Days after moving to the farm in 2015, we purchased a handful of 19-week old “ready-to-lay” hens and dozens of chicks. The ready-to-lay hens started laying a few weeks later, after acclimating to their life on the farm, and we babied the chicks until they, too, started laying after around 20 weeks.
Drake designed a mobile coop and DIY nest boxes, we bought some electric poultry netting, a few egg baskets and empty egg flats. Ever since, we’ve sold pasture-raised eggs on-farm year-round; beautiful eggs with dark orange yolks laid by happy hens on pasture that you simply can’t get anywhere but on a small-scale farm.
We love having the hens on the farm, and their eggs; and we know our customers love their eggs, too. This is why it was a hard choice to scale back our flock last winter and re-evaluate egg production with the very real context that selling eggs in Ontario isn’t easy.
The Egg Police
In summary, it is really hard for small-scale egg farmers like us to thrive because of supply management of eggs, which comes in the form of quota – or a fixed share in the province’s total egg production. Minimum buy-ins for quota are high such that most egg farmers raise more than 20,000 laying hens at over $295 quota per bird. (This scale of production also mean all eggs under the quota system are raised inside in controlled environments, where chores can be automated and egg production can be maximized.)
There’s one exception: every farm is allowed a maximum of 100 hens without quota, which is how we and other small farms are permitted to have egg-layers. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to make a flock of only 100 hens worth the effort. Sure you can make a few thousands dollars but this amount isn’t enough to justify a separate enterprise, from a small business standpoint.
This is especially true when hens are raised on pasture, where their food and water are inconveniently located, and even more so when hens are rotationally grazed on pasture – like we do – because of the extra labour required to move the hens and the electric netting that keeps them safe. To add insult to injury eggs can can’t be sold off-farm unless they are graded, which adds another few dollars + transportation + time to a dozen eggs. For all of these reasons, economies of scale dictate that we really need to raise 300 hens (and probably 600) in order to justify a farm enterprise.
Without a higher flock size, we are between an “egg and a hard place”, so what can we do?
Our hope (which isn’t grounded in any hints of reality) is that egg quota will expand to small-scale farmers in a similar way that quota for meat chickens opened up to us in 2016. The Artisanal Chicken Program rents small amounts of quota to small-scale famers as a license to sell 600-3000 meat chickens per farm per year, and it’s the reason we are able to have a viable meat chicken enterprise. We dream of a similar system for eggs, where we could justify investments to expand a coop to hold hundreds of happy hens that live on pasture – and provide the community with this amazing source of nutrient-dense protein.
Until then, we have decided to keep a smaller flock moving forward. The flock will provide us with eggs as well as a few “egg share” members who have committed to regular quantities of eggs throughout the year. We may scale back up when we figure out how to feed the hens in a way that is more ecological (vs buying in feed), but this takes time and can’t be a priority given the quota restrictions.
We know the news of no pasture-raised eggs will be disappointing to many of you! Maybe we can all use this energy to continue these conversations and raise awareness of this barrier that affects the livelihood of small-scale farmers and your access to nutrient-dense food.
Photo by Katie Hotchkiss.