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Urban Cowboy: New production approach leads to big food bank donation

What comes first on this farm is neither the chicken, nor the egg - it's consumer input. Charity is a positive byproduct
Travis Jansen
Travis Jansen on location at the family hog farm near Seaforth, Ontario. Owen Roberts for GuelphToday

An effort by two University of Guelph students to open the dialogue about farming between producers and consumers has netted the Guelph Food Bank a big donation.

Last Monday, University of Guelph agricultural economics Master’s student Travis Jansen and his brother Colin, an agricultural business student at the university, donated 700 quarter chickens to the food bank.

It was a timely donation. Guelph Food Bank use is up 30 per cent this year. 

It was also coincidental. The brothers, who come from a family hog farm near Seaforth, had raised the chickens as part of a pilot project called EngagedAg. Their idea was to raise the birds in a different kind of way – that is, with direct consumer input.  

They figure that input is missing between farmers and consumers, and it’s creating problems. It’s led to misunderstanding about matters such as animal welfare, technology and pest control. If consumers and producers were more in tune – particularly, if consumers understood how food is produced, and had some say in production techniques – everyone would be better off, they believe.

“Confusing labels and flashy media make it hard to know what really goes on in Canadian agriculture,” says Travis. “I like solving problems, and my solution to the misunderstanding between farmers and consumers is to be as open as possible and hear from consumers.”

To the Jansens, that engagement should be more communicative, personal and direct. Given social media tools widely available, they think engagement should be advanced to the point where consumers who see a video about how their food is produced can directly ask questions to the producer, and where possible make suggestions about how to improve production. 

The Jansens say maybe consumers will see something that didn’t occur to them -- for example, a patch of shade in the pasture that they took for granted or overlooked, and would make a cool resting place for some of the flock.   

In that example, they could implement the consumer’s suggestion by moving the pen, and tell the consumer they did so. Or, if it was not feasible, they could pass, and explain to the consumer why the suggestion was not possible. 

In any event, the consumer’s voice would be heard. Then, as a final act of trust and partnership, when the chickens were ready, the consumer would be expected to follow through with a purchase.

Travis and Colin are well on their way to seeing if the system works. This summer, using their family farm as a base and $5,000 in savings, they raised 500 chickens in a spacious, comfortable-looking indoor-outdoor pen on their family farm. They were able to turn an unused 4,000-square-foot sow barn into a brooding facility for chicks, making better use of their existing land.   

Their first flock was harvested mid-August. There wasn’t time to get the consumer-input system instituted through the summer, so they’re selling the processed birds online through their website, through restaurants and to butchers, and, as mentioned, giving a significant donation to the food bank.

With their next flock of chickens, through homemade videos accessed via a QR code posted on their website, they’ll show consumers how their chickens are being raised, invite comments on the production process, and respond accordingly.

The entire Jansen family has high hopes that this system will capture the imagination of consumers. Their 300-acre farm is productive, but it needs another income source to support Travis and Colin’s ultimate return to the farm. 

Travis received some guidance for EngagedAg from University of Guelph ag marketing professor Mike von Massow. He’s effusive in his praise of the Jansens’ project.

“I admire Travis and Colin’s initiative and creativity,” says von Massow. “As young people look to go back to the farm, they need to find innovative value-added approaches that allow them to get started. I think this connection to the consumer has some real potential to not only sell some chickens, but to also help people understand food production. These sorts of approaches are critical to bridging the gap and maintaining consumer confidence.”