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Jack Knox: If we want local food, then support local farmers

Why don’t we raise more broiler chickens — those raised for meat — on Vancouver Island?
Flood waters surround a farm in Abbotsford, B.C., Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Here’s a jaw-dropping statistic: Poultry farms lost 628,000 birds to the floods around Abbotsford. Think of it as a reflection of how much of B.C.’s food production is concentrated in the Fraser Valley.

It raises the question: Why don’t we raise more broiler chickens — those raised for meat — on Vancouver Island? Surely it would make sense to scatter the flocks, make them less vulnerable to a catastrophe.

This is, in fact, what we have been hearing since 2004, when millions of Fraser ­Valley birds were slaughtered to prevent the spread of avian flu. With ­virtually all of B.C.’s ­chickens clustered in one place, that pretty much crippled the ­industry for a while.

The thing is, there used to be a greater broiler-farming ­presence on the Island, though its survival depended on public support that the government eventually tired of providing.

It goes like this: Both egg and poultry production are ­heavily regulated in B.C., where ­marketing boards determine how many birds each farmer can raise. The quota itself is a ­valuable asset, one that farmers can sell to each other.

In the 1960s, the province offset the high cost of chicken farming on Vancouver Island with a subsidy of about a penny a pound. The government also kept the flocks here by barring farmers from selling their quota off-Island.

But then came 1999, when the Island’s last large chicken-processing plant, Langford’s money-losing Lilydale operation, shut its doors.

For Island farmers, the cost of transporting chickens to the Lower Mainland for slaughter, combined with the loss of the subsidy and the lifting of the quota-selling ban, made what happened next inevitable: farms began to close.

By the beginning of 2005, more than two-thirds of the Island’s broiler quota had been sold. Where there were 37 broiler farms only a few years previous, just seven or eight remained.

There was an effort to open another plant in Lake Cowichan at that time, but it died when the province balked at guaranteeing the necessary supply of chickens. The province argued that would amount to a subsidy not available to others. No use ­propping up an economically unsustainable industry, it said.

A B.C. Chicken Marketing Board report put it this way: “There is great risk in artificially supporting the reintroduction of processing on the Island.”

Fast forward to today. There are a dozen broiler chicken farms and one commercial-sized but relatively small processing facility licensed on Vancouver Island by the marketing board. The 12 farms include several new growers whose entry into the industry was made easier by being allocated quota by the board.

That removes one hurdle, but the reality is others remain. “Costs are higher over here,” says longtime Vancouver Island chicken farmer Bev Whitta of Nanoose Bay.

Feed is expensive. So is the cost of transporting birds ­off-Island. The cost of farmland is daunting.

The existing processing facility can’t handle all the birds grown on the Island but, conversely, there aren’t enough birds to justify a bigger plant, Whitta says — a chicken-and-egg conundrum, as it were.

The bottom line is the bottom line. “Farmers are struggling right now because they’re not getting enough money,” is ­Whitta’s blunt assessment. She’s an enthusiastic champion of poultry farming, but there’s no getting around that agriculture can be a tough go.

Not only are the financial returns iffy, but the lifestyle isn’t for everyone. There are no weekends off, no statutory holidays, no hitting the snooze button when the animals need tending. (“Have you ever had morning sickness in a chicken barn?” a farm woman once asked me. I think the question was rhetorical.)

The good news is that farmers (or at least the foods they provide) are highly valued. “We have an island of people who want to buy an island product,” Whitta says.

That’s good, because the entire sector needs to be healthy to be sustainable. When farms disappear, so does the support network — packing plants, feed stores, large-animal vets, professional castrators, neighbours with whom to share equipment — increasing the strain on those who are left.

As broiler farms dropped away a generation ago, farmers worried that the professional chicken-catchers they relied on would disappear, too.

The broader question — as in much broader than the Island and the Fraser Valley — is whether we can have a safe, secure, locally controlled food supply, or will we depend on products from elsewhere? Do we want to be subject to grocery prices that fluctuate wildly with the American dollar, or with our ability to transport them from afar? (Hands up if you’re sick of the words “supply chain.”)

Support our farmers, or pay the consequences.

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