Egg production is big business at Wilcox Family Farms in Roy.

The company’s 1,500 acres of sustainable farmland has been an economic driver and jobs producer to rural Pierce County for more than a century. Established in 1909 by Judson and Elizabeth Wilcox, the family name is virtually synonymous in the Pacific Northwest with farm fresh eggs.

Even the most well-established business needs to keep up with government standards, and Wilcox Farms is no different. Ever-stricter food regulations from U.S. Food and Drug Administration ushered a need for current and new employees to be trained to comply.

That’s no small feat for a company as expansive as Wilcox, one of the largest employers in rural Pierce with 135 workers. Consider that, in the last two years alone, the business has invested upwards of $80,000 in food safety training alone.

“Food safety is becoming a bigger issue,” says Andy Wilcox, director of operations. “Everyone in the plant needs to understand the big picture when it comes to food safety. The FDA is driving a lot of rules in all the products we do.”

Enter Washington State Department of Commerce, which came calling with a $75,000 Work Start grant, supported by the Governor’s Strategic Reserve Fund and done in partnership with Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County and Impact Washington, a business support nonprofit. The sustainability of rural employers like Wilcox, officials said, is crucial to the balance of the economy of the South Puget Sound region and the state.

“Growing and retaining good jobs in rural communities like Roy is critical to strengthening communities,” said Commerce Director Brian Bonlender. “Work Start is an invaluable tool that allows us to do that by meeting the workforce needs of employers while investing in the training of the employees.”

During May and June, Wilcox Farms’ current workforce was trained by three outside consultant groups. Approximately $65,000 of the $75,000 grand award was devoted to training staff not only in food safety and animal welfare, but also lean leadership development — curtailing waste from an operation and empowering line workers to take ownership of their day-to-day tasks, creating a flat organizational structure.

That sort of accountability is inextricably tied to food safety, explains Valerie Rodgers, recruiting manager at Wilcox Farms. Training conducted in May and June, she says, was done in an environment that fostered teamwork and harmony.

“It creates that buy-in, because everyone is involved,” Rogers says.

The remaining $10,000 of the grant was allocated to the recruitment of new workers.

“We did value-stream mapping that helps us with the recruiting of applicants and filtering the great applicants,” Wilcox says. “Our future success will be dependent on the applicants we hire now.”

That’s big, considering Wilcox Farms produces 10 million dozen eggs annually. According to Andy Wilcox, his family’s business stands to grow by 12 percent over the next two years, thanks in part to the Work Start grant.

Over the past several years, Wilcox Farms has grown more than 10 percent annually. Wilcox says this growth is attributed to the company’s concerted focus on serving customers who seek out products that achieve higher standards for animal welfare and sustainability.

“There has been significant interest,” Wilcox says.

To that end, the operation has committed more than $25 million over the past 10 years for converting to 100 percent cage-free egg production.

“This requires a lot more skill set for animal husbandry to make it cage-free,” Wilcox says. “Our Roy farm will be cage-free by 2019. Our farm in Burlington is already cage-free.”

Over the past several years as business has increased, Wilcox Farms has added new products in response to customer demand. These include hardboiled eggs in different pack sizes that are more convenient for home use, and pasture eggs with higher nutrient value produced from hens that subsist on a 20 percent grass-fed diet.

The Work Start grant will support the hiring of 14 more positions. Wilcox says he is looking to fill 10 additional jobs in food processing and four additional jobs in egg production. Wages for these jobs will range from $13 to $17 an hour, including full benefits.

The family executive says an employee at Wilcox Farms is akin to an industrial athlete.

“We’re looking for people with dexterity and stamina to do the job,” Wilcox explains.

Rogers says ideal candidates are those who enjoy the rural lifestyle and who want a short commute.

“Work local, live local,” she says. “A majority of our employees come from Yelm and a significant number come from Roy. It’s life-changing for people to cut their commute and work at Wilcox.”

Wilcox says he would like to partner with a landowner in McKenna or Yelm and place a large sign in town that announces Wilcox Farms is a major employer. 

J.W. Foster, mayor of Yelm, looks to take that one step further, saying he plans to do everything in his power to promote the large family business and any other local employer finding it hard to employ people.

Foster suggested Wilcox Farms partner with Yelm Community Schools’ career and technical education program.

“What Wilcox is offering fits right into this program,” Foster says. “Wilcox expanding is great for a town like Yelm. We have a good mix of retail, but we’re fairly light on industry. Wilcox bringing jobs into the community is a good thing. We want people to live, play and work locally. This is good for the environment and good for the local economy.”