Renting hens is far from central to our business, but it is the most profitable thing we do. And even at that, it's not a make or break part of the farm. But it does fulfill a value I have of promoting food awareness and food security. It brings agriculture to those who would otherwise not know where to start, not have the opportunity. It builds confidence in people to try things like gardening, canning, try other livestock, start to notice the difference in the quality of food. It gets people thinking about the food their food is eating, which is something most people don't do.
Yes, renting hens is a cute story and a cool side hustle, but last year we opted not to do it because of the new threat of avian flu.
I had decided that this year, I would give it a go, on a smaller scale. Partly because the demand was SO high and because there haven't been any cases of the flu here in domestic birds. There were lots of wild bird cases in the sea around the Island last year, but none managed to infect the thousands of poultry that live here. So I felt like maybe it was ok to give it a try again.
Until we had a little visit from someone representing the perspective of the egg producers board. It was a very cordial visit and ended on good terms but it was clear that how we're farming is a threat to the livelihood of others, farming differently. We're within a couple kilometres of a couple egg farms who would be affected if my farm was affected. Although, similarly for me, should they get it.
And when I say affected, they could be forced to depopulate (euthanize) their flocks. Same as me, should they get it. Or similarly, if one of my rental hens should get it, it could be decided that my flock is a threat, even if the rental hen is in Souris and then we're all 'depopulating' (what an odd euphemism).
While renting hens may not be a cornerstone of our farm profitability, making feed is, and that business could be halted if avian flu is found here due to vehicles being unable to move on and off the property. Kind of hard to sell feed if it can't leave the grounds. Let's not even begin to talk about all the folks who come here to get their feed for their backyard hens.
So here I am stuck between a rock and a hard place. The pressure and risks of avian flu which may or may not happen and the potential to introduce the love to hens to a bunch of new folks this summer and foster a love of real food connection.
I lean more and more into libertarianism as I get older and if I lived in the states, I'd likely be laughing in the face of something like the egg board, renting more chickens than ever just out of spite. But I want to be a good neighbour. I want to ensure we keep our feed business going. I don't want to feel like a threat to an entire commodity. I also want chickens to live lives outdoors. I want folks to experience cracking a still warm egg for breakfast. I want kids to train a chicken to follow them around. I want folks to ask what's in their chicken feed and care about the answer.
I can't help but wonder if our egg and chicken industry in North America is so incredibly vulnerable to a disease because we've built it around breeding of chickens that are designed for one purpose and have no ability to cope with exterior threats? So much so that the barns are airtight, light-tight and so biosecure that workers have to change clothes to go in. What a surprise that they might be vulnerable to different pathogens.
I suspect that Avian Flu will become like Covid is for us now. Always in the background, a real threat to some and less concerning to others. Does it mean I will never rent hens again? I'm sure some would hope that would be the case.
So what do I do? Forego the few thousand dollars and share my values in other, less effective ways? Or snub my nose at the 'guidelines' and my neighbours and send my little hens across this sandbar, spreading the chicken love, one feather at a time?