Fisher … Yesterday, Today And …
By David Bashford
By David Bashford
W.H. Fisher started a family business in 1903 that has played a big part in the Canadian poultry industry over three generations. Recent changes in the company’s direction give Fisher Poultry Farm Ltd. a whole new outlook for the future.
Ron Clarridge, geneticist, is the grandson of W.H. Fisher and President of Fisher Poultry Farm Ltd. of Ayton, Ontario. “Our business has gone through a lot of changes in the past 75 years,” says Ron. “For instance, we produced meat birds as well as layers for a number of years. We were in and out of overseas markets – and were also strongly involved with brown egg layers at one time. But the biggest change of all has been our recent departure from the breeding end of the business.
“We considered phasing this out as far back as 1963 – but weren’t completely satisfied that we could offer any better breeds than our own until the last couple of years. Apart from egg producers, few other people realize just how much layer performance depends on the grower. I don’t mean that genetics aren’t really important. But a good grower can make a good bird out of many leghorn strains – and a poor one can make a mess of even championship material.
“At Fisher, we’ve always put the emphasis on the pullet as it is supplied. In fact, you could say we first entered the breeding field in order to deliver a better product. After all, when my grandfather started out, he offered several good breeds – along with the single, all-important idea of putting extra profit in the producer’s pocket. And no matter how many changes we’ve made, we’ve never lost sight of that original aim.”
A lot of people thought W.H. Fisher would never make a living from such an idea. When he started his business, most farmers had “pet breeds” of their own and many kinds of birds were raised just for show purposes. So when the Fisher founder decided to capitalize on the meat and egg producing abilities of his hobby, you can imagine how other bird fanciers (many of them his potential customers) felt about it.
The First Incubator
But, even in 1903, there were enough people who could see advantages of “mass produced” quality birds to give him a start. The following year, Fisher bought a 220-egg Cyphers lamp-heated incubator to replace broody hens. And, in1905, he became the first person in Canadian history to advertise and ship baby chicks by train. The Cyphers incubator still belongs to the Fisher farm as a treasured heirloom – one that helped the early business fill orders as far away as Nova Scotia and Winnipeg.
Fisher was also one of the first to make extensive use of the cotton-fronted poultry house to obtain winter eggs and winter hatches from breeder hens. He also employed trap-nesting and pedigreeing techniques as far back as 1913 to identify his top egg producers for use as breeding stock. When the Record of Performance (R.O.P.) policy was instituted by the Federal Department of Agriculture in 1919, Fisher entries were among the very first to be accepted.
The business went through some rough times in those early days. Besides debts, Fisher had to meet pullorum disease head-on – long before blood testing was inaugurated in 1928. The disease just about wiped him out – before he hit upon the method of isolating the eggs from each breeder hen and only keeping the chicks of hatches that showed full livability. This ended the problem within a couple of years for the Fishers – even though pullorum disease completely ended the budding careers of many other breeders.
Good fortune also brought its share of bad luck. Before and during the depression years, Fisher birds were chosen by the Canadian government to represent Canada at various World Poultry Congresses. Fisher poultry became famous. But, when the birds came home, leucosis came back with them. Other breeders with show birds were having the same problem – and no one had the solution.
This time, isolation and breeding only from families with full livability didn’t work. But the two Fisher brothers, Irwin and Herbert – sons of W.H. (Bill) Fisher – noticed that only the chicks that went into the brooder house caught the disease. They concluded that a virus was the cause of leucosis and, after some painstaking detective work, they found that mature birds were the carriers.
By brooding their chicks 200 feet or more away from the older flocks, and by taking full precautions in isolating them during their first 4 or 5 weeks of life, the Fishers beat leucosis. The disease has not been a problem on their farm since the early forties. It took a long while for the rest of the poultry industry to follow their discoveries in this area. Even twenty years later, their methods were considered to be advanced.
Irwin and Herb Operated Fisher’s
“My two uncles took over the business during the thirties,” Ron Clarridge continued. “Granddad’s health was failing and the size of the operation was just getting too much for one man to supervise all departments. Irwin and Herb Fisher took this company through its years of hectic growth. And they were real poultrymen.
“It was my uncles that got us into the broiler business. In 1940, they started cross-breeding Wyandotte and Barred Rock females with New Hampshire males. The Hamp-Wyandotte cross became a popular dual-purpose bird and when the broiler industry started in Ontario five or six years later, this product of ours was very much in demand. At one time, we supplied about half the broiler chicks in the Province. Our annual production passed the million mark in 1949 and kept right on climbing.”
But the Fisher partners did not like the way the broiler industry was developing. After ten years of growth, a final pattern for both the broiler supplier and producer had emerged – integration with a feed business or processing plant.
Since they did not relish the idea of becoming part of a giant corporation, and since they were too small to go it alone, the Fisher withdrew from the broiler market and turned all of their energies toward improving the replacement stock of the egg producer.
Over and over again, the question of size versus freedom of operation in the market has confronted Fisher Poultry Farm Ltd. and Fisher management has always opted for independence.
During the forties, Fisher developed three commercially important hybrid strains whose sale more than made up for the lack of broiler business. These brown and white egg layers placed in the top quartile of the Central Random Sample Tests held at Ottawa throughout the latter part of the fifties and the Fisher 103 topped all entries for the net revenue per bird in 1962. Although they were never dominant in most geographic areas, Fisher strains were sold throughout North America and had a foothold in European, South American and Asian markets. As recently as 1974, a scattering of Fisher flocks were still giving the big name breeds a good run for the money in various Random Sample Tests.
Once again, it was the comparatively small size of the Fisher operation that limited their ability to compete with the breeding giants. Ron Clarridge realized this when he and three other partners took over the business in 1963.
From that time on, attempts were made to supplement the Fisher line with other, newer breeds. As a geneticist, Ron knew his company would be fighting a losing battle – unless it could offer the best-developed bloodlines in the all-out competition for better hybrid layers. But it wasn’t until 1976, two years before the company’s 75th anniversary, that Fisher Poultry Farm Ltd. made their final choice and suspended breeding operations in favour of Hisex.
We’re “Poultry People”
“You see ” says Ron Clarridge, “our real strength lies in the fact that we have never been afraid to change. We don’t see ourselves as breeders, broiler people, or an international company – even though we have gone through all of those stages. First, last, and always, we are poultry people. We’ve always known that our success depends on supplying a more profitable bird than the other guy. And as long as we can do that – no matter how – we will be a strong, independent force in the poultry market.
“Poultry and its improvement. Those are the things we talk about around our dinner table. It was the same when I was a kid – just as I imagine it was for my uncles, too. We’ve had to learn more about pullet grow-out than the breeders. We’ve had to match their breeding knowledge – and learn skills that no one even uses anymore. And from all this experience the one thing we’ll never forget is how to deliver a superior quality pullet.
“When it comes to changes, I think our taking on the Hisex line will be one of the best we’ve ever made. From a genetic standpoint, Hisex is right at the top today and should have years of high-profit potential ahead of it.”
Once an egg producer starts buying pullets from Fisher, he tends to stay with them. Many customers have been coming back for twenty years or more – even through changes in ownership. When you talk to these people, the message comes through loud and clear – they like the Fisher product and regard the change to Hisex as a nice bonus.
For example, Arthur Oehm of Clifford, Ontario who runs a cage-layer operation, has bought from Fisher for the past fifteen years. In fact, Arthur’s father had a Fisher flock 40 years ago, and supplied hatching eggs for their hatchery. “I did split the flock once,” says Art, “but that was quite awhile ago. You can’t argue with Fisher performance. Even when the going was tough for egg producers and a lot of people were really hurting, we didn’t lose money on a single flock.
“We sell our eggs to the Toronto market where the competition can be rough. But as long as you keep getting really good feed conversion and livability along with great egg production, you can do all right. Fisher pullets have given us these things all along, and that’s why I’ve stayed with them.”
Another Fisher customer is Gene Baumlisberger, Grand Valley, who has about 30,000 layers. “I’ve dealt with Fisher over the past twelve years,” says Gene, “and during the last eight or nine years, my flocks have been exclusively Fisher. I like the pullets they deliver. Things like de-beaking and vaccinating are always done right. And if there are any problems, I can rely on their service people to get here fast.”
Jack Zonnaveld of Sunny Lea Foods in Grimsby, Ontario, orders between fifty and sixty thousand chicks per year. “I’ve done a lot of business with the Fisher farm over the last seven or eight years,” said Jack. “No complaints. They’ve got good people and a good hatchery. And they’ve certainly got a great bird in the Hisex layer. I’ve already seen a difference with my first flock.”
We Have Made Champs
In order to supply the demand for large numbers of pullets Fisher has made several recent changes to their facilities. Incubation and hatching capacity was increased with the addition of new machines, and by discontinuing their own breeding program they had ample room to grow and house their new Hisex breeding flocks. Fisher have also enlarged their delivery fleet and changed to an indoor loading operation.
“Even though some customers have adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward our change of breed,” say Ron Clarridge, “our first year of Hisex sales have exceeded those of the year before by about 20%. We now have the ability to supply over 40,000 pullets per week – and some weeks we are operating at full capacity already.
“Business is good – and it’s a lot less complicated now that we are selling a single product across Ontario instead of scattering our energies all over the world. Combine that with partners like Grant Houston and Bob and Lorne Shenk and you’ll see why or company can’t help but move ahead. We’ve all worked together as a management team ever since 1963 when we took over the business. I look after the administration, Grant manages the hatchery, and Bob Shenk is Sales and Service Manager. Lorne Shenk is our production manager. Bruce Winkler, with extensive experience in poultry and animal health, has been a valuable 1977 addition to our sales and service staff.
“Our 34 employees are a real asset, too. Many have been with us for a long time and they are all fine poultry people. I know they’re looking forward to the busy years just ahead of us.”
Even though Fisher Poultry Farm expects to supply over a tenth of the nine million pullet market in Ontario next year, the company still retains a vital interest in serving anyone looking for quality birds. They still shop out small batches of 25 or 50 chicks to people who just want eggs for themselves. And, while being interviewed, Ron Clarridge serviced a call from a man who wanted to pick up four started pullets! The company has come a long way since 1903, but its spirit hasn’t really changed at all.
Customers Want Quality
“We find more producers than ever are looking for quality layers instead of the lowest price for replacement flocks. After all, when you’re on a quota system, you want the most productive and profitable birds money can buy,” says Ron Clarridge. “A lot of what we’ve always preached is now being practiced – and we hope to be around to see the entire market convinced that it’s the sound way of doing business.
“You see, in poultry, we’re something like Gordie Howe is to hockey. We stay at it. We can change our grip and still score a goal. And, like Howe,” Ron grins, “every year we’re in business, we break another Canadian poultry record.”