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Which chicken, in what pot?

Supply management doesn’t fit well with speciality production and a proposed new quota program is a misstep

Over 50 farmers gathered at the St. Norbert Community Centre on November 1 to hear Wayne Hiltz, executive director of the Manitoba Chicken Producers, present the new Annual Specialty Quota Program announced in September.

The new program is designed to serve niche markets in the province with fresh Manitoba-raised chicken year round. This is done through a specialty quota that is distributed each year to qualifying farms wanting to raise more than 999 birds – the current provincial quota exemption limit.

Farmers in the room that day voiced concern over lack of consultation, and the impacts of the program for their farms and the wider local food system.

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The new quota program will replace an existing exemption permit program upon which several farmers rely. These exemption permit holders are responsible for much of the locally raised chicken available in specialty grocers, farmers’ markets, and restaurants in Manitoba.

The new program would require them to lower the number of chickens raised each year, or pay a penalty on the overage.

For Rudy Reimer, whose family has direct marketed chickens for two generations, this change accounts for a significant portion of his flock, “Under this new program we will be cut back by about 70 per cent from our previous exemption level.”

The cutback is especially frustrating because these farmers already struggle to keep up with demand from grocers, restaurateurs, and individuals eager to purchase their chicken.

Quota is allocated on a provincial basis under the national supply management program, designed to stabilize prices for both farmers and eaters by managing production based on market demand. Supply management keeps farmers – instead of large agribusinesses such as Tyson or Cargill – in control of chicken, dairy, eggs and turkey in Canada.

Chicken – along with dairy, eggs, and turkey – are all foods produced under supply management.

Over the years, however, conventional chicken quota has become extremely difficult to access for new entrants. Quota is awarded to new entrant applicants by lottery, and although quota is issued for free, successful applicants must have the capacity to raise over 200,000 kilos of chicken year round – a size much too large for the average specialty quota holder.

As a result, supply management has become a system accessible only to a few large farmers.

Through quota exemption, smaller farms can raise up to 999 birds outside of the quota system. Over the last few decades however, interest has been revived in production methods and breeds not suitable for the conventional supply-managed system.

As a result of this food renaissance, many new and small farmers are eager to make their livelihood partnering with eaters in the creation of local food systems, but the constraint of quota exemption levels determined by supply management makes it difficult to meet demand and make a living.

Thus, farmers need solutions that reflect the reality of their operations.

One farmer at the meeting in St. Norbert was concerned that requiring farmers to own land and buildings would leave his children – who rent his land and buildings – ineligible for the new program.

Indeed, the capital investment required for quota allocated yearly makes it difficult for any young or new farmer to access. Like any growing business, farmers who raise speciality chickens need multi-year plans to ensure they have the tools to succeed.

Others pointed out that raising chickens on pasture – a method increasingly desired by farmers and eaters – doesn’t require the use of buildings at all.

The disconnect between the new program and the current reality of producers had many farmers questioning the program design consultation process. Hiltz stated that input was gathered from 85 producers along with two small-scale food groups. However, none of the farmers present at the meeting were consulted, and members of both groups reported inadequate consultation or no consultation at all.

The Manitoba Chicken Producers also failed to consult with Direct Farm Manitoba, the newly formed group responsible for representing the interests of small and direct-market farmers.

“Direct Farm Manitoba worked to bring potential producers to hear MCP describe its program and how it might fit smaller producers,” said Phil Veldhuis, president of Direct Farm Manitoba. “I think most producers were pretty frustrated.”

The Manitoba Chicken Producers needs to return to the drawing board, engage in meaningful consultation and develop a program that allows for the food system that Manitobans deserve.

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