Harley Siemens is proud of his farm.
It’s evident in the way he shows off every detail on a tour through the sparkling-clean layer barns, something he’s done many times.
There’s good reason for that. The Siemens’ two free-run aviary barns, near Rosenort, were his brainchild. Before they broke ground in 2017, Harley crisscrossed the country researching the housing style to the tiniest detail.
Now, the barns are a way to build trust with the consumer through tours and inviting in the media. He’s even had a Global news reporter and camera person — in full coveralls, chickens hopping everywhere — inside one of the layer enclosures.
“I find the most important way to try and — not convince them but to show them what we do — is just be really good at it,” Harley said. “I usually don’t have to change their minds about anything because they believe what I say.”
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As far as Harley knows, the Siemens family, who are Mennonites, have been farming all the way back to the old country. He doesn’t know exactly when the Siemens’ farm was established, but his grandparents incorporated in 1963.
At the time they were a mixed farm, which included layer hens. When the property, just down the road from the current farm site, got too small they moved to the Sanford area to expand. They had a large grain operation and maintained a quota of layers.
In 1983, Grandpa Siemens died, and of his seven children, only Harley’s father Kurt wanted to farm. They sold the Sanford farm, took their quota and bought the current property.
Kurt Siemens worked for his mother on the farm until he bought it in 1994. Harley was born in 1995.
Harley recalled the old-style “stair-step” cages in which the chickens lived, often four to a cage. At three years old, he was already helping gather eggs from the lowest tier.
“This is child labour. You can put this into your notes,” he joked to the Manitoba Co-operator.
It took them six hours to gather the eggs by hand with a pushcart, which they brought to the egg room and emptied every so often. They had 17,000 hens.
They retrofitted the old barn to newer-style housing in 2001, and added a row of enriched housing in 2009. This also included upgrading to automated egg gathering.
At age seven, Harley was running the egg packer and using a five-gallon pail to reach to the top of the stack of eggs.
In 2016, right out of university, Harley married his wife Brooklyn. He and Brooklyn moved into the house on the farm property.
At the time they were looking for ways to expand. Their systems were in good shape, but the barns were aging.
They decided to expand to a free-run setup. After extensive research, they chose to use Hellman’s aviary housing. They’re the first to use this equipment in Manitoba, Harley said. Their pullet barn opened April 2018, the first layer barn in August 2018, and the final layer barn in April 2019.
All three barns are connected by a hallway, allowing for easy transport of the pullets between barns.
The new style of housing meant relearning the craft, Harley said. They’ve tackled issues like stampeding chickens (after a crop-duster flew over), and pullets that wouldn’t learn to fly back into their cages at night (which meant thousands of birds had to be hand-lifted into their cages).
“I think that we’re starting to get the hang of it, and they say that in about four years you kind of have it down pat, so we’re in year two,” Harley said.
For Harley, egg farming is a way to carry on his family’s legacy. His grandpa was a well-known man in his community with a reputation for innovation and excellent care for his animals.
Harley’s father Kurt Siemens is on the board of directors for the Egg Farmers of Canada and Manitoba Egg Farmers.
“I see how important the industry is, and I see the disconnect from how people view animal agriculture and how it actually is so I want to break that chain,” Harley said.
He said he’s seen pressures change, so farmers face attacks against animal agriculture.
“We don’t just have to farm. We have to try and show that we farm well,” he said.
Besides farming full time, Harley also co-ordinates exhibits at the Glenlea Research Station (with the University of Manitoba) and will visit school classrooms to talk about egg farming. The barns also have viewing rooms. When he can’t show people the barns directly, he tries to use visuals.
“The most important thing is they’ve got to trust us as farmers,” Harley said. “They’ve got to know where their food is coming from, know that we care for our hens, and once they know that then they can have that good feeling about that when they’re buying those eggs.”
Despite the satisfaction of being an agriculture ambassador, the big reason Harley became a farmer was to give his wife and two young daughters the life he had growing up.
“My biggest thing was, I absolutely loved how I was so close to family all the time,” Harley said. He saw the financial stability his dad had and wanted that for his family. He wanted to be close instead of commuting long distances.
Today he can see Brooklyn and his little girls in the morning before he goes to the barn, and return to have lunch with them.
“You can’t really get much better,” he said.