PODCAST | February 16, 2023

The Cracked Egg: Conrad Vanessen, Episode 2 Summary

Below is a summary of the conversation we had with our guest speaker, Conrad Vanessen, a local egg farmer and Vice Chair on the Board of Directors at Egg Farmers of Alberta.

Note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For more detailed information, please listen to the episode.

EFA: Egg Farmers of Alberta
CV: Conrad Vanessen

EFA: Thank you for joining us, my name is Tate, I am the marketing and social media coordinator at Egg Farmers of Alberta, a not-for-profit organization that represents all egg farms across the province. Our vision is healthy food, healthy farms, and healthy families. This is further represented by our four core pillars, healthy birds, healthy eggs, healthy farms, and healthy communities. Our guest speaker for today’s episode is Conrad Vanessen. Conrad is the Vice Chair at Egg Farmers of Alberta and is also a first-generation egg farmer!

CV: Thanks a lot for having me on today, Tate, to spend some time with you to talk about the egg industry.

EFA: Please share more about what your role is here at EFA.

CV: I have been part of the egg industry here in Alberta since 2014, and I started producing eggs towards the end of 2015. I am the current vice chair at Egg Farmers of Alberta, and our role is to set out the policies for the strategic direction of EFA on behalf of the 170 registered producers that we represent.

EFA: That is great and what led you specifically to want to be on the board of directors here?

CV: I think I was very grateful that I was given the opportunity to get into this industry. So part of me just wanted to give back to this industry, but also as a producer, you want to shape the future of the industry and you want a voice in doing that. To me, there’s no better way than becoming a board member, giving your opinions, your observations as a farmer so that we can continue to grow and shape this industry, hopefully for generations to come and to give our kids and our grandkids the opportunity to continue as egg.

EFA: Now you say a voice and you are a farmer, so it really must be unique being one of the 170 farmers here and representing them at EFA as well! What made you decide to become a farmer?

CV: I grew up on a farm. I was raised on a mixed farming operation. So I guess growing up on a farm, kind of ignited the passion of wanting to become a farmer after high school. I didn’t want to go to college or university, wanted to in the footsteps of my dad and kind of what I had grown to know. An opportunity came for me to purchase my farm and. I have been farming ever since, and I really enjoy the lifestyles that, that it offers. And the opportunity to raise my family on a farm is, I don’t think there’s anything better.

EFA: Whereabouts is your farm located and what other operations do you have there other than eggs?

CV: My farm is located about 20 minutes east of Lethbridge in southern Alberta. It’s just outside of a little town called Coaldale. Currently I have 20,000 layers, a 4,500 veal calf ranch and I do some irrigated crop farming where I raise my own crops for my cattle, where I can raise my own wheat to, to make my own feed.

EFA: Having mixed operations, I’m sure can be stressful at times to run, what would you say is the most challenging part of running a farm operation?

CV: For me personally, probably right now, the most challenging part is the labor shortage to fill all the positions that are available on the farm here. It seems to be an ongoing challenge that’s kind of been with me for a bunch of years. More recently, it’s the costs of everything going up that really affects everybody’s farm. Our input costs are getting higher and higher, and that, in effect has a squeeze on our bottom line. Those are probably the two big things that are challenging on the job right now. Then you’re always worried about the things that you can’t control and regulations coming in from, from government or underpart or other parties, putting more and more rules on farmers. Sometimes without consulting with farmers about the issues that will have direct impact on our farms and sometimes in turn, making it harder and harder for us as farmers to be viable.

EFA: Now an out an ‘out of your control’ challenge that’s been present for a number of months is the ever-changing situation with avian influenza. This has brought another challenge to poultry farms, not only in Alberta, but throughout the country. What kind of steps are farmers taking to ensure their farms biosecurity is the safest it can be?

CV: One thing about us as egg farmers is we care incredibly much about our animals. Nobody wants to get avian influenza. I think we’re taking precautions and that are in our control to try and make sure that we mitigate that risk. If you look on my farm here, we change clothes before we go in with the birds. We double change the boots first when we come into the barn, and then when we go into where the actual birds are, we change our boots again. We limit the amount of access for people to come in. We’re limiting the amount of stuff that we transfer, let’s say, between barns or between shops. Making sure that if something does come in, it stays in that barn and it doesn’t go back out, or it doesn’t go somewhere else because we want to make sure that we’re not, we’re not bringing anything in unnecessarily, you know? Some little piece of dirt or dust can be on your boots or on those tools and it comes in there, it can affect them and it’ll cause big problems. We do everything within our power with our biosecurity to try and make sure that we mitigate everything that we possibly.

EFA: For sure and it’s so important to have protocols in place to keep your farm at the best. I should have also noted earlier that you are part of our new entrant program, so can you shed a bit more light as to what that process was like for you?

CV: Yeah, for sure. It was a very interesting process. I did not know a whole lot about chickens. I don’t think I had ever been to a large scale chicken farm, so it was a completely new process and new industry to me. When I applied, I was already farming, so I thought it would be a good add-on to my current operations. I saw an ad and thought, I always liked the aspects of supply management. You always heard lots about it, like the guaranteed income, the stable income. For me as a young farmer, I thought it would be a great add-on to my current operations and it was something that intrigued me. So I applied and we got selected, and I guess then the incredibly steep learning curve began. I had started to get to know about the industry, to learn about supply management, to learn about eggs, to learn about different housing types, different barn designs. And it all happened within a year, so it was a very steep learning curve. It was a difficult process, not really knowing a whole lot about the industry, but there were fellow farmers I think that were incredibly helpful. They would take my phone calls any day and night, they would help out if I had questions about ventilation or water or feed or barn designs. They were always willing to, to pick up the phone or even come out and talk things over. We got welcomed in which was nice and people were very willing to help out. Even the support we got from the staff at Egg Farmers of Alberta, we had different seminars, different opportunities to get together with other new entrants to talk about some of our challenges, problems and how we could solve those problems. It was a very steep learning curve, but I was very supported by everybody involved.

EFA: Aside from a steep link curve, what would you say to those who may be interested in this program?

CV: I would encourage people to apply if it’s something that interests them, it could be a great add-on to an existing operation or if it’s something new that they want to start. It is a new in business, so it won’t come without its challenges. But it is definitely a great industry to join and there’s great farmers in this industry who are more than willing to help out.

EFA: And I just will add in also that we don’t have any new update yet in terms of when the program will return, but once we do, that’ll be posted on our website.
So, on your farm, I know you have 20,000 layers, that’s quite the size. How do you keep track of the health of all your hens?

CV: It’s a lot of monitoring. We monitor the feed, feed intake every day. We monitor the amount of water. There are the temperatures, you know, we got different temperature sensors throughout the barn. There’s the air quality. I’m in my barn first thing in the morning doing walkthroughs, just doing a visual check to make sure everything is good. Then throughout the day, you know, we’re doing more walkthroughs. We’re making sure that there’s the water, the feed, and that the birds are calm. And then at the end of the day, just before I go inside, I always like to double check – one more time. Doing one more walkthrough to make sure that the birds are comfortable. The nice thing about today’s technology is we can do more remote monitoring. We can log into our controls from wherever we are to make sure that everything is on par, making sure that everything is happening the same way as the day before. Ensuring there’s not a big jump in water consumption or they’re not eating any feed today, or the temperature inside is not right. You can really monitor things remotely and if there is a problem, we get alarms with, with today’s technology, it’ll be, it’ll be an alert to your phone or to your email saying something is not right. So you are able to get there as quick as possible to try and fix what’s wrong.

EFA: Yeah, it is crazy how far technology has come to help even farms now outside of our day-to-day lives. More farms are finding ways in their day-to-day operations to be sustainable and to lessen their environmental footprint. How have you approached a sustainability on your farm?

CV: My barns are fairly new. When I was building them, you’re always trying to make sure that you’re putting in the newest technology when it comes to heating, whether they’re putting, you know, more higher R value insulation in your walls and in your ceilings. When it comes to lighting, you’re making sure that you know, you have LEDs, making sure that they’re the most energy and efficient lights and power efficient lights that are on the market. When it comes to my cooling for my egg rooms, you’re making sure that you have the latest technology, whether that’s scroll compressor technology, or EMC motor technology. We’re putting everything in our barns to make sure that we’re not going to be having unnecessary heating costs or cooling costs or, power bills. Lately there’s more aspects of solar power and biodigesters that are becoming more common on farms. We’re using more high efficient devices and technologies and comparing them to the cost savings to make sure that our farmers remain as viable as possible. So that we can minimize our impact as much as possible.

EFA: Farmers really do care about the environment. And sort of taking a turn here, we just recently celebrated Canadian Agriculture Day! This is the day that highlights and puts a spotlight on the tireless work that farmers do to ensure Albertans have fresh, local and nutritious food. What does being a Canadian farmer mean to you?

CV: It means that I get to wake up every day and do what I absolutely love. I get to produce a healthy, affordable egg for my fellow Canadians. The egg that’s produced on my farm every morning is going to be enjoyed by a family for breakfast, for lunch supper, or for a snack within, within 10 days of when they’re laid on my farm. That’s probably the most rewarding part of being a Canadian egg farmer.

EFA: If you had one key message that you wanted to share with consumers, what would it be?

CV: It would probably be that my family we’re also consumers, so me as a farmer am also a consumer. I care about safe, healthy, affordable, and readily available food. As a farmer, every day I try to live up to that commitment of making sure that I’m producing a safe, healthy, affordable food that my family or my neighbor’s family or any family across Alberta or Canada is purchasing.

EFA: Lastly, you were chosen as one of the top four under 40 in 2022 by Canadian poultry, which is a great honor and achievement. What does this recognition mean to you?

CV: It came as a surprise. I did not know that I was getting nominated. I am newer to the egg industry and to the poultry industry. I guess I’ve had the privilege of learning from many qualified people who I think are well or more worthy of this recognition than I am. But I am very grateful and am thankful to the poultry industry for this recognition.

EFA: A wonderful accomplishment, Conrad. Well done! Well, that’s a wrap on episode two. If you want to learn more about Conrad, you can check out our staff section on our website. For any more info on anything as it relates to eggs, you can visit our website, eggs.ab.ca, or take a follow on our social channels.

Thank you for listening to The Cracked Egg, and stay tuned for next month’s episode.