Bill Gray - Caring by the carton: Egg farm gives back
Recently, there have been many stories of those extending compassion and stepping up to help those in need. Bill Gray shares how Gray Ridge Egg Farms donated 108,000 eggs to food banks, churches and other institutions in small communities and why they felt compelled to go the extra mile to give back.
This episode is part of a special AgFuture series on the impact of COVID-19 on the food supply chain. Join us to hear how those on the frontlines of the global pandemic are working to overcome adversity and feed the world.
Hosted by Michelle Michael
As lead video producer at Alltech, Michelle travels the globe for the company’s award-winning Planet of Plenty™ documentary series. Michelle spent a decade as a video producer/reporter in Germany, reporting from military hotspots at the height of the war on terrorism. The National Press Photographer's Association (NPPA) has twice recognized Michelle as their solo video journalist of the year.
Co-produced by Brandon Whitworth
As the senior media production specialist at Alltech, Brandon co-produces the company’s award-winning Planet of Plenty™ documentary series. Brandon is a two-time Emmy Award winning television news photojournalist and three-time nominee. He has received several regional awards from the National Press Photographers Association for excellence in visual storytelling.
The following is an edited transcript of Michelle Michael's interview with Bill Gray. Click below to hear the full audio.
Michelle: Hello! I'm Michelle Michael. In this special series of AgFuture, we're talking with those working along the food supply chain about the impact of COVID-19. My guest today is Bill Gray, a major player in Canada's egg industry. Bill, thank you so much for joining us today from Ontario — is that right?
Bill: That's right.
Michelle: Your operation is one of the largest processors of farm-fresh eggs in Ontario. Tell us a little about yourself and Gray Ridge Egg Farms.
Bill: We started in the early '30s. It was started by my mother and father, (with) very small beginnings — from a local farm, then moving into Ridgetown — again, small beginnings, and we grew a little bit at the time. We were actually located with the egg-grading operation in Ridgetown for some 58 years, closing that in 1992.
Michelle: A lot of family history then.
Bill: Definitely a family business, and I'm very proud to be a part of it.
Michelle: How does your company work with egg farmers to provide eggs for Canadians?
Bill: We buy eggs from the farmers that are at arm's length. That's not through the Egg Farmers of Ontario or Egg Farmers of Canada. We've had many long-term suppliers — Mr. McKinley, who started with my father. The McKinley family, not the original Mr. McKinley, is an 84-year supplier. He started with that at that time, and we've had many, many more long-term suppliers, and we have new people as well.
In terms of working with Egg Farmers of Ontario, Egg Farmers of Canada, their position is to control the production and supply what we need in terms of weekly demand. They're doing a pretty good job. Sometimes, they run a little bit short, and in those cases, we do have some traditional import quota that we use to bring eggs in from the U.S., if and when needed, and only if and when needed. So, all in all, the mandate — and I was on the e-Commerce of Canada for 12 years, and their mandate is to supply Canadian eggs for the Canadian public.
Michelle: Mr. Gray, times are tough in every industry right now. There's nothing "normal" about what's presently going on in the world, except that people will always need to eat, and now, more than ever, people have turned to eggs. Do you see or feel that increase, a higher demand, in this pandemic?
Bill: Oh, no question. In fact, our retail stores, in some cases, have been rationing — and that is not only in Ontario, but across Canada and, indeed, into the United States. We are, in fact, in the last week or so post-Easter, we are catching up to demand. On the other side, we also are in the further processing business, and that end of the business has slowed down considerably, as has our wholesale business that supplies restaurants, healthcare systems, hospitals, nursing homes, et cetera — but no, the demand is all on the retail side.
Michelle: When we talk about that increase in demand, how much are we talking? What was the demand before COVID, and how has that changed numbers-wise?
Bill: Well, we're primarily retail, so we're finding it larger than some, perhaps, but we see growth on the retail side. Quite frankly, when we have been unable to fill orders, we probably were running (at) about 90% fill rate, which is actually pretty good compared to (others) across this country and our friends to the south.
Michelle: So, then, how would you describe that in terms of consumer trends when it comes to buying eggs at this time?
Bill: Consumer trends, of course, with people staying at home, I think (they are making) more breakfasts, just simply more baking. I know my wife is doing an awful lot of baking. I understand the grocery stores are out of flour, so that does tell you something. Of course, with baking, eggs are one of the primary ingredients.
Michelle: Mr. Gray, what message do you want to convey to people eating and buying eggs?
Bill: I may be a bit prejudiced, but eggs are a nutritious food, high in protein, with multiple uses and (are) one of the few foods that have achieved, year over year, per-capita growth. That's a privilege today, by the way, in the food industry.
Last but not least, (they are) reasonably priced and no surprise during difficult times, such as now. Over the years, when we're experiencing dips in the economy, the actual egg consumption goes up — and that's historic, by the way. Every dozen counts. When I see people on the street and they recognize me and they say, "Oh, I bought a dozen of your eggs," I say, "Thank you very much." We market a dozen at a time, and we're very appreciative of all those that have patronized our brand over these many, many years. That's why we're still here.
Michelle: As a producer in the poultry industry, it's unique in the fact that you really can't get large eggs or extra-large eggs without the small and medium eggs that come at the beginning of the flock. Is that right?
Bill: That's correct.
Michelle: What does that mean for you, the egg farmer — or the processing plants, for that matter?
Bill: Well, prior to the pandemic, we were actually marketing our large (and) extra-large eggs. The medium, we're going to the further processed market. With the smalls, we have a huge market in and around the GTA for three-egg breakfasts, thus (there is) a market for the smalls. Right now, we are marketing the medium eggs at retail, mainly in a 30-egg tray over-wrap, and that has been going over very well. We do market some in one-dozen cartons, but in the main, it's the 30-egg pack.
Michelle: In the midst of this crisis, there are so many stories of good, of human compassion during this pandemic, and you're one of those great stories. Gray Ridge Egg Farms donated 108,000 eggs to small communities in need. Tell us more about this incredible act of kindness.
Bill: Well, we were happy to do that. We had eggs packaged for, as I mentioned, the three-egg breakfast trade, so the orders slowed, and those eggs were still well beneath the best-before date. In fact, they were only a few days old, so we decided, rather than switch gears, that we would simply donate those eggs not only to food banks (but) to churches, to institutions, to a variety of sources. We were able to solicit volunteer people to load a few cases of eggs in their cars or pickup trucks and drive them around. I think one particular chap went out as far as 50 kilometers. We were also very pleased to have our local MPP as one of the volunteers who was delivering. He went out quite a bit farther, and he said he was going up close to 50 miles, so it just all worked out very well. At the end of the day, it was very gratifying for us. Those smiles and those few little "thank-yous" certainly was a bit heartwarming, particularly in the condition or the situation that we're in now.
Michelle: What inspired you to make that donation?
Bill: Well, the slowdown in the demand for the smalls was what inspired us, so we thought, rather than repackage that product, that we would simply send it out to people in need — and believe me, there are plenty of people in need, and we're happy to help out. We've been quite blessed ourselves, so we're happy to help others.
Michelle: Mr. Gray, I want to go back just for a moment. You talked about there being plenty of people in need. Can you talk a little about that need?
Bill: Well, I'm not an expert on that. I just go by what you see on the streets, and there's certainly a lot of sadness, not only in the big cities, but also in the city where I live, which is London. So, we think it's our duty to help, to a certain extent, people who have fallen on hard times, and that's been our philosophy over the years. As I said, we do have other charities that we do throughout the year.
Michelle: Can you talk about the response that you're getting from those communities in need, those that received the egg donations? How are they feeling?
Bill: I think they're doing okay. We don't have first-hand knowledge, but we think that it's working pretty well. People are now, after a few weeks of isolation — some voluntarily, some compulsory — are getting into a routine. Again, you don't see many cars on the streets, which lead back to people eating at homes, in their homes, and also, you see lineups at the grocery stores.
Michelle: It's funny, during this time of social distancing, to feel this closeness in communities. Why is it so important to you to make this kind of donation at this particular time?
Bill: Well, it's something that we do not only at this time, but throughout the year. We have charities that we support, and we're happy to do this as a company that's been around Southwestern Ontario for a long period of time. In fact, we've been around here for 84 years, to be exact.
Michelle: I assume it took some flexibility. What kind of flexibility did this require for folks in the supply chain to repackage and send these eggs to those in need?
Bill: None at all. They were packaged in 15-dozen boxes with six 30-egg trays, so none at all. The case is one cubic foot, so they would fit in a trunk or the backseat of somebody's car or in a pickup truck. People took four or five or some took ten cases and just simply spread them around, as they say, probably a 25-k or 30-k radius.
Michelle: This story has reached many Canadians, and we hope to reach others globally. What advice or thoughts do you have for other groups wanting to donate in a similar fashion?
Bill: Well, donating, I feel, is a very personal situation. I don't tend to advise anyone on how or why they should donate. In our particular case, we believe that that was the right thing to do rather than repackage the eggs, as I mentioned, and this is not the end. We will be doing more.
Michelle: Now, your company philosophy, your personal philosophy, of “keep growing, keep building and operate as if you'll go on forever” is a guiding principle. What does it mean to you, and how does it connect you, your family and the company with your community?
Bill: Well, our company has had the same philosophy all my lifetime, and before me. It was drilled into me. There's the old saying, “If you're standing still, you're going behind,” so we've been very active in not only upgrading to the latest of equipment but, also, in the last 40-plus years, we've been doing a lot of acquisitions, which has worked out very well for us, so we're not stopping. We have people of all ages in senior positions, and it's important to keep the people at all levels with a growing company. It's contagious.
Michelle: Mr. Gray, do you feel also closer to the consumer during this pandemic?
Bill: I would say, even though there is no personal contact, per se, but we're certainly much closer to our customers, as they're requesting special deliveries to accommodate their increased demand. Our sales team has been working very closely with our customers, and we do have a lot of retail stores in Ontario, in Alberta and BC. We're involved in three provinces. All are doing well, and we've had actually some nice compliments from our customers.
Michelle: Do you think, Mr. Gray, there will be any long-term concerns in the poultry industry because of this pandemic?
Bill: I can't foresee anything at the moment, no. Nothing we can't handle, I'll put it that way.
Michelle: You don't see any long-term concerns at this point. What does that say about the resiliency of farmers?
Bill: Farmers are very resilient. They depend on the weather. They depend on market prices. You know the old saying: “If you didn't do it this year, well, look forward to next year.”
I think that's the case in the whole agriculture industry. It's a very sophisticated industry today, with tractors that run without people on them. I was just reading an article this morning, and technology has certainly worked its way into agriculture, and it will only continue.
Michelle: We talk a lot about crisis driving innovation. How might there be a positive from this crisis?
Bill: Oh, I think there will always be a positive from a crisis of this sort. One thing, I believe, (is) that it gives good recognition to eggs. I noticed one — only one — of the ads on television, they were comparing eggs to toilet paper, (which is) not something we want to promote, but it was interesting that eggs were front and center, so I think that we will get very good press from what's transpired in the recent weeks. Farmers like their way of life, and farmers are happy people, and they like to please their consumers.
Michelle: Biosecurity has always been important on the farm and in the egg-processing facility. How have those protocols changed?
Bill: Not much, actually. On our laying farms, we have a "shower in, shower out" rule for the four barns. That's the cage-free. For the caged barns, we have a complete change of clothes, plus handwashing on the way in and again on the way out. In the plants, we have washing when you go from one section of the plant to the other, handwashing. We have implemented — and have been for many years in the breaking plant — hairnets, uniforms, again, handwashing. We also have mats on the floor, disinfecting mats where you walk through, and we do provide special clothing, special shoes as well.
Michelle: Yeah. I'm curious how this donation to those in need, how you describe your emotions.
Bill: Well, I think my emotions came from the "thank-yous" and just to see people; it was a pleasant get-together, and there were actually some videos taken. Frankly, it's just a heartwarming experience. We like to give back to our community. The community has been good to us, so why not?
Michelle: Do you think, long-term, stories like this will change the way the consumer perceives agriculture — in a more positive light, in most cases?
Bill: I think so. We'll have to see what the future holds, but definitely, when people have the time, and many are not working in their office or working from home. I think that it takes a broader look. I know that we're looking at other aspects of the world as well. I find it an interesting time, albeit not the most pleasurable time, but there's always something good that comes from something not so good.
Michelle: Bill Gray, a good neighbor and a stellar story of giving in the world of agriculture during this tough, tough time. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Bill: You're very welcome, and please stay well and keep safe.
Michelle: For additional resources on COVID-19, visit alltech.com.