Monday, June 17, 2013

Something to Cluck About!

I love to eat... but not just any food, but delicious food. I'm not talking about the kind of food that you slather salt and sauces on, but tastes delicious when simply prepared with minimal ingredients and even more delicious when dressed up just a wee bit with something more complex and fancy.

I've never considered myself a picky eater but since I started eating local grass-fed beef when I was studying at Waterloo, it's been a reluctant return to the industrial kind. My journey with animal protein has been a back and forth battle with me starting out eating whatever was put on my plate... because it was there. I didn't ask for it but I rarely declined it either. It was my parents providing for their children and nothing more, really. I am not unappreciative of their actions but I've also learned a lot. I remember growing-up and enjoying beef (in particular) and other meats less and less. I actually preferred the "cheapie cuts" like liver (of all creatures), gizzards, hearts, hocks, tendons, (pork) skin, feet (pork again) and wings... over the "prime cuts". There was a moment in high school where I flirted with the idea of going ovo-lacto vegetarian because I was becoming put-off with the idea of killing an animal to consume its body. But try being a teen and living at home with carnivorous omnivores; it didn't last and was nearly impossible to accomplish.

When I left for university, things changed a bit... I had more autonomy over my meal choices and like all first year frosh, I got careless then skipped meats in favour of less stellar vegetable dishes. I didn't know why I was put-off with what little I knew about why our food tasted the way it did but I was. During my first co-op term I got the opportunity to look the beast that is the commodity meat system, in the eye, well a glimpse anyways. I worked in an abbattoir with the QA department testing the microbiology requirements. It was months before I decided to eat pork again.

Sometime last year, I stumbled upon the website of the Culinarium. This little shoppe in the Mount Pleasant area is a hidden gem that promotes and makes available, local Ontario grown food that is sustainably raised and grown. The story goes that the founder, Kathleen McIntosh, was visiting a west coast friend who was raving about deliciously BC grown this or that. Kathleen realized that Ontarians don't really feel similarly about their local food and decided to do something about it and the Culinarium is born.

One of the main programs that the Culinarium runs and I have been enjoying for two seasons now is their "Chicken Shares Program" through a local farm, Nyman Farms in Picton, Ontario. Their chicken is raised in small flocks in the traditional way by letting the chickens outside to eat the grass, bugs, worms and whatnot that is available through nature--the way it was meant to be. I bought a large share last year and was getting six birds every month for six months. I tried the first chicken and I was hooked. The texture, taste and satiation gained from eating this chicken was bar none the best chicken I've ever experienced.

The few people who were lucky enough to buy a bird from me always came back to tell me that the chicken they cooked (regardless of the method) was amazing... tasted like the chicken of their childhood or was simply delicious (one told me that their spouse thought it was a small turkey!). You might think, this must be some sort of special breed; I assure you, it's not. These are the same birds that farmers raise for meat and the only difference is the method in which they're raised. It's as if you can taste the time, effort, sweat and tears that went into raising these birds to market. The clincher is learning that these chickens I'm purchasing are actually... illegal.

Last week, the Culinarium hosted a get together session to educate clients about the way chicken is raised on the Nyman farm, the politics surrounding raising commodity animals and what us normal people can do about making this more readily available to us. The first thing that we learn is that in Canada, certain food commodities are regulated by "supply management" in order to ensure that there is enough food raised for consumers and to ensure that independent farmers are paid a fair market price for what they raise. The foods that fall into this category include: meat chickens, eggs, milk; to name a few. Farmers are required to buy "quota", which dictates how many animals they're able to raise. The quota can be traded like stock and are often passed on from generation to generation of farmers (or so I've read...).

We focus on the chicken marketing boards. There is a national marketing board and each province has their own marketing board; Ontario's marketing board is the leader for a province that is the largest producer and consumer of meat chickens in the country. You'd think that with this characteristic, the marketing board would be far more complex in terms of their supply management but it isn't terribly complex: currently, for meat chickens, you can either buy a minimum quota of 90,000 birds for $1.75 million or raise 300, without buying any quota.

Economically speaking, if you're going to buy the quota, you're going to maximize your quota and turn these creatures into commodity products. And that's how most store bought chicken is raised: as commodities to maximize economies of scale. Now, there's nothing wrong with a business maximizing their operations and make healthy profits but at what cost? We all know that when you do things en masse, quality often suffers; in addition to the inability to humanely monitor each animal; especially since animals don't all act predictably nor uniformly.

On the other hand, if you choose to raise a smaller flock, you're only allowed to raise 300 and only sell these chickens at your farm gate. This is not economically viable by any means. I can't imagine a farmer to be able to make a proper living off of raising 300 chickens and being unable to bring them to markets. However, note that this current situation is only in effect in Ontario. Other provinces seem to have higher quota limitations which a farmer can buy... generally something that is reasonable enough to allow for a living. In addition, anyone who wants to get into farming is completely limited in terms of being able to reasonably get started since the start-up costs are astronomical!

What can you do, to support local farmers/economy and advocate for tastier options? Check out the petition that is advocating for change in the way the supply management system is set-up for meat chickens in Ontario: !!!


  1. yes these chickens actually taste like chicken! with real meat flavour! even the breasts are good. I wish we could have more of these real chickens which are healthier too.

    1. they are so super delicious! all the farm to fork meats i've been buying are incredible quality and taste. we should visit these farms since they're often very open to visitors.. unlike their larger corporate buddies.