Small bird pays off for small business

ARDROSSAN, Alta. – Tucked between monster acreage homes, horse barns and gated houses in a rural area just east of Edmonton is one of Canada’s largest quail farms.

Like the tiny bird, even a large quail farm is small.

Everything from the hatchery, chick raising and egg gathering operation for 6,000 birds fits into a barn about the size of a modest farm home.

It’s just the right size to keep Shirley and Arnie Morris, owners of Bry-Conn Developments, busy year round.

“That’s one of the perks, it’s the farm life that’s the attractive way of life,” said Shirley, sitting at the kitchen table over coffee on one of the coldest days of the year.

Tired of the boom and bust of the oil industry, their son Conn and daughter-in-law, Juliana Campone, hope to expand the quail business to their farm near Kelsey, Alta., about 90 minutes drive away.

“Oil and gas is always up and down and farming is steady,” said Conn, a welder.

The quail business wasn’t always steady. When Shirley and Arnie began in 1987, the quail eggs from their farm seemed to be either in short supply or excess.

Their first customer took half a case of quail eggs.

Now, 22 years later, the family delivers 160 cases a month to a variety of stores, businesses and wholesale clients.

Loblaws, the giant supermarket chain, takes 96 cases for sale each month for select stores throughout British Columbia and Alberta. There are 576 eggs in a case. Stores in Saskatchewan and Manitoba have shown some interest, but they need to find an economical way of transporting the tiny, speckled egg to market.

Marketing has always been the biggest challenge, said Arnie.

The Chinese community was the first and biggest market for the quail eggs, considered by many to be a gourmet food. Other ethnic groups such as Filipinos soon became a major customer. Now, the client base is more varied.

It was Arnie’s uncle in Vancouver, who suggested the couple raise quails.

He was raising the birds in British Columbia and thought it would be a good hobby for the young family. Because so few people in Canada raise the birds, each farm must breed, incubate and hatch their own chicks for the egg laying business. The family also believed it would be a good business to help teach their children responsibility on the farm.

Like other farm families, things changed when the kids moved away. A new caged eggs system, able to hold 5,000 hens, has a conveyor belt to bring the eggs to the end of the cages for easier collection.

It also has an automatic manure handling system that takes the manure out of the barn each day.

It’s the old cages that will be used in Conn and Juliana’s new quail business.

“I’ll be back scraping manure, just like the old days,” laughed Conn.

Juliana has also taken over the pickled quail egg business from her mother-in-law. In the United States, pickled quail eggs are popular and Juliana is trying to build up a clientele through stores, farmers’ markets and word of mouth. Juliana tries to make a batch of pickled quail eggs each day. Using a large pot, she boils 90 quail eggs at a time, stirring constantly to ensure the yolk stays centred. When the eggs are cooked, she douses them in cold water, gives them a good shake to get them cracked, pops in a movie and starts peeling eggs.

Juliana says she tries to make a case of 12 jars each day with 22 eggs in each jar.

“It’s fun, it stops me from eating in front of the television,” she said.

Conn said her eggs are popular with his welding friends who sometimes order a case a week.

There could be a good market for quail meat birds if they could find a chicken processing facility able to handle the tiny birds,” said Arnie. At $3 a bird for processing, the cost is prohibitive.

“I love quail to eat,” said Shirley.

Conn said there’s not much to them. You’d need a couple of quails, salad, potato and dessert to make a good quail meal.

Quails start laying at six weeks and are finished laying at about six or seven months.

Just like a regular chicken, they lay about 300 eggs a year. There is no marketing board quota for quails.

Spent hens are sold to zoos or falconers as food for birds of prey. A falcon will eat about half a frozen quail each day. They’re also used to teach hunting dogs to have a soft mouth.

After 22 years, Shirley said the business has gone smoothly. It has been growing slowly each year and has a bright future, she said.

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