City to Country Virtual Tour #3: Introduction to Supply Management

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Author: Carolyn

Posted: June 25, 2012

Categories: City to Country / Food in the News / GoodFoodBites / Growing Good Food Ideas / Virtual Tours

By Kendal Donahue, Sustain Ontario

Once we had loaded onto our bus, my group “Supply Management,” did a quick round of introductions. Everyone on our tour was from pretty diverse backgrounds. Our roster included a Ph.D student from the U of T, a journalist, the executive director of FoodForward, a professor with the U of T, an employee of St. James Food Basket, Barbara Emmanual of the Toronto Food Strategy among many others……

While riding toward our first destination, we shared what limited information we knew about supply management with the rest of the group. Since most of us had only a pretty basic understanding of marketing boards and the quota system, the conversation was helped along by one of our facilitators, Janet Horner, who had a great deal of personal experience to draw from (being a farmer and coordinator with the GTA Agriculture Action Committee).

Our first destination was the Altona Lea dairy farm in Blackstock, Ontario. Glen Barkey, the owner and our tour guide for the morning, explained that their farm has been a family-run operation since 1978. The Barkeys’ 50 cows produce about 56 kilos of butterfat a week. One of the most interesting things I learned on this tour is that the value of milk is measured in two parts. Farmers are paid a higher amount for butterfat ($14 per kilo) over milk protein ($12 per kilo). Since there is a surplus of milk protein, the milk industry markets it to other businesses. For example, it sells milk protein to companies that manufacture protein bars, chocolate ‘beverages,’ and frozen desserts (since these drinks and desserts are made mainly from milk protein, they can’t legally be called chocolate milk or ice cream).

Another really interesting thing we talked about was the quota system. One unit of quota (which allows the farmer to produce one kilo of butterfat per week) costs about $25,000. While this is the lowest of all the provinces, it can be a major barrier for new entrants. On the other hand, it also provides farmers within the quota system a good price for their product and a relatively stable income.

While at the Barkeys’ farm, we also went on a tour of the barns.  We first got to see the newborn calves.  They were so cute!  After that we were led to the milking barn, where we were given a demonstration of how the cows are milked. No more Old MacDonald’s farm, these cows are hooked up to machines that measure the milk coming from the cows and automatically disconnect when the milk slows to a certain flow.

The tour finished with more questions and we eventually had to be wrestled back onto the bus so that we could get underway to our next destination: the Blackstock model cage-free egg farm.

As part of the tour, we toured an old egg grading station. The facility used to house about 90,000 chickens and receive eggs from other farms that they would clean, grade, package, and ship. According to the owner and tour guide, Svante Lind, he became increasingly bothered by how facilities like his treated their chickens. Once he retired, he sold all of his chickens and closed the grading station. He has since sought out a partnership with the University of Guelph where the university will be using his facility as a research site on how to best transition existing facilities into a scaled-down and more humane operation.

While on the tour, we were given the rare opportunity of looking into one of the buildings that hadn’t yet been cleared of battery cages (usually visitors aren’t allowed in because they might expose the chickens to disease). I had heard how horrible these kinds of cages are for birds, but I was still shocked by how cramped and densely packed they were, how dark the room was, and how terrible it smelled.

We also got to see an adjacent building that had been cleared of all its cages and will be used as a research site. The plan is for cameras to be installed in the building that will allow for 24 hour monitoring. Students that intern at this facility will, for instance, be testing out different kinds of nesting designs, what kinds of animals can be used in protecting chickens from predators when they go outdoors, and how much longer famers will be able to keep their chickens.

According to Stuart Jackson of Verified Eggs, Svante’s assistant, one of the biggest challenges that farmers face in transitioning to cage-free operations is the existing cost of quota. Currently, the cost per bird is about $200. Since farmers with un-caged birds have to have a lot fewer birds, Svante Lind, would like to see a separate marketing board set up where farmers could pay a lower quota price per bird.

The last stop was Cooper’s farm, a family-owned, organic farm. One of the most impressive things about the Cooper’s farm is how diverse it is. They grow brussel sprouts, strawberries, tomatoes, eggplants, okra, pumpkins, broccoli, and many other beautiful vegetables and fruits in their fields. They also have a small flock of layers and broilers, a community supported agriculture program (fruit, vegetable, and meat), a 10 acre corn labyrinth, a farm store and roadside stand, a stand at a farmers’ market and a pumpkin ‘U-pick’ among their many revenue streams.

One of my favourite parts of the tour was when we went to see their layers. The way the Coopers raise their chickens was really impressive. They keep the chickens outside in large shed-like cages with wire mesh around the sides and a roof over head. Every day the shed is moved about 20 feet on pasture and the birds gorge anew on all the pests in the field while also fertilizing them. The problem the Coopers face is in expanding their egg production. Demand is no problem but they find the price of quota to be a real barrier. Their argument is that small farmers like themselves that don’t specialize in one commodity (and that supply a specialty market) should be exempt from having to purchase quota.

It was getting late in the day when we finally boarded the bus to head back to Toronto. I felt really lucky to have been able to spend such an exceptional fall day out in the countryside. All the farms we went to were wonderful and our hosts were very knowledgeable and accommodating. Admittedly, I didn’t know supply management would make for such an awesome tour!

To read more accounts of this tour, check out the blog “Learning about Supply Managment on the City to Country Tour”  by co-facilitator, Melissa Matlow, of the World Society for the Protection of Animals  or see the City to Country album  and blog “Farmers Feed Cities (and Make Music?)”  by City to Country participant, Orla Hegarty.