By Brandy Harrison
KEENE — Roger Harley was so confident his animal welfare standards are top notch that he invited the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) over to do a checkup.
“You go to farmers’ markets and butcher shops and everyone is claiming something,” says the Keene farmer, who nabbed SPCA Certified approval last fall for Harley Farms, about 15 minutes south of Peterborough. “If you’re saying something, you better be able to prove it. Animal welfare is the backbone of what we do.”
Harley’s livestock — including 700 outdoor Tamworth pigs — are raised on about 1,000 acres of pasture on a seven-year, fertilizer-free rotation.
SPCA Certified is a third-party farm certification and food-labelling program launched in 2002 and managed by the British Columbia SPCA. Harley Farms is the first certified farm in Ontario, with 22 others split between Alberta and British Columbia.
The voluntary program pushes the envelope on farm animal welfare. Developed by a panel of animal welfare scientists, veterinarians, and farmers, its standards exceed the national codes of practice, which have made great strides but have room for improvement, says the program’s manager, Brandy Street.
“It was created in response to the mechanization and intensification of farming. Even though it produced cheap food, it often compromised animal welfare,” she says. “We think the bar could be raised a bit higher. The standards are not out of reach or impossible. We keep practicality, feasibility, and affordability in mind.”
Under the program, gestation stalls and farrowing crates can’t be used for pigs. Egg-laying chickens must be free-range and have nest boxes, perches, and dust bathing areas. Dairy cattle must be outside at least 150 days per year, tie-stall setups are prohibited, and calves cannot be weaned before seven weeks.
To apply, beef, dairy, sheep, hog, turkey, chicken, and egg farms fill out an application detailing their animal welfare practices, followed by an on-farm inspection by an independent evaluator, who has an agricultural background, is trained, and job shadows someone experienced. There is no overlap with investigations staff, says Street.
“It wasn’t just a five-minute walk around,” says Harley of the three-day visit to his farm. He gave the evaluator a map and free rein. “We didn’t know where she was or what she was up to.”
The final stamp of approval is given by a third-party review panel, and the SPCA can help farms which fall just short, says Street. Farms are inspected annually, with 10 per cent randomly audited.
There is a fee of between $400 and $1,000 annually, depending on farm size, but there are discounts, says Street.
Using its red barn label can help farmers tap into a premium market — Street has seen SPCA Certified eggs sell for $8 per dozen.
Harley agrees. Animal welfare has overtaken organic or antibiotic-free as the consumer issue du jour and his niche market has meant a 15 to 20 per cent premium for his meat, he says.
Harley, who also has approval from the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C., is hoping the certifications will fuel an expansion. He opened an on-farm store in June.
It wouldn’t be possible without the right genetics, says Harley, who emigrated from the United Kingdom in 2000 and also raises 800 grass-finished Wiltshire sheep and 140 Belted Galloway and Hereford cattle with his wife, Julie, and his children, James and Emily.
The pigs are a prime example. Tamworth pigs were built to be outdoors 365 days per year.
It’s not without challenges. Harley transports 1,000 gallons of water per day in the summer for the pigs, which also need electric fencing, mobile housing, and a hydraulic trailer to move them.
“If you’re not prepared, it can cause more trouble than it’s worth,” he says. “The further we moved along, the easier it got. Our piglet size has gone up every year, there are fewer mortalities, and they’re finishing quicker.”
It’s not for everyone, Harley says, admitting some farmers are leery about the SPCA. But they’re not the bad guys, he says.
“Everybody has the wrong impression and hears the bad things they’re doing. They are doing a lot of good.”