Producers assess sustainability

Alberta organization examines sector performance

Egg Farmers of Alberta wants to narrow the great divide between producers and the millions of consumers who buy their products each year.

A sustainability strategy has been launched to assess the state of egg farming in the province. Egg farmers already follow mandatory food safety and animal welfare programs as part of their license to operate under supply management, but an overarching analysis of industry performance seemed more appropriate.

Instead of talking about sustainability among themselves, egg producers decided to introduce a program aimed at the public.

“This isn’t stuff industry has typically shared publicly and we didn’t know there would be an appetite for this type of information,” said egg farmers spokesperson David Webb.

Retailers and restaurants are watching producers’ performance, so Alberta decided to get ahead of the questions about sustainability before corporate demands were placed on them.

“We want to position our farmers so they can already be achieving those programs. We are trying to think longer term,” said Webb.

“We wanted to see where we are at and what we can do to improve.”

The egg industry has come under fire for raising laying hens in cages. Undercover videos have shown negative aspects of the system and left the industry feeling defensive.

The Alberta industry passed a policy last year to prohibit the installation of new traditional cage housing on farms, although that decision was not related to activist pressure.

“Looking back 20 years ago, if farmers had been more proactive in getting out and being in the public and sharing their stories and talking about their farms, maybe some of this could have been avoided,” Webb said.

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The organization worked with Alberta Agriculture and the Prasino Group to develop a holistic environmental and ecological approach.

Progress reports will be released each year.

Sustainability is a wide ranging concept, which includes taking care of the environment, being a good neighbour, providing safe food and keeping the farm economically viable for the next generation.

Economic sustainability and the benefit of supply management works together, he said.

“Because they know they have that stable income that is predictable, they are able to re-invest in their farm,” he said.

New people are also joining the egg business, including 30 last year.

“It is sustainable because we are bringing in new farmers, fresh blood into the industry with new ideas,” he said.

The assessment showed that 99 percent of farmers are meeting the requirements of the on-farm food safety program.

Egg farmers are also involved in the community by participating in classroom agriculture programs and at agriculture events where education displays are set up to show what happens on an ordinary farm.

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Environmental care is also under the sustainability umbrella. Last year, the organization launched the country’s first producer environmental egg program called PEEP.

Last year’s study assessed how farmers were managing energy, water and manure.

“The true benefit of this year was finding out what all the farms are doing,” he said.

“It really helps us give them feedback as to how they can improve on their farm to reduce their own carbon footprints.”

PEEP followed the environmental farm plan and focused on areas that were primarily related to the egg operation.

Jenna Griffin, an industry development officer for Egg Producers of Alberta, said the organization could see shortcomings and areas where farms were achieving well above expectations.

Farmers had to answer 10 questions analyzing waste disposal, water and energy use and manure management.

“We wanted to start small,” Griffin said. “That is something we learned with other programs. You really can’t throw the whole kit and kaboodle at producers at once.”

The survey results are included in the annual sustainability report. Next year’s assessment will include more questions so that farmers can continue to make improvements.

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Contact barbara.duckworth@producer.com