Chicken for Dinner

I am allowed to grow a small number for my own use, but if I tried to sell the eggs or the broilers in any quantity, I would be visited by a chicken policeman in a big black Ford.

March 31, 2013 | | Fence Posts

The other night my wife and I went out to a dinner party. On the doorstep she paused, took my arm and said quietly in my ear, “Try not to talk about your chickens too much tonight, will you?”

I said, “Why not? Compared to gravel pits, wind farms and children, I thought they were a pretty safe subject.”

“In your hands chickens are not a safe subject.”

I suppose she has a point. Chickens have been an obsession of mine since I was eight years old. On our farm, my brothers and I raised meat birds and laying hens to feed the family and sell to the neighbours. I gave them up when I moved to the city to start a career, but when I bought my little farm and moved back here to raise a family, the first thing I did was build a henhouse.

Every spring I incubated a new batch of chicks, combing through the classified section of the Feather Fancier to find exotic breeds. Chickens are a bit like stamp collecting because their names reflect the countries they come from. Every chicken is descended from African jungle fowl originally, but ships and sailors over thousands of years have carried them to every corner of the globe. In my time I’ve kept Spanish Minorcas, Araucanas from the mountains of Chile, Black Javas from Indonesia, Polish mopheads, Nanking bantams from China, game birds from India, Canada’s own Chantecler, and many others.

When the days get warmer I move my birds into portable pasture huts that I drag to new ground every day so the birds can feed on fresh clovers, trefoil, worms and bugs. Because they live in the sunshine and get dollops of fish meal and flaxseed added to their grain, the eggs and meat are jammed full of Omega 3s and…

But there, I’m talking too much about my chickens again. It’s hard not to because they are addictive. The other reason I like them is because all you have to do is look at a chicken and you begin to understand how the world works. (And that’s another reason we go to dinner parties, isn’t it?)

An old farmer once said to me, “There’s no money ever came out of a henhouse. Every chicken I know died in debt.”

That might have been true in his day, but since then the chicken industry has exploded to become one of the most quietly profitable sectors in agriculture. Today the revenue from the global chicken industry rivals what the United States spends on defence. And the genetics of the world’s broiler industry are now controlled by three multinational corporations. They only produce one breed now, a hybrid built by a committee working behind closed doors for more than half a century. Forty billion of these mystery chickens passed through the world’s food system last year.

We are a brotherhood with a secret handshake and decoder rings. We labour in solitude like medieval Irish monks in lonely outposts. Illustration by Shelagh Armstrong.

In Canada, the industry jealously guards the keys to the fortress. I am allowed to grow a small number for my own use, but if I tried to sell the eggs or the broilers in any quantity, I would be visited by a chicken policeman in a big black Ford. You’d think by now the multinationals would be too big to worry about a playwright with a henhouse and 14 hens. But you’d be wrong. Big business has learned to be very wary of writers.

I once sat beside the leader of the chicken farmers at an industry banquet and I pointed out to him that he already controlled 99.3 per cent of the chickens in the country. “Do you really need every single last chicken?” I asked. In a very genial and pleasant way he replied, yes, that is what he needed.

Being a dangerous radical by nature, I continue with my henhouse and my pasture-hut chickens and my exotic breeds. I drive through the dead of night to get a space on the Mount Forest racetrack for the Fur and Feather show every spring. I meet fellow fanciers in Tim Hortons’ parking lots and furtively exchange cash for paper bags full of hatching eggs. We are a brotherhood with a secret handshake and decoder rings. We labour in solitude like medieval Irish monks in lonely outposts, copying out the sacred texts so they will not be lost in a godless era…

But there, that’s enough about my chickens. How are the children? Doing well, are they?

About the Author More by Dan Needles

Author and playwright Dan Needles is a recipient of the Leacock Medal for Humour and the Order of Canada. He lives on a small farm in Nottawa.

Comments

3 Comments

  1. Dear Neighbour,
    I’m new here. I came with the passion for an experiment in Living with Less: A Richer Life. That’s the book that will be one of the results. My work as an artist is nearly exclusively focusing on the recycling work, which serves me well as a metaphor for our personal waste in my counselling practice. Lately, I have been immersing myself in a “growing” movement called “occupy gardens for world peas”. Public space = public food is the idea. My partner and I have been investigating this transplantable idea and chickens play a part. I guess my thinking is that it ought to be a constitutional right for someone to secure a protein source for themselves and their family. Big business and the smaller corporations they own called governments have been getting pretty heavy handed. I rejoice in finding kindred spirits in the pages, in the sheds and in the shadows. Thanks, Mr. Needles.

    Lianne Snow, The Recycling Queen

    Lianne Snow from Canada on Apr 8, 2013 at 9:18 am | Reply

  2. Loved this article. I would like to give a little insight on Ontario Chicken Farmers. Every Chicken farm in Ontario is owned and operated by independent families. Canada has a quota supply management. This means that chicken farmers control the amount of chicken being produced in Ontario. If this system ceases to exist there would be no quality control and every independent chicken farm would go bankrupt. Ontario Chicken farmers are consisted the cleanest in the world. Hormones of any kind were banned in Canada in 1978. Supply Management also keeps the cost of chicken low. You pay more for Chicken in the US and they use hormones in the feed. It takes 6 to 8 weeks to grow a bird in Canada and 3 to 6 weeks in the US. Big corporations like Tyson own most if the farms in the US and they hire farm managers. I am very proud of the fact that I have been an Ontario Chicken Farmer for over 20 years.
    Sonya Vannetten , past Ontario Chicken Farmer

    Sonya Vannetten from Port Perry On on Apr 8, 2013 at 9:38 am | Reply

    • In response to Sonya, yes you are right about supply management being important, but it does NOT keep the cost of chicken low, it does the opposite. Just like dairy (also on the quota system), chicken in Canada is more expensive than in the US because we don’t flood the market with supply. A simple supply-demand curve will show how increased supply with stable demand lowers price. This is why dairy farms in Canada tend to max out around 500 head, while in the US 5000 head is common. Basically, without supply management, a farmer must produce more product to make the same amount or money. If the pork industry had supply management, they wouldn’t have face the problems they have over the past decade. In addition, supply management does not control quality.
      Great point about the independent families; farms are just that, small family-run businesses. Although there are some corporate farms, many farm families have sales contracts with corporate buyers to secure sale/income.

      Tara Walsh from Guelph on Sep 24, 2013 at 2:09 pm | Reply

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