Sunday, November 24, 2013

Pastured Hens

Is an egg laid by a free-ranging hen different from an egg laid by a hen on a traditional Nova Scotian poultry farm? Is it better for you? Is it better for the hen?

This seems to be the issue these days as a small farmer from Kings County tries to save the 800 laying hens that he has been keeping on his farm. The NS Egg Producers Association want him to reduce his flock as he is not allowed to keep more than 100 laying hens without buying quota. The farmer says that he cannot afford to buy quota and besides, his eggs are in greater demand than conventionally farmed eggs. He says that the system is unfair.

This issue revolves around the concept and practice of supply management, whereby certain agricultural commodities are removed from the free market and instead protected by a system that matches demand with supply. In other words, in Nova Scotia (and Canada) we only produce as many eggs as the marketplace needs, and producers are guaranteed a reliable price for their product. Same for broilers, turkeys and milk.

Another small Valley farmer is complaining in the Halifax Herald that there is too much red tape surrounding the sale of agricultural produce directly to consumers. In this particular case, the farmer's words seem to be code for "we are not allowed to sell raw milk".

In fact, the rules and regulations in Nova Scotia surrounding the sale of agricultural produce directly to consumers are remarkably lenient and flexible. The difficulty seems to come when alternate, small-scale producers approach the size and volume of traditional farms and can no longer sell all of their production directly, and have to enter the retail marketplace. And that's where they run up against marketing boards and food safety regulations.

In Nova Scotia it is perfectly acceptable for a livestock producer to slaughter livestock on the farm and sell the meat to customers who come to the farm gate and pick it up. One of my neighbours likes to cure his own bacon so he buys pork cuts from an area farmer every fall. The farmer must sell directly to the consumer (and not to retailers), the meat (or eggs) must be picked up at the farm, and the farmer may not have a facility resembling a retail shop.

We also have very generous regulations surrounding the sale of agricultural products at a Farmers' Market. The market must register (for free) with the Food Safety Division of the NS Department of Agriculture, and the market must then advise the NS DAM of the vendors that are selling Schedule "A" foods. These are foods that would typically be refrigerated, meaning that they pose a higher risk to public health. Schedule "A" goods are such things as cheese, eggs, inspected meats, prepackaged meals, meals (typically breakfasts) prepared onsite, prepared sandwiches, prepared salads and coleslaws, coffee, tea and other drinks made from local water, and similar products that represent a modest health risk if not prepared and stored properly. Schedule "A" vendors must secure a permit (about $35 per year), and their setup at the Farmers' Market will be inspected at least once per year.

Schedule "B" goods are low risk items like vegetables and fruit, honey, maple syrup, chocolate, fudge, candy, baking, jams and jellies and preserves, etc. No permit is required for these goods and the vendors do not need to register.

Schedule "C" goods may not be sold, and these include unpasteurised milk, uninspected meat, home-canned meat, low-acid preserves like salsa, and a few other items.

These regulations do not interfere with direct commerce. At my local (rural) Farmers' Market I can buy all manner of goods and no vendors complain of excessive regulations. We have several CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farms in the area and some use their market presence to deliver their weekly allotments, although eggs and meat are subject to the regulations described above.


The supply management system creates a sheltered market for producers, where the amount of the commodity that may be produced and sold is closely matched to the demand for that commodity within the provincial market (and the national market to some extent). The number of eggs produced commercially is managed by controlling the number of laying hens in commercial flocks through the quota system. The egg and milk and turkey producers set their price (broiler producers negotiate their price) and we are assured of reliable and good quality meat and eggs at a reliable price. But that price is not set so high that it becomes a license to print money. A retired egg farmer told me that he had to be a good, efficient, competent farmer to make a living from his egg quota. He had to use the best husbandry and disease-control methods to keep his losses modest, and he often needed to grow much of his own grain to keep his costs down and to manage his manure handling. He worked long hours but had a fair return on his labour and on his investment.

I regularly read comments in our newspapers about how inexpensive milk is in the USA, but it's always useful to look a little closer at these free markets. Most dairy farmers in Eastern USA would love to be a part of a supply management system because it keeps the larger and distant producers from flooding local markets, and it keeps the large retailers from playing suppliers off against each other. I have seen comments from Connecticut farmers who say that from day to day they never know if their price will cover their production costs. Large producers can also undercut farmers who are trying to use sane and responsible husbandry practices. For example, Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) can increase the milk yield from dairy cows but its use tends to "wear out" the cows sooner in their life cycle. Big industry has enough clout that labelling regulations forbid a clean producer from indicating that his milk is BGH-free.

During the big debate over supply management systems during the NAFTA negotiations of the 1980's it transpired that the state of Georgia could easily develop enough capacity to supply the entire Canadian market for milk. They pasture cows year-round and do not need to put up 200 days of hay and silage.

In the American egg and poultry industries the control by huge corporations is almost complete. A typical chicken farmer in southern USA owns his barns and provides the labour but a vertically-integrated corporation owns his soul. The chicks are supplied, the feed is supplied, and 45 days later the grown birds are carried away to slaughter. If losses have not been too great there will be profit left for the farmer. If the corporation chooses not supply feed and chicks the farmer is left with no source for birds and no market for grown poultry even if he managed to raise some.

The most impressive aspect of supply management systems is that these sectors are almost completely unsubsidised by tax dollars. It is no secret that the agricultural sector in the western economies are very heavily subsidised, especially in Europe and the USA. Subsidies keep the price of food low and keep huge grain farms in business. There are lots of subsidies in Canada as well, but almost none of it flows into the supply managed sectors. In essence, consumers pay the full and entire cost for their dozen eggs. According to a recent CBC report some American lawmakers are looking into supply management as a way of reducing the huge subsidies that the government now gives to the industry.

Some countries, including Australia and New Zealand, have recently abandoned their own supply management regimes with mixed results. In both countries the farms have gotten bigger and more "industrial" and the number of farmers have dropped. Retail prices for milk have not dropped substantially but the returns to farmers have dropped. The difference seems to have become absorbed in the middle.

Perhaps the most important reason for keeping the supply management system is that it supports family-sized farms and strengthens the the rural economy. There is little incentive for large corporations to industrialise these sectors. Preventing seafood processing companies from owning fishing licenses accomplishes a similar goal.

Allowing new entrants into the supply management system has traditionally  been accomplished through the marketing boards selling some of the unallocated quota in small chunks. As the market grows new quota is distributed among the provincial boards and some of that new quota is sold to newcomers. In the past the milk marketing board would sell enough quota for one or two cows. This amount was too small to be really economical but it allowed the newcomer to get into the business and buy more existing quota if he chose. Not long ago the turkey board made quota room for small-scale free-range turkey growers. It is likely that the egg marketing board will do the same thing for pastured hens.

In the meantime perhaps the best way for small producers to get along might be to stay just under the limits for supply-managed products, and sell meat and vegetables and fruit directly to the consumer. That way everyone wins.

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