By Jane Robinson
Broiler breeder an industry advocate, research champion and innovative farmer.
By Jane Robinson
When Jeff Notenbomer was 19 years old, he was headed off to school with no particular plans to farm. Then the family suffered a devastating fire and everything changed. He never left the farm. And he never looked back.
His decision to stay and ultimately take over the family broiler breeder operation was a choice he was happy to make, and one that continues to deliver notable impacts for the Canadian poultry sector from barns to boardrooms.
“I was on my way to university when our farm burned down. I looked at my dad and asked him if he would like me to stay and help,” Notenbomer recalls. “He said, ‘Yes, please’.”
Notenbomer, now 45, is the second generation to operate Willow Creek Poultry, a 25,000 breeder hen operation outside of Fort McLeod in southern Alberta. While his parents remain shareholders and silent partners, he operates the farm with his wife Melinda. “I wear a lot of different hats and am involved in the political side of poultry farming and the research side. I like pushing forward, innovating and trying new things. And I always give 100 per cent.”
That outlook has served Notenbomer well and all those around him in the diverse aspects of his work as a producer, advocate, mentor and leader in Canadian agriculture.
Programmed to serve
Notenbomer comes by his desire to serve the hatching egg industry from his parents. His mother Tina and father Marty both served on the provincial Alberta Hatching Egg Producers (AHEP) board and Tina also served on the Canadian Hatching Egg Producers (CHEP) board. After they retired, Jeff soon began his work on provincial and national boards that would feed his interest and passion for the political side of the industry.
He worked his way up through the AHEP board as director, vice chair and has now served as chair for the past two years. He also joined the national board – Canadian Hatching Egg Producers (CHEP) as an alternate director and now chairs the group’s research committee.
“Jeff has played a leadership role in Alberta, and nationally in his roles at AHEP and CHEP, and his position on the board of the Canadian Poultry Research Council,” says Drew Black, CHEP Executive Director who first met Notenbomer in April 2018. “He’s a strong proponent for engagement, relationship building and working closely with the research community. And he’s always seeking out new information.”
A bridge to research
For most of his farming career, Notenbomer has been interested in making stronger connections between what researchers are working on and what the industry needs. It was while sitting on the CHEP research committee and the Canadian Poultry Research Council board that he wondered about the disconnect between theoretical research happening at university and government labs, and the practical on-farm research that producers needed to improve and innovate.
Being new on these boards, he respectfully took the time to listen and learn about the poultry research being done in Canada. “Then I thought there might be something I could do to help bridge that gap,” Notenbomer says. “I knew I was stirring things up a bit, but I really wanted to get industry, researchers and producers together and I want to keep that conversation going.”
His interest in making research more relevant and meaningful led to his involvement with the Poultry Innovation Partnership (PIP) in Alberta, a group he currently chairs. “I see my role at PIP as a way to bring the industry together – from marketing boards to processors, hatcheries and retail. We can work smarter and stronger when we work together,” Notenbomer says.
Dr. Doug Inglis has known Notenbomer for about three years and is already a big fan of the farmer, research connector and industry advocate. Inglis is an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research scientist. He credits Notenbomer with being instrumental in the direction of the poultry research done at his Lethbridge, Alta., lab.
“Jeff provides guidance to my team on research topics that are relevant to the broiler breeder sector. His input in invaluable into the design of research studies, feedback on ongoing studies and providing samples from his farm for my team,” Inglis says. “As a research and innovation advocate, Jeff is instrumental in fostering interactions between researchers and industry stakeholders.”
Bringing home inspiration
Notenbomer puts the same passion and drive to connect and inspire on his farm, as he does in his board work. One simple way he keeps a strong home team is to hold a Willow Creek Poultry staff meeting every morning. But these meetings have an extra incentive – they include a home cooked breakfast. “We have a kitchen in the barn and after we collect the eggs, we serve some up for breakfast at our staff meetings,” Notenbomer says.
Two full-time staff function as his left and right hand, especially given the busy board meeting schedule that often takes him away from day-to-day activities. Four younger part-time staff round out the team. “I am so proud that our farm has younger staff that we can mentor,” Notenbomer says. “It’s important to me to provide a fun and productive training ground.”
When it comes to the overall approach to his farming operation, Notenbomer always looks for the innovative approach. “I want to do everything well and efficiently – it’s a lesson I want to impart to my children and my employees. Do your best at every job you do. The broiler breeder sector is a complicated business that is constantly changing and that’s what keeps me passionate about it. I like the variety and pushing to trying new things. And I like to reach out to new producers and mentor them if I am needed.”
Notenbomer is driven to try things that others might not. “While skip a day feeding is standard practice with breeder hens, I have never done it,” he says. “In my experience, every day feeding is better for the animal and better for productivity.” He takes an innovative approach in other farm decisions including barn design, lighting, feeding and ventilation.
At the end of the day, Notenbomer wants to be known as the guy who worked together to build a stronger, sustainable poultry sector. “I want to create a good environment for farmers, for animals and for processors so we can get a high-quality product to consumers.”
He loves being an advocate for the industry – whatever form it takes. From virtual farm tour classes he conducts with the University of Alberta, to the continued need to support Canadian poultry through trade talks and protection of supply management. “I need to be a steward to advocate for and protect our industry.”
Black and Inglis have both experienced firsthand the impact of Notenbomer’s energy, enthusiasm and drive. “Jeff pushes for deeper engagement throughout the industry, and that includes working with students and others in the research community to create a better understanding of hatching egg production and on-farm practices, and he always encourages other producers to do the same,” says Black. “He’s a very innovative broiler hatching egg farmer,” Inglis adds. “He clearly loves what he does.”
Notenbomer has already made a tremendous impact on the industry. His life is busy on and off the farm, and it remains to be seen if a third generation will someday take over Willow Creek Poultry. But his good days are still the ones where he can sit quietly in the barn with his birds.