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BC's egg industry is trying to decentralize operations because of the 2021 flood

Fraser Valley egg farmers are no longer eligible for BC Egg's New Producer Program

It’s time for BC to stop keeping all its eggs in one Fraser Valley basket.

Home to more than 2.6 million laying hens, the Fraser Valley has long been the epicenter for BC’s egg industry. In some ways, that has made the egg industry more efficient — allowing farmers easier access to some of the biggest distributors of BC eggs. But it has also created concerns about BC’s egg security, particularly after the 2021 flood.

Now, BC’s egg marketing board wants to introduce more producers to other parts of the province. They’ve already begun. 

Of the 3.8 million laying hens recorded in BC by the 2021 Census of Agriculture, about two-thirds lived in the Fraser Valley. A little less than 1.9 million of those chickens were in Abbotsford.

For a long time, BC Egg thought this was a good thing. The Fraser Valley’s flat farmland makes barn-building simple, and it wasn’t bad for the supply chain either.

“In the past, this concentration worked well as the largest grader in BC is also located in the Fraser Valley,” Al Sakalauskas, chair of BC Egg, wrote in his annual report.

But the 2021 flood, which inundated vast tracts of farmland, killed hundreds of thousands of chickens, and shut down major transportation arteries, illustrated the flaws in the strategy, he writes. 

Early estimates from BC Agriculture Minister Lana Popham noted that 628,000 poultry birds died because of the flooding. (BC Egg’s marketing and communications director Amanda Brittain said the number was closer to 270,000.)

Most of these were chickens and turkeys raised for meat—Corry Spitter’s farm alone lost 196,000 chickens that had been destined for Costco, while fellow chicken farmer Dave Marten lost an estimated 40,000 birds at his barn. By comparison, there were only 290,000 laying hens in the evacuation area, and the vast majority of those survived. Flooding killed around 8,000 egg-laying hens, Brittain said.

So despite the impact on BC poultry at large, the flood didn’t significantly affect the production of eggs in the province—in 2022, BC’s chickens produced more eggs than previous years. (Production dipped the following year because of avian influenza. We will have that story next week.)

Instead, BC’s egg industry was most affected by highway closures, and the corresponding disruptions to supply chains. During the flood, the eastern Fraser Valley was essentially cut off from both Vancouver and the rest of the province, making it impossible to get eggs out of the valley.

The problem wasn’t just that the eggs, and their farms, were trapped in the Fraser Valley. The grading stations were there too. Grading stations are where eggs are sorted, cleaned, and distributed to stores. The province’s main graders are located in Abbotsford and Vancouver Island. When landslides cut off all routes into and out of the Fraser Valley, the graders couldn’t ship their eggs. That left regions beyond the Fraser Valley facing egg shortages that had only recently been seen at the height of the pandemic.

During the flood, graders did bring Albertan eggs into the province to supply stores in the Interior and Northern BC. But BC Egg has realized it needs more chickens, and graders, working outside of the Fraser Valley. To do so, it’s looking to its New Producer Program for help.

Started in 2010, BC Egg’s New Producer Program aims to encourage and help small chicken farmers scale up into larger facilities. In the 13 years since it started, 30 chicken farmers have used the program to increase their quota. 

(In supply managed industries like egg production, quota tells each farmer how many eggs they can produce each year. The total quota for the province is determined by a national board and distributed to farmers by BC Egg. Farmers who want to increase the amount of eggs they produce in a year would normally need to purchase the additional quota through a quota exchange.)

Of those 30 farmers who have participated in the program, several were located outside of the Fraser Valley, in places like Armstrong, Cobble Hill, and Creston Valley. But most were still based in the valley. And many of the new producers still needed access to the Fraser Valley’s graders in order to sell their eggs.

In 2021, after the disastrous flood, BC Egg decided to ban Fraser Valley chicken farmers from the New Producer program. Only people from outside the valley can now apply. Those applicants also need to become producer-vendors or producer-graders — essentially, farmers who also sort and market eggs they and others produce.

“They are supplying restaurants and the smaller grocery stores. And they could also sell them at farmer's markets or right off their property if they want,” Brittain said about the new producers. “So that means if we have another—knock on wood this never happens—flood in the Fraser Valley, the rest of the province will have access to eggs through these new producers.” 

Interior egg farmers will never be able to serve a massive market, she said. But the hope is that they can help meet their local community’s demand.

Since BC Egg decided to exclude Fraser Valley applicants, the New Producer Program has welcomed three new farms to the commercial egg industry. One, located in Salmon Arm, is beginning production this year. Two others, one also in Salmon Arm, the other in Armstrong, will begin production next year.

“We're going very slow, because you don't want to flood any particular area of the province,” Brittain said. The goal is to add two or three new producer-graders to other parts of BC each year. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean there won’t be any hens in the Fraser Valley. Canada’s population is growing, and Brittain expects that more quota will be distributed to BC farmers to meet increased demand each year. 

But it does mean BC Egg is heeding the advice of one well-known idiom: don’t keep your eggs in one basket, especially if that basket is located on a floodplain.

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