The latest in artisanal food? Ontario chickens

By Sarah B. Hood - Published on March 18, 2016
baby chicks on a farm
In Canada, the supply of eggs, dairy products, chicken and turkey is regulated by a quota system. Image credit: Chicken Farmers of Ontario

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As market manager at The Stop farmers market at Wychwood Barns, one of the largest in Toronto, Cookie Roscoe is in the habit of serving a fresh local turkey for her annual Christmas dinner. However, a few years ago she missed the deadline to put in her order.

“I couldn’t get a turkey … so a farmer instead gifted me a 12-pound chicken,” she says. For Roscoe, it was a moment of poultry epiphany. Like most Ontario shoppers, she’d become so used to  conventionally grown fowl, seven weeks old and four pounds, that she’d never stopped to think that chickens might naturally grow to other sizes. But beginning this season, she expects to start seeing more chicken diversity at her market and others across Ontario.

Before this year, Ontario chicken farmers had to choose between raising fewer than 300 birds per year or upwards of 100,000; there was no middle ground. Now, a new artisanal chicken program launched in January by the Chicken Farmers of Ontario means that small-scale producers will be able to raise larger quantities of chickens to sell at farmers markets and butcher shops, and also to restaurants. While many will choose to raise standard breeds to the usual four-pound size, the program could open the door to heritage breeds such as Barred Rock, Buff Orpington and Rhode Island Red, free-range flocks or — should the demand exist — bigger birds.

Under Canadian law, the supply of certain food commodities — including eggs, dairy products, chicken and turkey — is regulated by a quota system. This restricts the number of farmers who can raise chickens. Previously, small flocks of fewer than 300 birds were permitted to farmers, primarily for their own consumption, under a program called Family Food Growers.

The average quota producer raises over 150,000 chickens per year. With more than 1,100 commercial chicken farmers, Ontario produces over 200 million chickens annually, making it Canada’s largest chicken producer. In 2014, there were just under 15,000 family food growers, raising an average of 60 birds per year—far too few to sell commercially.

“I was being approached by consumers looking for [non-conventionally raised] chicken and they weren’t finding it anywhere,” Roscoe says. Although she has an extensive network of farming contacts, “there was no product at market; I couldn’t find producers who wanted to sell chicken.”

Chicken Farmers of Ontario (CFO) also noticed a rising demand for new options. “Whether it’s free range or free run or organic or raised without antibiotics, different kinds of chickens are being demanded by consumers,” says Michael Edmonds, director of communications and government relations for the organization that represents Ontario’s commercial chicken farmers.

The artisanal chicken program, which will allow small-scale producers to raise and sell between 600 and 3,000 chickens per year, resulted from a series of consultations across the province, including the undersupplied north. Within two months of its launch, more than 80 chicken farmers had been accepted into the program.

“There’s been great enthusiasm in northern Ontario for the program,” Edmonds says. “Our staff have actually been travelling across northern Ontario and meeting with farmers, including on Manitoulin Island, where several producers have been accepted. We’re excited that the program has been so successful in meeting all its target markets.”

The new chickens will be available by the time seasonal summer markets start to open in late May. Most artisanal chicken producers will be raising pastured chicken, which is more labour-intensive than conventional methods. “This is going to be more expensive chicken meat,” says Roscoe, who added she hopes it will allow independent farmers “to pay themselves an hourly wage that is reasonable and decent.”

For Patsy and Harold Schmidt, third-generation farmers who founded Acres of Dreams farm near Timmins in 2013, the artisanal chicken program is a game-changer.

“To be a registered farmer, you have to be able to prove $7,000 income,” says Harold Schmidt. Therefore, in their first year of farming, the Schmidts invested in just one commodity—the legal maximum of 300 chickens—hoping to establish their farming business with this relatively low-risk venture. It worked.

They’ve since expanded their business to include beef, a few pigs, some cereal crops “and of course turkeys for Thanksgiving and Christmas.” Since they have been accepted into the Artisanal Chicken program, they expect that Harold may be able to leave his day job in the mining industry to work full-time on the farm.

“There’s a big desire in Timmins for food grown locally,” he says. “We’re hoping to sell directly through the farm. However, we do have the option to sell through stores and restaurants and at the market. Before, everything had to be sold through the farm gate.”

Steve and Lisa Cooper run a much longer-established farming business near Zephyr, a town in south-central Ontario. It supplies about 500 regular community-supported agriculture customers with mixed fruit and vegetables, pastured Berkshire pork and grass-fed beef. They’ve been raising chickens for several years, but, says Steve Cooper, “It was basically hobby scale, more just for fun, and to make sure our core customers got a little bit of chicken.

“The program allows us to scale up into an enterprise. We have lots of customers asking for pastured poultry, and the way the program was before, we couldn’t even think of doing that,” he says. “We’re licensed for 3,000, so we intend to sell all 3,000.”

Cooper is also looking forward to using more free fertilizer for his fields: “We use something called tractor chicken coops [open-bottom coops that can be moved from site to site]. It’s a great tie-in for the market garden, using the coops to add fertility, and then putting crops in afterwards,” he says.

“What this allows is for Ontario to fill niches — for the pasture-raised or the heritage breeds,” Cooper says. “Before, the way the system was, it didn’t allow for any real on-farm sales of any scale. So it’s certainly a great opportunity.”

Sarah B. Hood is a freelance writer and author of We Sure Can!, a book on how jams and pickles are affecting the local food movement.

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