“We’re in the right place at the right time. There’s a growing number of people who are interested in the quality of their food.”
– PAM HEATH
Interest in obscure breeds of livestock, abandoned in past decades amid the push towards ever-larger farms and highly specialized production agriculture, is making a comeback.
Local membership in Rare Breeds Canada, a volunteer-based, non-profit group which hopes to save endangered chickens, pigs, cattle and horses from the very real threat of extinction by eating their meat, drinking their milk, spinning their wool, and putting them back to work on farms, has tripled in the past year.
“We’ve gone from eight members to 24,” said Pam Heath, the new national secretary for RBC’s board of directors and also secretary of the group’s livestock committee.
An official Manitoba chapter could be in the works, if members wish to take that step, she added.
“The more the merrier, I say. Certainly, we hope for more members, because if people become members they are more active and more involved.”
Membership in Alberta and Saskatchewan is growing as well, she added, noting British Columbia has had an official chapter for many years.
RBC, which has about 400 members across Canada, including 259 in Ontario alone, is holding its annual general meeting in Manitoba for the first time in March.
Heath, a tireless organizer for the cause, is an artist and farmer from Nesbitt, who raises Tamworth hogs, Shetland sheep, and an assortment of weird and wonderful poultry, including Welsummer and frizzy-headed White-crested Black Polish chickens.
Originally from Britain, Heath’s family has always raised heritage breeds of livestock, and a cousin back home still raises one of the few remaining herds of Irish Moiled cattle.
Unwilling to stand idly by as the genetic treasure trove that endangered livestock breeds represent faded into history, she began networking among local farmers several years ago in a bid to generate more interest in breed preservation.
“We’re in the right place at the right time. There’s a growing number of people who are interested in the quality of their food,” she said.
Internationally, the rare and heritage breed conservation movement is growing as well, as the local and slow-food movement gains momentum. New statistics from the USDA show that for the first time in decades, the number of small farms in the United States is growing faster than large operations.
For many niche farm operations catering to local markets, offering “food with a face” – to use the term invented by American small
farm guru Joel Salatin – is a good fit with rare and heritage breed preservation efforts.
Instead of concentrating on commodity-style production, where the old adage “pile it high and sell it cheap” is the prevailing strategy, such operators use a range of marketing methods to increase their net margins per sale.
The lesser-known breeds offer built-in stories which add value by giving the sellers more leverage in terms of product differentiation.
“We don’t sell the steak; we sell the sizzle,” said Heath, quoting one of her fellow board members at RBC.
However, she added that even commodity producers could benefit by using rare breeds as terminal sires to add hybrid vigour to their calves, lambs and piglets, for instance.
Heath and Aust in-based Rural Route video producer Martin Penfold have recently begun consultations with government on the development
of an educational package with a supporting DVD on agriculture in general, and a special emphasis on the need for breed preservation that would be shown to schoolchildren across the country.
The RBC AGM will be held in Brandon starting at 9 a. m. on April 4 at Canad Inn’s Ambassador Room.
The AGM will be preceded by a banquet 7 p. m on Friday, April 3 at Brandon’s Riverbank Discovery Centre, featuring chef-prepared locally grown produce and rare breed menu items, including Highland beef, Clun Forest lamb, Tamworth-Berkshire cross pork and Ridley Bronze turkey.
Banquet bookings a re by ticket only, and 34 of the 64 seats have already been booked, she said.
Rare Breeds will also have an information display the entire week of the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair, from March 30 to April 4, which will share space with a wheelwrighting demonstration by local marine engineer-turned carriage builder Brian Reynolds, owner of Celtic Power in Rapid City, along with his wife Eileen, who will be on hand to show visitors how wool is spun into yarn. [email protected]