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The Trouble with Chicken

Posted by Julia Smith on

Meat chickens feasting on red peppersOn May 17th, the poultry processing facility that does most of the slaughter for small scale growers in the Fraser Valley sent out this email:

"FarmFed would like to inform you all that we are currently phasing out custom processing. FarmFed has finished with its expansion, installed automated equipment and will continue to increase production leaving little time for custom  processing. Being more automated, running 2 kill lines and hiring of additional staff we can no longer continue with custom slaughtering. If you have birds currently booked we will continue to process them as requested but urge you to look at other processors for all future slaughtering."

We weren't surprised. It had been more and more difficult to get our chickens, ducks & turkeys booked in and this, and the other facility. Unfortunately, this is a trend that is making it harder and harder for small-scale producers to continue to raise relatively small batches of birds really well. 

Of course the other place has been completely inundated well beyond their ability to keep up. It's a rotten time to be a small-scale poultry producer. As a result, we may well have just butchered our last batch of ducks. Our thanksgiving turkeys were already booked in before this notice was sent out but we have been unable to start any birds for Christmas as we have nowhere to process them. 

The whole chicken (and duck, turkey, etc) industry stinks. It is getting harder and harder for small-scale producers to get into and stay in the game. Marketing boards impose regulations that prevent farmers from raising enough animals to meet the growing demand for well-raised eggs and meat. Even the happiest pasture-raised birds usually start out out in a factory farm hatchery in eggs laid by hens who will never see a ray of sunshine or a blade of grass a day in their lives. 

And then there's the feed. There are no good options for feed short of the handful of farms who grow it themselves. But that is a very expensive prospect requiring equipment and land that most of us can't afford. So we choose between feed grown conventionally here in Canada or organic feed which contains soy from China & India. 

The chickens themselves have been bred over many generations into the "frankenchickens" most farms are raising today. To be clear, they have not been genetically modified... just bred for certain traits and characteristics that result in an animal that is far from "natural." They grow FAST! So fast in fact that often their legs and hearts can't keep up and they either die of a heart attack or their legs break. Pasture-raised and organic birds fare a little better. They are fed differently and move around more so they take longer to grow but we still see these types of issues even in the best raised flocks. 

And then there is the whole egg issue. The egg industry is subject to most of the same problems that the meat bird industry faces.... marketing board regulations, difficulties in sourcing good quality feed and the problems with the large-scale commercial hatcheries. 

The answer to some of these problems is heritage breeds but there the economics break down. It takes MUCH longer to raise a heritage breed bird. Let that bird run around in a field and by the time it is market ready, you have a bird that consumed three-four times as much feed, took three-four times as long to raise and has tough meat. No one is going to pay three-four times more for a tough old bird. Heritage birds are more ethical/sustainable for egg production but eat more and don't lay as many eggs forcing the price of eggs up. 

I meet a lot of folks to "don't eat red meat" for ethical and environmental reasons. "Vegetarians" who only eat eggs boggle my mind. The truth is that our chicken is the least sustainable/ethical product we sell. I struggle with this all the time. On one hand, I want to just stop selling chicken all together. On the other hand, I know that if we do that, people will just go buy chicken somewhere else and we'll lose the opportunity to have these types of conversations. So we try to source the best chicken we can and encourage consumers to look at different, more sustainable options.

There are no good answers right now. Things are very much up in the air. We are looking for a new chicken/duck/turkey producer in the Interior where processing is less of an issue but all the other issues still apply. I'll keep you posted as the situation develops but at this point, i sure hope y'all are willing to embrace ham as your new Christmas tradition.  

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