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by Peter Mitham
Winning new entrant quota from the BC Egg Marketing Board in 2015 was an exhilarating but daunting prospect for Jared Les, who had spent six years learning the poultry business with another Chilliwack grower, the Pauls family. But setting up his own farm at the age of 20 was another matter. While he knew he wanted to take up farming and a producervendor license would allow him to market his own eggs, Les also knew the challenges he faced. He was very much walking on eggshells.
But the opportunities dovetailed with a new egg Vitala Foods Inc. of Abbotsford planned to hatch.
Vitala’s initial line of free run “sunshine eggs” enriched with Omega-3 fatty acids and a day’s worth of vitamin D was enjoying steady sales but consumers were showing an increased appetite for free range eggs. Vitala saw an opportunity and was looking for growers.
“[It] fit in exactly with the type of barn and free-range system that I built,” says Les, who with his wife Emma operates J&E Farms. “[It] worked out with timing and their vision for the brand. It was just a really good match.”
Les completed his barn a year ago and received his first flock of 6,000 birds in December 2016. By the time the hens were trained and laying eggs on a regular basis, Vitala launched its Free Bird line of free-range eggs enriched with vitamin D.
The vitamin content comes from a ration mixed with yeast Lallemand Inc. treats with ultraviolet light to augment its vitamin D content. The brown-shelled eggs each contain 200 UI of Vitamin D, the equivalent of the recommended daily dose.
Whatever the hens feel about their feed, it’s the barn structure that reputedly keeps them happy. Les installed an aviary-style barn with a tiered architecture that gives the hens perches, room to roam and outdoor access where they can hunt, peck and – to all appearances – enjoy a higher quality of life.
“It allows the birds to do a few of their more natural behaviours and express those,” Les explains. “During the day they like to go down on the floor level, which has a litter base, and they scratch in that and actually dust bath, which helps keep their coat nice, and if there are any mites – which we haven’t had – it helps knock the mites down as well.”
While this is his first freerange flock, Les says the birds seem to have enjoyed the arrangement.
“It’s been a bit of a learning curve but I think we’ve done a pretty good job with this first flock,” he says.
When his second flock arrives in December, Les will apply what he learned with the first flock to training the hens to lay in the nesting boxes as well as range management.
“I really like having the birds outside,” he says. “[But] they like to dig holes, I found out, so it’s been a challenge to keep the grass nice for them to forage in.” Good arrangement The arrangement is working for Bill Vanderkooi, CEO of Nutriva, the group that owns Vitala Foods Inc. alongside ventures including Bakerview EcoDairy as well as transport and feed companies.
Vitala partnered with Les for the Free Bird venture. Through its grading partner in Saskatoon, Star Egg Co. Ltd., it sources eggs from a farm in that province to supply local markets. Its grader in BC is Golden Valley Foods Ltd. of Abbotsford.
“These partnerships, to me, are an exciting way to grow the business fairly quickly without being super capitalintensive,” he says, reiterating a comment to the Globe and Mail in 2010: “I’m a product developer. The less I can be involved with the actual equipment, the manufacturing, the happier I am.”
The approach has led Nutriva to sales of $15 million, up from $12 million five years ago. Vitala is a small but growing portion of revenues; it sells 20,000 dozen free-run eggs a month and Vanderkooi aims to boost free-range sales.to 25,000 dozen eggs a month within three years. “The mission for the company is bringing healthy foods to the world,” Vanderkooi says. “We just felt this was a natural extension or progression as we grow and develop.”