By Madeline Baerg
By Madeline Baerg
The vice-president of Mountainview Turf, one of Quebec’s largest turf farm and turf maintenance companies, has – for a grass guy – an unexpected side business.
When he’s not managing major turf maintenance contracts (golf courses, sports and school fields, even the lawns at Parliament Hill) or deploying his team of 40 staff to roll sod, you’ll likely find Jared Hamilton in his 13,440-hen barn: checking conveyors, scrutinizing production and talking to his feathered ladies.
While egg production might have started as a means to an end for Hamilton, owning and operating Jolly Egg Farm in Quyon, Que., is a passion, a priority and a key to his success today.
In 2007, five years after graduating with an associate diploma in horticulture from the University of Guelph, Hamilton was busy learning his family’s turf business from the ground up. Changing market fundamentals had him – and his father alongside him – concerned.
The rapid market changes in China meant fertilizer prices were clearly on the way up – potentially way, way up. Offsetting some of their already high synthetic fertilizer bill with manure seemed a viable option, so the two began the search for an easily accessible source.
“We looked at hog, horse, cow manure. We pretty much looked at everything. But no farmers wanted to get rid of it,” Hamilton says.
Creative and open to challenge, he suggested that perhaps the best way to source livestock manure was to produce it on their own farm. Then, he and his wife Holly volunteered to take on the challenge.
Soon after, quite out of the blue while sitting in the Quebec Ministry of Agriculture office, their Quebec agricultural representative asked if they couple had heard of the Quebec Egg Federation’s Entrance Program, a highly competitive contest that offers one top-notch young farmer the rights to 5,000 units of egg quota.
The requirements of the program are intense. “They really try to filter down applicants so only the very best people apply,” Hamilton says. “Writing the business plan for the application is like writing War and Peace; it’s huge.”
Most applicants spend seasons or even years preparing the detailed financial forecasts, clear marketing plan and other requirements of the application. The Hamiltons found out about the program in late April, lived and breathed building the application for hardly more than eight weeks, and had the entire plan submitted on deadline at the end of June.
“We worked our tails off visiting egg farms, cold calling suppliers across Quebec and Ontario, racing to get it done,” Hamilton says.
And then, the truly nail-biting part. Each application that is submitted to the annual contest gets graded by an expert panel. In September, the top applicants are announced, but the process is far from complete. From there, the finalists stand before a panel of judges for intensive questioning. Any applicants whose business plan stands up to the intense scrutiny of the panel have their name entered in a final draw. Just a single winner is selected.
“In 2007, we made it to top five. And then we made it through to getting our name in the hat.”
“And then we didn’t win. Our name was not selected. It was a pretty big blow,” Hamilton says.
The Hamiltons dusted themselves off, honed their business plan further and resubmitted in 2008. This time, just two finalists made it to the final draw. And this time, the name that was pulled was theirs.
“The Quebec Egg Federation called us to let us know we had won. You could hear us screaming from outside,” he says with a laugh.
No time to waste
There was virtually no time to celebrate.
“The work we’d put into the business plan meant that we basically had everything ready to go. We took the winter to make the business plan real. Excavation started in April 2009, foundations were poured that May, our first flock of hens arrived in September. Oh, and we had our first child in that year too. I look back and I’m not sure how we did it,” he says.
The Hamiltons rented some quota over the contest’s 5,000 allocation, allowing them to start with 6,800 birds in their first flock. Over the years, they’ve rented additional quota from the Quebec Egg Federation and managed to buy some as well. The plan was to fill the 13,440-hen barn within 10 years; the Hamiltons managed it in just seven.
Now, 10 years into the egg production business, they look forward to expanding further.
“My wife and I built the barn for expansion. Every aspect of the barn is designed to allow us to put on a second barn. We’d use the same packing line, the same walk-in fridge, the same manure hauling.”
The Hamiltons’ barn is entirely conventional cages for now. At only 10 years old, the cages are in great shape and likely have another decade or 15 years of viable utility in them.
“When we started 10 years ago, there were no enriched cages. At the time, we had the most advanced cages you could buy. We’re going to stay with these for now but when we update them or replace them, we’ll probably go with enriched cages.”
Though they’re open to various housing systems and aren’t yet finalizing a decision about which system they’ll use in a new build, Hamilton recognizes that labour may ultimately be the determining factor.
“Cages are a lot less labour than aviary systems. With labour getting harder and harder to come by – there just aren’t that many people available for these kinds of jobs anymore – enriched cages are probably the way we’ll have to go. But for now, we’re not going to make that decision. So many changes are happening so quickly in the industry with housing systems, and market demands are changing too, that we just don’t know what tomorrow will bring.”
Challenging but rewarding
The egg business has proven to be more work and sacrifice than Hamilton ever dreamed of, he says.
“You don’t sell much sod in Ottawa in January, which means I used to get to take some weekends off. Now, I’ve got responsibilities 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”
And despite the best laid business plans, it has been far from smooth sailing.
“Instead of calling it the Jolly Egg Farm, we should have called it the ‘I’ve Never Seen That Happen Before’ farm. We’ve had so, so many times that suppliers and reps have come in to check out an issue and said, ‘Huh. I’ve never seen that before.’”
Yet, Hamilton says, he’d “absolutely” do it all again, since the spin-off benefits of the hens go far beyond what he anticipated.
On the management front, there’s clear benefit.
“The turf operation is a big operation with multiple – probably 40 different – revenue streams. You can get lost in the numbers. The egg farm has simple financial statements – just a single revenue stream. Taking care of the finances for the egg operation has really helped me understand business economics, which is a benefit I can bring back to the turf farm.”
On the fertilizer cost front, gains are starting to become more obvious. Based on multiple years of soil samples, this will be the first year that they have enough confidence in their soil nutrient density to actually reduce the amount of synthetic fertilizer they apply to their fields.
“We do soil samples every fall. You can really see over the past 10 years how the fields have benefitted from the extra potash, phosphorus and organic matter. We get better establishment, better yield, less weeds, a healthier crop.”
He also appreciates that the constancy of farm work is helping teach his four young kids the value of hard work.
“The kids help pack eggs, check chickens, clean the barn. They’re learning that it’s just something you have to do,” he says.
Originally, the business plan included agri-tourism as a revenue stream. That hasn’t panned out yet, mostly due to the heavy workload not leaving any free moments to build that element of the business. That said, Hamilton hasn’t ruled agri-tourism out for the future and currently does host unpaid visitors regularly.
“It’s really important to share what we do with the general public. As long as you have the heart of a teacher, you can just let the rest flow.”
For a guy who grew up in the turf business and turned to hens as a mean to a turf-business end, Hamilton has become quite the heart-in chicken farmer.
“I am very proud of what I’m producing and I do really love the chickens. We do brown and omega. When those hens first come in at 19 weeks, they are just like cats. They’re calm; they like to be petted. They’re easy to handle, easy to manage. There is something about walking through a door and hearing the little crowing they do; I can’t explain it. There is just something about having livestock that is very, very fulfilling.”