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Christopher Bruce: Chicken run.

It seems our good publisher has agreed to let my screed cross your eyes once more. I remain grateful for anyone giving me the opportunity to run my mouth. Those new to the food security conversation may have been shocked by some of the comments in my previous writing. Let me tell you the shameful tale of Big Chicken.

Enter the chicken.

Several years ago when I decided to start farming, I had a particular vision that revolved around the concept of rotational grazing and animal / crop integration. One very important animal to this program was chicken. You know chicken, right? The thing everyone eats; the thing we say everything tastes like if we don’t know how to describe it; the lynch pin of Big Mary Monday, our nation’s one true holiday. Chicken.

One might think such a high demand product would be a natural and reasonable farm product to raise. Indeed, without too much work I had buyers lined up for my meager number of chickens. All I had to do was grow ’em and get ’em to market. Great. People we excited to try chickens with a different diet and lifestyle.

I excitedly discussed this with the Federation of Agriculture rep who had been helping me through some of the process.

“Oh. You can’t do that.”

Turns out, I ratted myself out to the wrong people. Big Chicken roosts along every step of the government side of agriculture. This excerpt is taken from the governments website on the broiler industry;

“The Newfoundland broiler industry is comprised of a single integrated company which grows approximately two-thirds of its requirements and contract grows the remaining one-third. This allows for coordinated production and processing on a scale which should allow the company to compete in regional and national markets. Newfoundland chicken farmers now grow product that is very responsive to the customers’ needs. Producer and processor are now one unit and market demands are responded to immediately.”

This is high level corporate jargon for ‘we have a monopoly on chicken production in this province and you should be happy for it’.

What they don’t tell you is that this company is owned by an Atlantic Canadian conglomerate based out of Nova Scotia – Atlantic Poultry Inc. Our government owns shares in the company, so they are more than passively supportive of this private company.

The rules around chicken (and beef, and dairy, and all the other products under supply management) varies from province to province. In no province can some random person decide to raise a million chickens. This has been decided to be too destabilizing to the price of food, which is fair and good.

Not fair or good is where Newfoundland puts its bar for entry into the quota system – the lowest point in the country – 99 chickens. It’s fairly routine for the federation to dissuade people from growing any chickens because the Federation of Agriculture is a private body representing their private corporate interests, and it is fair for private interest to look after themselves.

However, this is one of many areas where small farms are explicitly prohibited while out of province mega corporations are lauded with government funding and obscene protection under the law.

These big companies own what is called ‘quota’. That is the right to produce a certain amount of food in one of these controlled systems. Every few months Country Ribbon is given an update to their quota. If demand is up, they can grow more chicken. They are always offered all new quota that comes to market and have never said no. And they don’t even use it all.

Now most years they use *most*. We’re talking 97 to 99 per cent here. But at the scale of millions of kgs of bird, 3 per cent is more than a small farm could manage. And you see, birds die. They don’t have a 100 per cent survival rate and the quota is based off of how many chickens they rear, not sell. So if their chickens die, which happens, that quota often goes unfilled.

Meanwhile, hard working people in the department of agriculture dissuade new farmers from entering the chicken business. Because there, Big Chicken reigns supreme.

If you’ve had chicken raised outdoors you know it’s a different product. Small farmers often will have a variety of birds with their own qualities. Country Ribbon produces one in bulk. It’s far from organic. No one is calling those chickens happy. Reports inside the factory suggest chicken suicide is through the roof.

But that is the system of food production our governments choose to subsidize. It’s little wonder we all get so nervous when the boat doesn’t show up.

Christopher Bruce grew up in St. John’s but spent his summers in the Codroy Valley, exploring the beaches and woods of Searston. About 5 years ago, he returned to his roots and took up his dream of farming. He’s a comedian, but gets pretty serious when it comes to corruption, poverty, and the destruction of the environment.

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