By Treena Hein
A passion for ag education
By Treena Hein
For Susan Schafers, the choice to go cage-free in 2007 was obvious. “At the time, my father still owned the quota, and he downsized from 30,000 to 7000 layers,” she explains. “For that smallish flock size, free-run made sense financially. And also, my brother, Martin Kanehl, was selling poultry barn equipment, and we saw the writing on the wall with cage-free. Everyone would be moving that way. I think we were second in Alberta to do it.”
Schafers’ operation, STS Farms, located in Stony Plain (outside Edmonton) supplies Burnbrae, which is the sole provider of eggs to McDonald’s Canada. Schafers is pleased that the retail chain sources eggs, meat, potatoes and more from Canadian farms, a practice some other chains don’t choose to employ.
STS Farms was started by Schafers’ parents Manfred and Elke Kanehl, in the early 1960’s. They were immigrants from Germany who met and married here. “My Dad did everything from working the railroads to being a cowboy to running a hatchery,” Schafers explains. “At one point, he got a few hundred chickens and then grew from there. He grew grain as well, and had a broiler-breeder operation and then went to layers. As their layer flock downsized and they stopped cropping, their pullet operation grew and STS Farms now produces 150,000 pullets a year. “We started with free run housing with the pullets, then went to caged and now we’ll be switching to loose housing again, which might mean downsizing,” Schafers says. “The next renovation will be aviary free-run, with birds having the opportunity to learn how to fly.” She notes that in 2007, she would have gone to an aviary system for the layers, but they weren’t around at the time. “Now there are better styles,” she says. “They’ve done a lot of development work, and now you have the ability to place more birds.”
While Schafers supports producers using aviary, enriched cage or free-run systems, she notes that when you go from cages to one of the looser housing systems, there is an increase in the environmental footprint of the farm – a fact which many consumers may not realize. “You have to build more barns, which takes up more space and uses more resources and adds to the cost,” she notes. “That’s the reality. It will take time for industry to make those changes. I think consumers should have the choice of buying eggs from hens living in different housing systems, but it’s different when retailers and some consumers dictate a single choice to egg farmers and to all consumers. Going to all free-run barns across the country will mean the price of eggs will go up substantially. But there is a silver lining in that there is excitement and enthusiasm in the industry along with some fear and uncertainties. We have a very strong and positive industry. Eggs are considered healthy again, and we’re in growth mode. I’d like to build a second barn in time.”
Schafers has five full-time employees and several part-time employees, some of whom have been with her over 20 years. She has a farm manager, but does lots of hands-on daily tasks such as gathering eggs and loading pullets as she enjoys it, it keeps her in good touch with the birds and it provides good balance. Her parents live next door to her and her children on the farm, and her Dad Manfred still enjoys helping out and sharing his wealth of knowledge. Schafers’ children Isaac (14 years old), Elisabeth (17) and Glen (19) have always helped out on the farm. “I’ve always encouraged them to get post-secondary education and to have that experience away from the farm,” she says. “They will know when and if they want to come back.”
Importance of Associations
Like Schafers’ father, who served on the Egg Farmers of Alberta (EFA) and Egg Farmers of Canada boards for many years, Schafers also has held association positions. She’s the current EFA Vice Chair and former Chair and has also served on the Pullet Growers of Canada board. “Unless you’re on a board, you don’t realize how important it is,” she says. “At some point, every producer should be on the board. You see how what you do on your own farm relates to what is happening in your own province and nationally, how the provinces need to work together on national issues and also international ones. I really enjoy the board service.”
Schafers has a degree in Agricultural Management, and does both public speaking and blogging on the EFA website. “Ag education is one of the things I love the most,” she says. “It’s many things. I enjoy being part of the conversation and talking to people about their views. I love teaching people about where their food comes from in the schools, at events, on television, and I think it’s very important as an entire industry because interacting means you’re able to develop your industry and reach people. We are well on our way to educating people about food and animal husbandry but we can always do more.”
She adds, “I think egg producers are living in a great time, in a very strong growth mode where eggs are viewed as nutritious, fresh and economical for consumers. Yes, there are challenges, the biggest one being the housing situation, but we will meet those. I am very happy being on the EFA Board, with the current focus on planning and supporting producers to find solutions.
“Producer education and awareness are very important so that producers are prepared for the future and aren’t left scrambling.”