Rudy Reimer is thinking about his chickens, but feeling more like a sacrificial lamb.
His operation, which has been operating under a special permit since the late 1960s, will be penalized under a new specialty quota program being rolled out by Manitoba Chicken Producers because it no longer fits the new guidelines.
Existing producers will not be grandfathered at their current production levels under the new program set up to accommodate small-scale operations.
“We were not expecting this,” said Reimer. “The marketing board and (executive director) Wayne Hiltz often used our farm as an example, as a model for other producers… we didn’t think there would be a problem.”
Watersong Farms, near Warren, was granted an exemption of 25,500 birds per year when Manitoba formed its own chicken-marketing board. The original exemption granted to Reimer’s in-laws nearly half a century ago called for the production of roasters — not broilers — and the farm has been selling roasters directly to consumers ever since.
Reimer said the narrow production window allowed under the new regulations makes the new program unworkable on his farm.
New entrants to the annual specialty quota program must begin with 10,000 kg of live weight production, while existing permit holders will be granted up to 30,000 kg.
Watersong Farms produces about 75,000 kgs from 16,500 roasting chickens. That’s 45,000 more kilograms than the chicken producer’s board is willing to grant them under the new program.
Reimer said reduced processing capacity is the reason the farm isn’t raising the 25,500 birds its current exemption allows.
“We don’t do our own slaughter here anymore, we used to, but that has been part of the other change because we were anticipating that all chickens would have to be government inspected and our facility at that time had a permit that required us to be non-inspected,” he said, adding he also believed the existing facility could be retrofitted to process the rainbow trout the farm now produces.
So while the farm now has a provincially licensed meat- and fish-processing facility, it is no longer set up for chicken slaughter.
“Now we take our chickens to Waldner’s in Niverville, but it’s an hour away, so I mean we would like more options as far as the processing,” he said, adding the cost of transporting the birds to slaughter has already resulted in passing additional cost onto the consumer.
Slaughter capacity in the province is a huge issue for him and other producers, as only one of the three inspected slaughter plants accepts specialty birds. But it’s the decision to cap specialty quota at 30,000 kg that is most limiting.
Initially, existing exemption holders were offered the chance to produce beyond 30,000 kg per year by purchasing broiler quota that would then be converted to specialty quota. But at a cost of nearly $500,000 and a moratorium on resale for 10 years, Reimer said the offer wasn’t tenable.
“No bank was going to lend us money to buy this quota, not with a moratorium of 10 years,” he said. “So under this new program they say, OK, we understand that you wouldn’t be able to get financing, so to work around it, what we’re going to do is you are going to pay us a penalty levy basically… so it’s like you’re leasing quota.”
The Manitoba Chicken Producers set that levy at 40 cents per kilogram of live weight production over the 30,000-kg specialty quota limit. For Watersong Farms that means making an additional $17,500 per year to keep production at current levels.
Given that Reimer has already increased prices to comply with the move to government inspection, he said he’s not comfortable increasing prices again by at least 25 cents per pound. He notes he has always paid the standard two-cents-per-kg levy to the board.
He would like to appeal the board’s program, but said he is being stymied by bureaucracy and indecision on the part of the board.
“We tried to appeal that first rollout,” he said. “But what you need is for them to say no, say no formally, so you can go back and appeal to the Manitoba Farm Products Council. The thing is, they never gave us a formal no, they said it is a work-in-progress kind of thing and then they went back and they brought out this new specialty quota program.”
That lack of a formal no, means they have been unable to file an appeal, Reimer said.
“They are playing games and hoping that we are just going to capitulate,” he said. “And some of the other guys are almost ready to do that because this is the mentality that they have worked with for so many years. The board has always been very authoritarian, they basically said you were only operating under our goodwill.”
Reimer doesn’t agree with the Manitoba Chicken Producers’ position that it is trying to satisfy a relatively small market demand.
“There is a lot of demand for this market, this niche market,” he said. “Niche markets are not only necessarily the way the chickens are produced, or the way they are processed. Niche markets are also about building a relationship between the consumer and the farmer, the consumer who just wants to have contact with the person who is touching their food and producing their food.”
Despite being prohibited from advertising their product, Reimer said they sell out of chickens continually, selling about 99 per cent of their birds from the farm gate.
“We could sell more, other producers could sell more… this market is not full,” he said, noting that his birds are not organic or pasture raised.
“We talk to the consumer, we answer their questions about antibiotics or hormones… that is what they want,” said Reimer. “Now they are going to dismantle it all.”
As of December 31, all existing exemptions under the special market development and servicing policy, as well as the annual farm site marketing permit system, will be cancelled.
The Manitoba Chicken Producers were asked to comment, but did not respond by press time.