When my wife and I go out to a dinner party, she often stops me on the doorstep and says, “Try not to talk about your chickens too much tonight, will you?”
Compared to a lot of tricky subjects like Donald Trump, wind farms and the children, I would have thought chickens were a pretty safe subject. But she disagrees. “In your hands, chickens are not a safe subject.”
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 writing 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. All chickens are descended from African jungle fowl originally, but ships and sailors over thousands of years have carried them to every corner of the globe. There are 108 breeds of chicken in the sixth edition of the British Poultry Standards. In my time, I’ve kept Spanish Minorcas, Araucanas from the mountains of Peru, Black Javas from Indonesia, Polish Mop-heads, Nanking bantams from China, game birds from India, Canada’s own Chanticleer 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 that 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 modern world works.
The revenue from the global chicken industry worldwide rivals what the United States spends on defence . . . and two companies now control the genetics for today’s meat chicken and laying hen. There is really only one kind of broiler now, a hybrid that has been built by a committee working behind closed doors for more than half a century. Forty billion of these chickens passed through the world’s food system last year.
You can buy a bluefoot LaBresse chicken in France for about $50 and the stores there do carry a free-range Label Rouge chicken, but everywhere else in the developed world, the Cornish-type hybrid prevails in every supermarket and restaurant.
In Canada, chickens are a great business if you have $3 million to get started. That’s what it costs to set up in our supply-managed poultry system. 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 % of the chicken in the country. “Do you really need every single, last chicken?” I asked. In a very genial and pleasant way he replied that, yes, that is what he needed.
Since that time, cooler heads have prevailed. Ontario’s chicken marketing board recently loosened its stranglehold to allow limited production of artisanal chicken between 600 and 3,000 chickens annually (through a production licence) for select target markets such as local farmer markets. The small flock radicals have grown considerably quieter since that significant small step.
In the meantime, life goes on for my brethren in the Blue Mountain Poultry Club. We carry on with our little henhouses and our pasture hut chickens and our exotic breeds. We drive through the dead of night to get a space on the Mount Forest racetrack for the Fur and Feather show every spring. We meet fellow fanciers in Tim Hortons parking lots and furtively exchange cash for paper bags full of hatching eggs. We have a secret handshake and decoder rings. We labour in solitude like medieval Irish monks in lonely outposts, copying out the sacred texts so that 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?
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca.