Chicken Soup For The Future Soul
A sure sign of spring is the sudden nosedive in takeout orders for our cold-and-flu-busting ginger-chicken soup. Though we've never made any claims about its curative powers, perennial consumers swear it always does the trick. We think it's because we start with a warm, soothing broth made of the healthiest, tastiest chickens we know: the plump, organic beauties under the care and feeding of Brad and Karen Reid of Thomas Reid Farms in Langley. They're also the birds of choice for many of the city's top chefs and home cooks.
Surprisingly, despite this popularity and healthy attention, there's a real chance that, even with a red-hot market for better-quality chicken, Reid and his flock may not be able to continue.
The British Columbia Chicken Marketing Board has government-mandated control of all chickens that cross provincial roads and, to date, it's maintained the point of view that a chicken is a chicken, no matter what it eats or how and where it lives. Therefore, organic producers are legally required to play by the same rules as the bigger/faster/cheaper factory farms that supply brands such as Maple Leaf and Lilydale.
Though once cogs in the conventional machinery, Brad Reid says he and his family went over to sustainable organic production a decade ago. Since then, the Reids and other producers have survived by working outside the system, marketing their birds directly to local restaurants and retailers, all the while lobbying the BCCMB to develop a fair market for the decidedly different, free-ranging, antibiotic-free, and increasingly popular organic chicken. "We invest significantly more [than the conventional farms] to raise birds this way, and yet the current rules force us to spend even more to also subsidize the billion-dollar factory system," Reid says. He admits, though, that that very system offers desirable benefits, such as the financial security of guaranteed markets, that every farmer should enjoy.
Given the philosophical gap, Reid adds that many of his meetings with the marketing board have been less than cordial. In fact, the tussle between Reid's organic team and the BCCMB has been very dynamic and complex, with a variety of tactics used on both sides. At this point, however, Reid would rather be formally exempt from the system and go it alone. "Should the BCCMB be prepared to fairly administer the organic segment, encourage organic production, and grow the market, we'd have no problem being part of the system," he says. "But they've had plenty of time to develop a policy on organics, so we feel they've forfeited their responsibility and should let us go."
For now, time is on Reid's side. With 100-plus friends and supporters on hand, he and Karen walked out of B.C. Supreme Court on January 14 beaming ear to ear, having convinced the judge to uphold their appeal of a BCCMB penalty (for nonpayment of fees).
In another fortuitous bit of timing, the province's Farm Industry Review Board has asked all food-commodity marketing boards to report later this month on their current programs and projected plans for organic and specialty products. A spokesperson for the board told me its goal is, in part, to "determine whether fundamental changes to the marketing-board system may be needed to help stimulate these growth sectors".
However, this doesn't necessarily spell freedom for Reid and his chickens. Even though the marketing board recognizes that demand for organic chicken is growing 30 percent per year, it still represents less than one percent of the total market. But, says Jim Beattie, general manager of the BCCMB, "five years ago the market for those popular antibiotic-free, no-animal-byproducts chickens like Maple Leaf Prime was also very small, so the niche-market item could become the product of choice in five years' time." With that kind of potential in the wings, Beattie says the BCCMB ought to maintain its control of all B.C. chickens "to benefit all farmers and consumers alike".
So it's time for us chicken-soupers to have our say. Tell your local grocer you want more real choice in chicken, not more chicken parts. "And tell your MLA to tell the marketing boards to grant us exemption or start managing organics fairly," Reid says. "Either way is fine with us."
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