During the first half of the twentieth century the Arthur area had a reputation as a centre for egg and poultry production.
An early participant in that segment of agriculture was the Conestoga Egg Farm, which started in 1916 under the partnership of Goodfellow and Brocklebank. The operation specialized in the hatching and selling of day-old chicks.
After a few months W.E. Brocklebank, a member of a then-prominent Arthur family and an entrepreneur involved in several other ventures, assumed sole control.
He had visions of building a major, specialized operation that would provide high-quality birds to farmers who managed egg-laying flocks and raised poultry for the burgeoning retail market.
Brocklebank expanded the operation greatly over the winter of 1916-1917. At that time, with wartime shortages elevating farm gate prices, many farmers were in a position to make investments in their facilities. Poultry and egg production seemed to offer good prospects, and Brocklebank intended to take advantage of the rising markets.
In late 1916 Brocklebank acquired some high-quality laying hens. He seems to have had considerable experience himself in breeding improved strains of poultry, and worked with some farmers in the area as well. His aim was to breed hens having increased egg production potential, while maintaining strong and healthy birds.
By the end of January 1917 he had 830 hens in an insulated barn, and was continuing his program of developing improved strains. By modern standards that is a minuscule flock, but a century ago it was an impressive number. Brocklebank concentrated on three breeds: White Wyandottes, Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, and Leghorns.
Brocklebank sold eggs to farmers who wished to hatch their own laying flocks, and older chicks to those farmers who did not want to fuss with very young birds. His specialty, though, was the production of day-old chicks, which he could sell economically and ship by rail to farmers over a wide area.
Incubators on the farm held 2,200 eggs at a time, and a brooder house could accommodate 1,500 birds while a colony house had a capacity of 1,600 of chicks would be sold at eight weeks. Other structures held the oats, some of it sprouted, that he used for feed.
In February 1917 Brocklebank issued a booklet that included advice and tips for farmers who wished to enter the egg business or to improve their techniques, and the profitability, in producing eggs and poultry. He sought the assistance of the Ontario Agricultural College in compiling the booklet.
The Conestoga Egg Farm began advertising in the Arthur Enterprise in February of 1917, and may have placed notices as well in some of the agricultural publications.
Brocklebank claimed that his birds would lay about 200 eggs per year, far above the average for that era. Chicks for delivery in April cost $30 per hundred, and $25 per hundred in May. Another service he offered was hatching eggs brought in by farmers. That cost $2 per tray of 72 eggs. It was advantageous to farmers, he claimed, to let him hatch the eggs. The hen could then continue to lay eggs rather than sit on the nest.
Brocklebank sold his chicks, eggs, and incubator services for cash only, and wanted payment when farmers brought eggs in for hatching. He claimed to be operating on tight margins, and didn’t want to be bothered with the problems of collecting overdue accounts.
In May the Conestoga Egg Farm cut its prices. Eggs from his best strains of birds were available at five cents per egg, and baby chicks were reduced to 15 cents each in any quantity. The reason for the reduction is not clear. Sales may have been lower than Brocklebank had hoped, or there might have been intense competition in the marketplace. By 1917 several very large producers of chicks were in the market, and they shipped their chicks over a wide area.
In any case, it would appear that the Conestoga Egg Farm did not enjoy sustained success. There were no advertisements in the Arthur paper in the early spring of 1918. Biographical accounts and obituaries of E.W. Brocklebank make no mention of the Conestoga Egg Farm.
Brocklebank’s operation was a novel one for Wellington County. His downfall was that he did not look to a provincial or even a regional market. One of the strategies he employed was to try to cater to existing farm practices, such as hatching eggs brought in by farmers and selling older chicks. That reduced his capacity to sell day-old chicks.
Though a large operation by nineteenth century standards, the Conestoga Egg Farm was a minuscule operation by today’s standards, and could not achieve the economies of scale necessary for success. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating footnote to Wellington’s history, and an important part of the history of poultry in the Arthur area.
Several other egg hatcheries dot the history of Wellington County in the first half of the twentieth century. With the exception of the Tweddle hatchery in Fergus none enjoyed sustained success. They constitute a part of the trend to increasing specialization, efficiency, and scale of production that characterized agriculture in the twentieth century.
A great deal of the change occurred during World War I. Agriculture was immensely profitable for a few years before prices crashed in the early 1920s. Governments of that time are often criticized by today’s historians for ignoring the looming problems in agriculture, and the inflationary pressures that all but crippled the economy at the end of the war. That interpretation ignores a number of efforts by governments as early as 1916 to deal with potential problems, both as the war dragged on and in the coming post-war era. Much of that effort was directed at agriculture.
There was significant attention directed at increasing agricultural production in the face of world-wide shortages. Enterprises such as the Conestoga Egg Farm were strongly encouraged by government agricultural departments as part of their policy to increase farm output.
Another phase of that government initiative was the appointment of county agricultural representatives. Few people today are aware that “Ag Reps,” as they became known, resulted from wartime conditions and policies. The Ag Reps were specifically instructed to distribute information on new techniques and efficiencies that would make farming more productive and farms more profitable.
Though governments were well aware of the difficulties that would face agriculture at the end of the war, their efforts were, in large part, no more successful than those of Brocklebank and his egg farm. Some of the difficulty lay in the unwillingness of many farmers to embrace new methods. As well, many younger farmers decided to volunteer for the armed forces or take factory jobs in nearby towns.
The history of the Conestoga Egg Farm is part of the much larger story of Ontario agriculture during the First World War. That is a subject that is often ignored by historians, whose focus is on war operations in Europe and the conscription crisis that dominated Canadian politics during the conflict, rather than on the changes being experienced by domestic agriculturalists.
Next week: More on farming in the World War I era.