Who’s Who – Alberta – Conrad Vanessen
By Madeleine BaergFeatures Producers
From jumping in cold to industry leader.
Egg Farmers of Alberta (EFA)’s vice chair, Coaldale, Alta., layer farmer Conrad Vanessen, is a tireless advocate for the egg industry, a vocal and progressive leader among egg producers and a passionate supporter of new entrant farmers. Eight years ago, however, he’d never even stepped foot in a chicken barn.
Whereas most people might spend months or years contemplating a major move into a brand-new industry, Vanessen – who until 2014 was a cattle farmer with absolutely zero chicken experience – decided inside of three minutes to try out egg production.
“I read an article that the Egg Farmers of Alberta (EFA) was running a new entrant (quota lottery) program for 1,500 birds and I just thought, let’s try that. I’m already farming. I’m young. I could be open to being an egg farmer. Let’s see if we can make that work.”
A new challenge
At the time, Vanessen already had significant experience farming. He’d grown up on the family cattle feedlot and hog farm, had purchased his own farm at 22 and, when he applied for the layer quota lottery in 2014, had four years of experience running his own 4,000 head veal calf operation. The fact that he wasn’t knowledgeable about egg production didn’t daunt him a bit.
“I jumped in entirely cold. I didn’t know anything about supply management; I hadn’t spent any time with chickens. But no, that didn’t scare me,” he says.
Instead, he was excited about the challenge of trying something entirely new and keen on the opportunity to diversify. Above all, he was drawn to trying supply management.
“The guaranteed stability – that knowledge that you’re going to get a fair return on your investment – that’s what you always want as a farmer,” he says.
At 8:30 am on the day that EFA was scheduled to announce the quota lottery winners, Vanessen was feeding calves when the phone rang. Though he’d have been justified in having a moment of ‘What have I got myself into?!’, Vanessen says his only thought when he saw EFA on his call display was of delight.
“It really was like winning the lottery. My feeling was: this is going to be so fun. This is a whole new opportunity. I felt real excitement because it was going to be a new challenge.”
An efficient, get-it-done guy with an inexhaustible work ethic, Vanessen jumped into planning. In a year, he built a business plan, got financing, designed a 5000-bird barn, researched production systems, chose equipment, and learned the business, all while maintaining a full-time veal calf and crop production operation.
“It was a lot but it’s definitely do-able,” he says. “Other people considering entering the egg industry shouldn’t be scared. The New Entrant program really helped the process along.”
After talking to graders, both about operational feasibility and consumer trends, Vanessen opted to build a free-run barn, which he loaded with birds for the first time in the fall of 2015.
It’s been onwards and upwards from there. In 2017, he expanded the barn to 10,000. In 2019, he doubled his flock again with a second barn.
Almost seven years in, Vanessen and his wife Gertrude, who has taken on the administrative parts of the business, are keenly committed egg farmers.
“It’s everything that I thought it would be and everything I heard in terms of stability. We can’t go out and build a barn for 50,000 birds, but what we do have gives us a good return on our investment. That’s the beauty,” he says.
Thankful to be in the industry, Vanessen is extremely committed to helping build it for the future. For the past four years, he’s served on the EFA board including a year as chair. He’s currently EFA’s vice-chair, he’s EFA’s representative on the Intensive Livestock Working Group, and he commits his time to multiple EFA committees.
“What drives me is trying to help solve the challenges and capitalize on opportunities for the good of the industry. It’s a lot of fun to have the opportunity to participate and to have a voice in discussions that move the industry forward,” he says.
Vanessen’s efforts and thoughtful perspective make a big impact, says EFA’s marketing communications manager, David Webb.
“[Vanessen] is a forward thinking, big picture, very strategic guy. He’s really good at stepping back from his own farm business: he understands the larger agriculture industry and really thinks about what’s in the best interests of all agrifood. He’s not someone who’s just trying to make as much profit as he can this year: he’s very much committed to the long view, whether that’s for his own farm and family or for the whole industry.”
Webb says Vanessen keeps all parts of the very diverse egg industry in mind: colony and non-colony producers; longtime, multi-generational farms that started before supply management as well as younger, new farmers.
“He never makes decisions or pushes for policy that benefits just one group. He really does want the egg industry to be an all-encompassing, all-inclusive industry.”
Focus on new entrants
While Vanessen is involved in all kinds of ways throughout the industry, he has committed particular effort and time to helping redraft the EFA New Entrant program – the very program that brought him into egg production in the first place. Having experienced the program’s benefits but also its limitations firsthand, Vanessen made it his mission when he first joined the EFA board to build more stability and long-term success potential for new entrants.
Thanks in large part to his advocacy and efforts, lottery winners now receive a 1500 bird quota as well as a 4000 bird guaranteed lease that lasts for life. The program’s application process has also been entirely rewritten to ensure would-be producers have truly thought through and are prepared to tackle the countless details of creating a layer barn and being successful in egg production. The program’s changes, together with the supportive and helpful nature of the egg industry, are proving effective in drawing new farmers.
“There aren’t many industries that can say they’ve got what we’ve got, which is 16 or 17 new entrant producers in Alberta alone [since the New Entrant program began in 2014], a lot of whom are first generation farmers,” says Vanessen.
A voice for farmers
Vanessen is also very passionate about making sure farmers’ voices and perspectives are heard by government, processors, retailers and more.
“There are so many big-ticket topics that are coming up right now, whether that’s sustainability or hen housing or so many more issues,” he says. “We have to take every opportunity – big and small – to get out and share our story. Ultimately, it’s our farms that are going to get affected by any changes. We have to make sure our voices are heard because we have to live with the results at the end of the day.”
When Vanessen isn’t working his own farm or sitting at the EFA boardroom table, he makes time to invest in the industry in one more critical way: volunteering as an egg ambassador at grocery stores and manning live hen displays at events. One customer and one conversation at a time, he is committed to helping educate consumers and building public trust. At every event, he says being ready to listen is just as important as being ready to talk.
“Every conversation with a consumer is an opportunity for me to learn from them. I’m a big believer that we need to supply what consumers want, whether that’s a free-run egg, or an enriched egg, or an organic egg. Let’s not dictate to consumers what they want; we need to adapt to fill market needs. But that requires really listening,” he says.
A big part of meeting consumers’ changing needs now focuses on sustainability: something Vanessen leads in on his own farm and champions for the entire industry.
“Conrad is very much about being proactive and making sure that sustainability is at the forefront of all of our decision-making as an industry,” says Webb.
While this chicken farmer has a lot of big-picture, whole-industry thoughts in his head, at the end of the day he says he’s happiest just being back on the farm.
“I always, always look forward to going back to my barn.”
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