Niche chicken program grows

The artisanal chicken program supplies local markets and allows farmers to diversify

Chicken Farmers of Ontario’s artisanal chicken program continues to grow, with 2018 participants close to double the first year of the program, launched in 2016.

The program was created after calls for the CFO to be more responsive to demands for chicken produced locally, using methods alternative to conventional broiler barns.

Why it matters: The program allows farmers to fill local markets, but they also have to maintain biosecurity and food safety protocols, helping protect the rest of the provincial flock.

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“The communication we’re getting from CFO is that they’re really happy with the program and they want it to grow,” said first-year Artisanal Chicken Program participant Brittney Livingston, who, along with her husband Andrew Mazurka, raised 780 meat birds on their farm near Hillsburgh in three separate batches between spring and fall of 2018.

CFO committed to eventually set aside five per cent of Ontario’s annual market growth for artisanal chicken.

The application Livingston and Mazurka submitted for 2019 requested doubling that production, and given the success of their first-year artisanal chicken endeavor, Livingston can foresee doubling that again in the future.

Producers who comply with CFO’s biosecurity and food safety protocols and have their production and marketing plans accepted, can raise between 600 and 3,000 birds over one year. Marketing options, according to CFO policy, include “farm gate, farmers’ markets, specialty butcher/grocer, specialty restaurants and online/home delivery.”

The initial 2016 application process saw 80 non-quota-holding producers approved. Last year, the total number had almost doubled to 149. The numbers are spread evenly throughout the province, a fact that was particularly heartening to local food advocates in much of northern Ontario, where quota-holding broiler production is non-existent.

“Across Ontario, artisanal chicken farmers are successfully satisfying consumer needs for variety and small batch-inspired options,” CFO communications and marketing manager Kathryn Goodish told Farmtario.

Chicks take a drink at the Livingston-Mazurka farm.
photo: Courtesy Brittney Livingston

Livingston and Mazurka didn’t step far outside conventional practices they knew from past experiences growing up on and working on dairy, beef and egg farms. When planning the construction of a barn on their property to house five horses in 2016, they factored in chicken-raising potential by including additional space at the rear of the building.

“We don’t have any specific label that we apply, like ‘organic’ or ‘GMO-free’,” Livingston said. She stressed, though, that their production methods do differ from conventional broiler barns in terms of natural lighting and natural ventilation.

“What we do like to say is that we raise our chickens in the way that we believe they’ll be the most healthy. We like to say they’re happy chickens.”

The program, though, did open the door for the production and marketing of chickens with non-conventional labels.

Katrina McQuail fits into that category. The Lucknow-area certified organic farmer was one of the original program applicants approved back in fall 2015.

McQuail was initially wary that requirements brought by CFO to the program might reflect a bias toward large-scale production. The smallest of Ontario’s quota-holding broiler producers, she notes, might raise 20,000 or more birds per flock.

But having now experienced three years of CFO-mandated paperwork and two on-farm visits by CFO auditors to assess compliance with biosecurity measures, she outlines a willingness of the supply management organization to join with the farmers in growing into the program.

“They have been making some modifications to the requirements,” McQuail said of the CFO rules, to reflect the realities of small-scale production. Plus the paperwork, she discovered, isn’t much more than what she’s accustomed to in maintaining certified organic status.

Information sharing a priority

Regardless of the specialized label (or lack of a label) attached to the packaged chicken, said Livingston, there has developed a sense of unity among artisanal chicken program participants. This was evident, she said, during a day of workshops hosted by the CFO in Alliston at the beginning of November.

Although invited guest speakers included Aviagen’s Dr. Scott Gillingham addressing “Early Chick Performance” and poultry celebrity “Mike the Chicken Vet” (McKinley Hatchery’s Dr. Mike Petrik) talking about humane euthanasia, the most lively discussion ensued during panel discussions featuring artisanal producers themselves.

“People just love to talk about their chickens,” Livingston said. “Sure, everybody’s farm might be different, but we all have the same sort of goal in mind. We all want to have healthy animals and produce food that’s good for you.”

Artisanal is often seen as an evolution of the CFO’s Small Flock Growers Program. Many current artisanal producers, including both McQuail and the Livingston/Mazurka team, had previous experience raising a maximum of 300 meat birds for family, friends and neighbours through this farmgate-only, no-advertising-allowed approach.

The small flock program, though, remains essentially unchanged under the rebranded title the “Family Food” program.

According to Goodish, “the Family Food program is not intended to be used by commercial farmers and is designed for personal consumption.”

The CFO communications manager added there are more than 15,000 registered small flock growers in Ontario with an average annual production capacity of 60 birds.

The biggest factor in the transition from the Small Flock program to Artisanal Chicken production is the ability to interact with potential consumers. For Livingston, it took only a printed flyer placed at a nearby on-farm market, along with some creative social media posts, for a flood of interested consumers to speak for virtually all of the family’s original placement of chicks.

McQuail was able to begin to satisfy a huge demand for chicken among the on-farm and Goderich Farmers’ Market customers for beef and lamb from her family’s Meeting Place Organic Farm. In the past, they could offer only a limited number of birds and only if the customers asked for it.

Processing challenges

Some program participants wonder about the ability of small-scale poultry processors in Ontario to keep up with what seem to be growing demands.

Meeting the specific requests of those consumers, though, dictated that both families must move beyond the “Small Flock” approach of processing. Reaching out through a CFO-managed closed Facebook group of artisanal chicken producers, Livingston was told repeatedly their best option if they want to provide more than whole, frozen birds would be a midwestern Ontario processor located more than a 90-minute drive away.

“The processing part is a bit tricky,” she said of artisanal chicken participation, a sentiment shared by McQuail. Indeed, both identified processing limitations as the biggest challenge of their enterprise.

Livingston now drives past three other small-scale processors when travelling to and from that often-recommended option, and the waiting list is so long they’ve already booked their 2019 and 2020 processing dates even though they don’t have confirmation about how many chickens they’ll be approved for through the CFO application process. McQuail, too, has booked her farm’s 2020 dates, at a different processor than Livingston’s because their requirements for further processing have also increased since joining the artisanal chicken program.

“This isn’t to diminish those other (processing) plants. They do a great job,” Livingston said. “But they don’t do further processing…. (And) if you want (your chicken) to look good whether it’s fresh or frozen, as whole birds or cut into pieces, there really isn’t any other option.”

McQuail believes local chicken processors, too, could benefit from modifications to food safety and biosecurity requirements so they’re more suited to small-scale businesses. She identifies that as a possible next step in allowing the artisanal chicken program to continue to grow.

For now though, despite her initial misgivings about joining a program governed by a large-scale supply management organization, she’s satisfied.

“It really feels like (CFO) wants it to be successful.”

For information on the program, visit the Chicken Farmers of Ontario website.

About the author

Contributor

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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