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Why farmers should care

The debate over backyard poultry taking place inside Winnipeg these days seems far removed from the real world of agriculture.

A coalition of citizens is asking the city to reconsider its refusal to allow urbanites to produce eggs in their backyards.

They aren’t being taken very seriously. If Councillor Grant Nordman is any indication, the motion put forward by Councillor Harvey Smith was nothing more than fodder for corny jokes.

“From all the dumb clucks at City Hall, thanks for coming,” Nordman told an audience representing the farm and agricultural community at the Oct. 30 Harvest Gala banquet. He noted he was asked to bring greetings because Councillor Smith was too busy “guarding the henhouse.”

“Don’t worry boys, we’re not going in that direction,” Nordman said, as if backyard henhouses represent a threat to mainstream agriculture.

Opponents cite all kinds of reasons why this shouldn’t be allowed, most of which don’t hold up to scrutiny. For example, some say the birds could reproduce out of control and go feral. In the absence of roosters, that’s unlikely. If someone’s flock escaped into the wild, it’s also unlikely it would survive the winter.

A few clucking hens or, for that matter, the occasional bleat from a goat roaming a fenced backyard make less noise than a barking dog or a lawn mower. They produce less waste, and they recycle vegetation, including the dandelions people fear will take over if the province goes ahead with a cosmetic pesticide ban. You could argue they are nature’s own “weed and feed” with the added bonus of producing edible byproducts.

But there are legitimate concerns over food and public safety and animal welfare. Chicken coops that aren’t kept clean can attract rodents. Birds can catch diseases which can be transferred to humans.

And hens can live a long time, up to 14 years. What’s the plan for them when they are no longer productive, or their human caretakers grow tired of being tied down? Pet rescue organizations in U.S. cities where backyard poultry is allowed have noted a spike in poultry surrendered. They’ve also seen birds that have been simply set free to fend for themselves, which usually ends badly.

But that’s not why farmers should care about this issue. Nor should they worry that somehow urban egg producers might cost them sales.

The reason why this issue is important to the agricultural community is that it speaks to a much bigger reality — the yearning by people generations removed from the farm for a closer connection to their food supply.

As outlined in the opinion piece we carry this week from Paul Chorney of Food Matters Manitoba, “local food movements and urban agriculture are making a comeback everywhere as more people reach out for an authentic connection to the food that they eat, whether that is through growing and producing their own, or preserving fruit and vegetables for the winter, or through knowing the farmer or fisher who has provided the bounty we take for granted.”

Farmers and agri-industry may have confidence that ever-evolving technology will continue to keep the human race a step ahead of Malthusian predictions, but people dependent on a steady paycheque and grocery stores for their daily bread feel vulnerable in the face of extreme weather events, more expensive energy and wobbly global economies.

And while farmers and agri-industry routinely complain city people don’t know or care where their food comes from, they quickly become defensive and circumspect when people do start asking questions.

While much of the world focused on this past week’s U.S. presidential race, a far bigger question was on the line for the food industry. Proposition 37 in California would have required foods derived from genetically modified crops to be labelled.

The proposition, which by most assessments would have resulted in clunky rules that were difficult to enforce, lost by a measure of 53 to 47 per cent of votes.

But it was an expensive fight, with major agribusiness companies pouring an estimated $45 million into advertising to quash this bid. That’s more than the Mitt Romney campaign spent in the last weeks of campaigning.

The Yes side did remarkably well with its meagre $8-million war chest. In fact, until the big spending began in ernest, it looked like the proposition would sail through to an easy victory.

The point is, the “foodies” aren’t on the fringe anymore. They are a powerful force as capable of influencing policy as the environmental movement.

Farmers need to decide for themselves whether that represents a threat, or an opportunity.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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