When Tim Wiens finished university 30 years ago, he thought he knew exactly how things were going to play out. But he was wrong.
“At one time, I thought my life would be following in the footsteps of a successful entrepreneur, my father, Ted, and we’d be producing and selling eggs,” says the president of O&T Farms.
“Then somewhere along the line you start to learn a few more things, and I started seeing beyond always being an egg producer and egg marketer.”
Today, the Regina company is a leading producer of livestock feed and on the cutting edge in the booming market for omega 3 food.
Wiens is a great example of what can happen when you stop defining yourself by what you produce and focus on your ability to learn.
The turning point came in 1997 when the company, which Wiens’ father and uncle Oscar had built into Canada’s second largest egg producer, was trying to figure out what to do with spent layer hens. Wiens thought they had an ingenious solution.
The company developed, and later patented, a dry extrusion process using heat and pressure to create a highly digestible protein.
The trouble was that the process, when applied to chickens, was smelly, and odour complaints forced O&T to shift gears.
Instead of animals, why not use the process to extract protein and energy from pulses and oilseeds?
It was a great idea, and about to get better.
As Wiens looked around, he saw that forward-thinking egg producers were responding to the growing interest in omega 3 fatty acids, one of the first stars in the functional food market, by adding flax to their feed rations.
“When we looked at what our product could be, versus just feeding straight flax, we saw an opportunity because we had a way to feed more omega 3s with less flax,” says Wiens.
The market potential for omega 3 food was huge, but pursuing it would require a heavy investment in research and development, testing and market development. It would thrust O&T into an entirely new business. No longer would it be an egg producer and marketer.
Wiens says his father and uncle had made a similar choice decades earlier when they switched from the trucking business to eggs. And he was excited by the challenge of trying something new.
“Continuous learning is one of our core values, and you have to put yourself in the right environment in order to be continually learning,” he says.
There’s been plenty of that as O&T has developed its omega 3 feed. It has different lines for dairy cattle, hogs and chickens, and horses, and is constantly looking at digestibility, shelf life, amino acid profile, stripping out anti-nutritional elements, optimum formulations and how much omega 3 ends up in the eggs and meat of the animals given the feed.
“We’ve been at this for 10 years and we think we have a heck of an idea. I believe that everyone should eat more omega 3s because it’s healthier for you,” says Wiens, before adding with a laugh: “Hopefully, I have enough marketing dollars to get that message heard and enough time to reap the reward for our efforts.”
That day may not be far off as demand is skyrocketing for food offering additional health benefits.
Omega 3 eggs now have a 15 percent market share and, thanks to more effective feed products, demand for omega 3 chicken, pork and milk seems likely to soon follow suit.
O&T’s story is an example of how the business of producing food is changing, and Wiens predicts it will only accelerate.
Many producers have already carved out niches in a commodity world — “naturally raised” or identity-preserved products are just two examples — and he says farmers who have stuck with bulk commodities need to think about whether that’s a business they want to stay in.
“In our business, we have a commodity product and a value-added product,” he says.
“I can tell you that if you’re only going to be a commodity producer, you’d better make sure that you’re the best at it. If not, you run the risk of being run over by those who are.”
That may sound threatening, especially for families who have been commodity producers for generations. But is it? Wiens is quick to point out that change is exciting because it allows you to focus on your talents and interests.
“My advice to anyone would be, ‘don’t pigeonhole yourself,’ ” he says.
“What you are now isn’t the same as what you could be.”