Have you bought a dozen eggs lately? If so, you might have noticed that the choices – free run, free range, pastured, cage free, furnished cage, nest laid, organic, humanely raised and many combinations thereof — are vast and confusing.
But back in 1992, when Steve Easterbrook, a member of Coast Capital Savings Credit Union (571,000 members, $24 billion in assets) was raising his first flock of organic, free-range chickens at Rabbit River Farms in Richmond, BC, there was only one option: conventional eggs from hens raised in crowded battery cages, each occupying a floor space about the size of a magazine and barely able to flap their wings.
Easterbrook’s farm was different. He didn’t think he was doing anything radical when he built a barn in a fenced pasture shaded with trees that enabled his chickens to roam in and out at their leisure. By day, they gulped from puddles and bathed in dust. At night, they retreated to their loft fitted with elevated perches and private nest boxes.
“When I grew up as a kid, that’s just how poultry was managed,” says the pioneering egg farmer who went on to write Canada’s original guidelines for certified organic egg production standards and was instrumental in convincing the BC Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to adopt strict criteria from the Royal British SPCA for the humane treatment of farm animals. “I believe in giving animals as good a life as possible.”
Easterbrook did, however, realize that he was skirting the rules of the BC Egg Marketing Board without the required quota, which controls the supply of eggs produced each year to keep prices stable. At the time, there was no quota available for purchase and thus no opportunities for organic farmers to enter the market. So even though the local health food store was gobbling up his eggs as fast as his hens could lay them, his whimsical pulp cartons with their vibrant purple logo of a little girl and her basket soon caught the attention of inspectors. (It was actually the Alberta Egg Marketing Board that first noticed, after another producer was discovered repurposing the cartons for their own eggs.)
Two officers went to Rabbit River Farms to do an inspection. Easterbrook recalls them being evasive — until the moment they walked out the driveway. “The female officer leaned over and quietly said to me, ‘I’ve never seen such a beautiful setup for chickens. It’s lovely.’”
Lovely or not, a seizure notice was issued. Ironically, Easterbrook didn’t see it. Someone who was obviously unaccustomed to the natural habits of free-range chickens had stapled it to the barn. When Easterbrook received a follow-up call, he went outside to look. “All I could see were four staples. The chickens had pecked and eaten the paper. The marketing board was clearly in new territory with us and needed to rethink its operations.”
Amazingly, Rabbit River Farms was never shut down. Thanks to Easterbrook’s unwavering perseverance, a legal loophole, consumer petitions to the BC Ministry of Agriculture and an independent report, he and a small group of family farms that had begun producing cage-free, organic eggs under the standards he developed were grandfathered into the system.
“I kept telling them, ‘You’re the Egg Marketing Board. You’re supposed to be providing what the consumer wants. I’m providing something that people are buying and paying twice the price of a conventional egg. So instead of treating me like the enemy, why not treat me like an opportunity?’”
In recognition of his contributions to sustainable agriculture, Easterbrook received, in 2001, the BC Ethics in Action Award for Business, which was co-founded by Vancouver City Savings Credit Union (525,000 members, $26.4 billion in assets). In 2010, the BC Egg Marketing Board (and later, other provinces) finally adopted the New Entrant program for specialty egg producers designed around Easterbrook’s recommendations.
In between, Easterbrook somehow found time to pursue a parallel career in the organic frozen-food sector and blazed new trails as president of the distribution group for SunOpta Inc. (Before launching Rabbit River Farms, he was the vice-president of finance for an electrical wholesale division of General Electric.) “I also had a wild birdfeed business but that’s a whole other story,” says the colourful raconteur.
Today, the demand for organic, cage-free eggs is higher than ever. After all his efforts to improve the lives of egg-producing chickens, Easterbrook is happy to see the tide change although it’s no longer his battle to fight. Five years ago, he sold the Rabbit River Farms brand to Golden Valley Foods. Now 62 and preparing for retirement, he is still the face of the company and does most of its public relations but is content to spend his days on his farm, walking through his barn, communing with his chickens.“I can tell by their body language: the way the feathers are set or if they’re preening themselves, if they’re happy. If they feel good, I feel good.” ◊