Hatching healthy profits from free-running chickens
Entrepreneur benefits from increased demand for organic eggs

From the outside, Serge Lefebvre's chicken farm Saint-Charles-sur-Richelieu looks like any other. Four identical, rectangular barns sit amidst huge corn, wheat and Soya fields. But go a little closer and you'll see something rare: the doors are open.

"We let the hens go outside," said Lefebvre, president of Ferme des Patriotes, one of four that he co-owns with his wife and sister-in-law. "It's cold now, so there are only a couple of dozen hens outside. But when it's sunny they really take advantage."

Free running chickens are a growing trend in the egg production industry, spurred by a growing consumer concern about animal rights. In a traditional chicken farm, chickens spend their productive life squeezed into tiny cages, which are stacked to the roof. In free running farms, like Ferme des Patriotes, the chicken's life is much better.

The cages are gone and chickens circulate freely in 10,000 square-foot barns. There is a small private area, where the chickens go to lay their eggs. But otherwise the structure is one big open room. There are 288 square inches of space allotted per chicken, compared to 64 square inches for each caged chicken. But it's obvious at a glance that the free-runners are much happier and healthier than their caged cousins.

But all this comes at a price. According to a spokesperson at Metro Inc, which has been stocking organic eggs from Ferme des Patriotes for years, retail prices run at $5.12 per dozen, compared to $2.01 per dozen for the caged chicken eggs.

Nevertheless many consumers are willing to pay the difference. Demand for organic eggs has been increasing by 20% a year in the U.S., and Metro officials are expecting similar growth here in Canada.

Lefebvre has done well since he started producing organic eggs five years ago. In 1999 he had just 2,500 free running hens, a total that jumped to 18,000 by 2003. Each chicken cranks out about 280 eggs a year, which he sells to a Nutri-uf, a coop marketing board for $2.67 a dozen, compared to $1.56 per dozen that he gets for traditional eggs. Nutri-uf handles the distribution.

Lefebvre has been involved in farming for most of his life. His father was a dairy farmer, and he studied agronomy in university. After graduation, he sold animal feed, and during that time he visited farms across the province. This allowed him to study various operating techniques and before long he decided to buy his first chicken farm.

Years of hard work followed and the business grew with three more farm acquisitions following in quick succession. Lefebvre's wife, Martine Bourgeois, who is a poultry nutritionist, works outside the farm, but helps from time-to-time, as do his four kids, Sébastien, who is 19, Marie-Pier 16, Gabrielle, 15 and David 12. Bourgeois and her sister, Chantal are also shareholders in the farms, and Chantal, a chartered accountant, handles the company's finances.

Most of Lefebvre's 155,000 chickens has on his four farms are caged, with the free-running chickens at Ferme des Patriotes accounting for about 14% of the total. The farms comprise about 600 acres of land, which Lefebvre plants with organic Soya, wheat and corn. These provide about 13% of the 7,000 tons of food that the chickens eat each year. Chicken feed is Lefebvre's biggest expense.

According to Gilles Heurtel, a representative with Garantie Bio-Ecocert, which is one of a half-dozen certification agencies in the province, to be labeled organic, eggs must meet rigid criteria spelled out by the Conseil d'Accréditation du Québec. The eggs must come free running chickens, which must eat only organic feed. But organic food costs much more, in some instances twice as much as regular feed.

According to Marilyn White, editor of Canadian Poultry magazine, organic eggs comprise only a small niche market for the time being, but they fill an important role.

"Some people say that organic eggs taste better than regular eggs, but I can't see the difference," White said. "It's more an emotional, animal rights thing. People feel that chickens should be allowed to run around."

The egg industry as a whole has been dong well in recent years said Lefebvre, due to a recent study that significantly calmed people's fear of excess cholesterol. Sales from his four farms have jumped from just $600,000 five years ago, to $6 million last year, far faster than the industry.

Lefebvre attributes his success to a continual reinvestment of profits into his business, hard work and a good chemistry between himself and his partners.


Sidebar: Getting ahead

o Serge Lefebvre grew up on a dairy farm and studied agronomy at Université Laval. After he graduation he worked in the agricultural feed business for 12 years and during that time he visited farms throughout the province.
o In 1993 he bought a chicken farm, Ferme St-Ours Inc. He now co-owns four farms with his wife Martine Bourgeois, and her sister Chantal.
o In 1999, sensing shifting consumer demand, Lefebvre set up a free running chicken farm at Saintt-Charles-sur-Richelieu. Chickens are kept free, not in cages and have access to natural light. When weather permits, they are allowed to run outside.
o Although, Lefebvre's sales of organic eggs hit a plateau last year, experts say that demand for organic eggs is likely to grow by about 20% a year during the coming years.

Conclusion: People

Photo caption: According to Serge Lefebvre, the free running chickens used to make organic eggs cost a lot more to raise than ordinary chickens, but they can fetch a much higher price at the retail level.





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