Two chicken inspectors showed up at a farm in Southern Ontario not long ago. They flashed badges and inspected the premises and, sure enough, they found what they were looking for: chickens. About 100 of them, wandering across open pastures, pecking at bugs, worms and blades of grass.
The inspectors quickly put a stop to all that. They told the farmer to get rid of his chickens or face the consequences. Then they visited other nearby farms, issuing threats of fines (up to $10,000 a day), and leaving more than one Amish farm wife in tears.
These were not police, RCMP or public-health officials. They were employees of the Chicken Farmers of Ontario, the body that represents Ontario’s roughly 1,000 chicken farmers, and they have the legal right to “inspect the books, records, documents, lands and premises and any chickens of persons engaged in producing or marketing chickens.” In other words, they can carry out chicken busts. And on this particular bust, their suspicions were confirmed: Delicious pastured chickens were being sold without quota.
Quota is a legal requirement for marketing chickens, turkey, eggs or cow milk in Canada. Without it, the simple bucolic act of selling a block of farmstead cheese or several dozen eggs at a farmers’ market is against the law. It’s been this way for almost half a century. If you want access to the market, you have to pay for it. And access isn’t cheap.
This kind of arrangement is better known as a cartel. Cartels fix prices. Usually, they’re illegal, but not in Canada. In fact, when it comes to poultry, dairy and eggs, not being part of a cartel is illegal – as many an Amish farm wife can tell you.
The Canadian food cartel goes by its own special name: “supply management.” Critics have charged that supply management makes food disproportionately expensive (especially for the poor), cripples our agricultural sector and is holding us back from entering lucrative trade deals with Asia.
But here’s what hasn’t been said about supply management: It is the enemy of deliciousness.
If you have ever wondered why you can buy heritage chickens such as the famed poulet de Bresse in France but not in Canada, or pastured butter the colour of an autumn sunset in Ireland but not in Canada, or why it’s so hard to find pastured eggs here, the reason is supply management.
Great ingredients, as any good cook will tell you, come from small producers who lovingly tend their flocks and the land that sustains them. These artisan producers – the very people attempting to make food local and sustainable – are stifled under supply management because it requires the one thing these starry-eyed pastoralists almost always don’t have: money. A single cow’s worth of dairy quota, for example, costs about $27,000 (up to $40,000 in B.C.). Quota for one egg-laying hen can cost upward of $200.
Now do the math. A tiny egg farm of 500 hens (a typical Canadian farm has 20,0000 or more) can cost more than $100,000. (Exact prices and rules vary across provinces.) Ontario’s minimum allotment of chicken quota – 14,000 units (or about 90,000 birds a year) costs $1.5-million. And a tiny herd of 10 dairy cows costs more than $250,000. How many small farmers have that kind of scratch?…”