A focus on innovation, diversification and agricultural education earned Ian and Jennifer Woike of Running W Egg Farm and Farmer Ben’s Eggs of Duncan the 2009 B. C. Outstanding Young Farmer Award.
Ian’s father, Ben, began Running W Eggs in 1981, with Ian joining the operation following his graduation from Malaspina College in 1992. Ten years ago, he and Jennifer took over day-today management of the operation which now includes a 44,000-bird layer flock, a wholesale egg grading company which markets white, brown and “dark yolk” eggs all over Vancouver Island, an on-farm egg market, a 140-cow Black Angus cross cow-calf operation and a hay farm producing over 20,000 bales/year.
The Woikes have emphasized agricultural education, going into schools to speak to students at all grade levels, and hosting numerous tours of their farm and egg grading station. Along with the farm business, they are raising a family that includes Jacob, 16, Campbell, 8, and Emma-Gail, 5.
The Woikes were also finalists for the 2008 award, when they were narrowly edged out by David and Lisa Taylor of Courtenay. The Taylors went on to be named one of Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers for 2008, an honour the Woikes hope to duplicate at the 2009 Canadian Outstanding Young Farmer finals in Ottawa in December.
FINDING THEIR NICHE
In a small industry where everything is counted in millions, even as one of the larger single producers of table eggs in B. C., Ian and Jennifer Woike say they need to maintain a marketing edge to keep ahead of the competition.
High quality, local product and exceptional customer service are the areas the young couple focus on as they grade and market about 13 million eggs (1.08 million dozen) annually to about 300 retailers, within a 350-kilometre distance of their Vancouver Island farm. The Woikes own about 44,000 laying hens, which is considerably larger than the provincial average of about 17,000-bird flocks. But, they are working hard to build a retail client base in the shadow of larger national egg grading companies, which have a large chunk of the wholesale market.
“We pay particular attention to customer service and also promote the fact that we supply a local product,” says Jennifer, noting that their Farmer Ben’s Eggs have built a good reputation over the past 20 years. She feels it is important to maintain connection with the public to not only promote the egg industry, but agriculture in general. Along with speaking in classrooms and farm tours, they also stay connected through their website, www.farmerbenseggs.ca
The Woikes bought the family business 10 years ago. It was Ian’s father, Ben who got into the egg business in 1981 and he added the egg-grading facility in 1993. The supply-managed egg business has grown from about 8,000 birds in the early 80s to 20,000 in the mid-80s and then to 44,000 birds in 2000. They have 12 full-time employees.
The farm produces and markets white and brown eggs, and a specialty line of dark yolk eggs, along with free-range eggs, which are supplied by another producer. “Our goal is to provide customers with a variety of high-quality, locally produced eggs,” says Ian. “We market our eggs as a better product and service is the key.”
The Woikes supply retailers ranging in size from local convenience stores, to larger grocery stores, hotel chains and restaurants. While they are eager to work with any-size client, Ian says it is important to find customers who pay their bills. Their service goal is to provide fresh eggs to customers as needed, which can mean working weekends and after hours. One example, of going above and beyond service includes supplying stores in the Ladysmith area with eggs during a snow storm last winter, which meant grading about 3,000 dozen eggs on Christmas Day. And the retailer wasn’t even a regular customer.
Along with the egg business, they own about 375 acres of farmland, with about 200 acres of that in hay and pasture. They run a herd of 130 head of Angus-cross cattle, marketed as natural beef. And aside from the hay needed to overwinter the herd, they market between 15,000 and 20,000 small square bales locally. Their land base is sufficient to handle all manure produced by the poultry operation.
One major event, which has affected their operation in the past few years was the outbreak of Avian Influenza (A. I.) on poultry farms in the Fraser Valley region in 2004. A. I. didn’t affect their Vancouver Island farm directly, but along with other poultry producers in Canada, the Woikes developed new biosecurity measures to keep their farm disease free.
“I document everything I do, right down to changing a board or a light bulb,” says Ian. “The new measures also include keeping track of who comes and goes on the farm, visitors need to sign in, we have separate parking areas for employees, and everyone wears different footwear for inside and outside the barns. Like I say we keep track of everything, which not only protects our farm, but also assures the public they are getting a safe, healthy product.”
One other major management change they’ve made in the last couple of years was bringing the bookkeeping in house. They had for several years been using outside accounting services, but eventually hired a person to work in the farm office. “Cost wise it wasn’t that much different, but it just makes it so much more efficient to have someone here,” says Ian. “If you need to look up information, or need an invoice, it is available right now. And it gives us a better handle on business issues from day to day.”
The Woikes plan to keep building the business as economics allow. Expanding egg production means buying more quota and that is expensive. Quota today runs at about $220 per bird, compared to $77 in 2000. “We need to keep expanding the business by finding new customers and still maintaining the quality product and personalized service,” says Ian. “It doesn’t happen overnight, but it is coming. My view of the business is you either have to go big or go home.”
Lee Hart is a field editor for Grainews in Calgary, Contact him at 403-592-1964 or by email at [email protected]