By Leeann Minogue
Clinton Monchuk is willing to share the secret to running a successful free-run egg business. “First of all,” he says, “make good relationships with the local football players.”
The laying hen barn Monchuk operates with his brother Andrew and sister-in-law Pam near Lanigan, Saskatchewan, gives their hens freedom to move around and flock together during the day. At night, the birds fly up into nest boxes to lay eggs, so the eggs can roll gently down onto a conveyor belt.
When the Monchuks entered the egg business in 2017, they chose this production model over a more traditional model to give their birds more freedom, and also to appeal to consumers. “This is where the demand was,” Monchuk says.
Every production system brings challenges, and one challenge with a free-run system is the increased need for labour. Every time the Monchuks bring a new flock of laying hens into the barn, they need to train the birds to fly up into the nest boxes every night.
“When the lights go out,” Monchuk explains, “we put little red lamps on our heads. Then we physically pick each bird up and set them up on the equipment.” This is where the football players come in, as the Monchuks hire two to eight extra staff to help out. But with 7,400 laying hens, this is still a lot of lifting. “My physiotherapist can tell you what this has done to my back,” Monchuk jokes.
Getting into the Egg Business
Five years ago, the Monchuks were part of a program that enabled new entrants to buy discounted quota and produce eggs. They were new to eggs, but the Monchuks were not new to agriculture The brothers and their parents were already running their family’s 4,400-acre grain farm, parts of which have been in the family for 100 years. “We typically seed five or six different crops every year, to diversify our risk,” Monchuk says.
Adding egg production added new daily chores, as well as those occasional chicken training sessions. Every day the Monchuks or their staff collect the eggs and walk through the barn at least three times to check for sick or injured birds and make sure the feed and water systems are working.
The free-run model adds work, but it also lets the Monchuks sell their eggs at a price premium. The Monchuks’ eggs are sold as free-run, Vitamin D and Omega 3 enriched eggs. “The higher price pays for the extra labour on the farm,” Monchuk says.
Sharing the Story
Most weekdays, Clinton and his wife Laura are in Saskatoon, where Clinton is the Executive Director of Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan. This role gives Monchuk a chance to work with players throughout the food chain to increase consumers’ understanding of food and farming. “There’s so much misinformation out there, I feel that sharing with people about our work is one of the things we can do better as a farming community,” he says.
Biosecurity issues make it difficult for Monchuk to take consumers on personal tours through his poultry barn. Instead, Monchuk regularly posts videos to YouTube from inside the barn and shares photos on the Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan’s Instagram feed.
Since the Monchuks don’t sell their eggs directly to consumers, Clinton can’t be sure the people watching his videos are the same people eating his eggs, but that’s not the point. He believes we need to think of the food system as a complete system, where farmers and ranchers play a key part. “This means farmers and ranchers need to talk about what we’re doing,” Monchuk says.
Monchuk worries the links between consumers and farms have been severed. By sharing information about food production, “farmers and ranchers can engage with consumers who have questions about their food and how it gets to their plate.”
“To feed a growing world population, we use a lot of tools in farming, like pesticides, and antibiotics. If we don’t talk about why we need these products to make the global food system sustainable, we may not have access to some of these tools in the future.”
For example, Monchuk points to glyphosate, a herbicide some consumers would like to see banned. Glyphosate helps grain farmers like Monchuk control weeds without tilling the soil. “Consumers that want to stop the use of glyphosate don’t realize that if we do that, I’ll be back out tilling my land,” a practice that erodes the soil and releases sequestered carbon into the atmosphere.
Monchuk hopes his passion for agriculture will inspire other farmers and ranchers to share information about their operations. “I want to inspire other farmers to make their own videos, talk to their kids’ classrooms, or share what they’re seeding or what they do with their cattle.”