from cages to aviary systems; he said: in cages, farmers manage the birds, in aviary, the birds manage the farmers. In other words, the management of each system is very different, more hands on, dependent on environmental factors and bird behavior, but each can be done with very high levels of care and compassion for the birds. Roy was managing is large farm with 1.5 hired laborers in addition to himself. I question, are farmers resistant to change or is our system rigid to change? As a poultry farmer (yes, I am turkey farmer, and similar management traits are true with me) we have bought into a system where we don’t necessarily think about our end consumer, we only think about what happens on our farm and when our product leaves the barn, it is no longer my issue. We have an expectation of trusted relationships from farm to fork.

Retailers are making decisions based on global trends; we should not be a surprised for some markets, particularly when you look at the Dutch model where nearly 30 million laying hens are raised outside of cages; it can be done and large retailers know it. I had the privilege of meeting a large egg packer in Holland, they were very proud of their distribution model and spoke about opportunities abroad; this included North America where they were able to provide cage free liquid egg product, shipped overseas to supply American food products, such as mayonnaise.

A farm economic concern in the discussion of going cage free is that respecting the consumer relationship. If retailers, foodservice and food manufacturing clients were willing to pay more money for this product, farmers would gladly entertain the transition. However, the fear of this conversation for the same price paid for a product that does in fact cost more to produce. Farmers that have recently invested in technology, infrastructure and barns should rightly be concerned because of the speed of which decisions were made and communicated regarding animal welfare standards; but looking outside North America, this does not come as any surprise.

Moreover, Canadian egg farmers are profitable, where all members of the value chain make a positive return, but the price of quota is no doubt the largest factor of investment. I question if the price of quota, which is not negotiable in price, yet have strong fixed incomes drives lack of change. Looking abroad, when a Dutch farmer with an aviary system is making €0.005 (yes ½ a Euro Cent) per egg, so based on 400 eggs/bird that is only €2/bird profit, in Canadian about $3/bird; a far cry from the $13 to $15/bird that Canadian farmers are profiting and earning their fair share within the supply chain.

Another argument that I have been challenged with by Canadian farmers is the notion of mortality on free run facilities versus cage barns; my response is much less about the type of barn, but more about the overall system of marketing eggs. The reproductive capacity of laying hens is about 14 months or longer, yet in Canada they are replaced to match system requirements at one year.   Therefore, over the long term, unnecessary birds are used for production, when in fact they should not be required.   Again, who am I to say, particularly when farmers are having a terrific profit margin and are willing to pay for that extra laying hen over time, but further improvements in egg productivity is being developed and this issue will not go away, particularly if goals of 500 days in lay are met in the future.

To my point, I am confused and I don’t think I am alone based on my observations. As farmers, particularly in supply management in Canada, we have the trust of consumers who are paying good prices for eggs, we have negotiating ability with distributers and retailers, but the industry needs to consider what consumers are asking. I don’t agree that one system, cage vs cage free, is particularly better than the other, but rather the management and skills required is very different. Ultimately, farmers have a goal of being paid fairly for their work and investments, should we consider discussing the opportunity for differential pricing for those that want to adapt? It is proven that commercial, wide scale aviary production is possible, but again, I don’t believe that all consumers are asking for these standards. In the end, Canada is positioned to utilize multiple forms of production apply the strongest of management, but we must embrace some degrees of change.

 

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