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?
The resulting lack of agricultural diversity is a story told on store shelves across Canada. At my local butcher shop, the choice of chicken is limited to standard factory birds and "natural" factory birds. South of the border, by comparison, delectable breeds such as Plymouth Barred Rocks, New Hampshires and Jersey Giants can be found at farmers' markets, butcher shops and on the Internet.
At the Washington, D.C., fine food store P&C Market, shoppers can buy superbly flavoured pastured eggs produced by Joel Salatin, the activist farmer who was profiled in the documentary Food Inc. At my independently owned local supermarket – which sells some of Ontario's best local produce – all the eggs come out of industrial barns. No wonder. Quota for Mr. Salatin's hens would cost more than $500,000. If he had the misfortune of being Canadian, as he put it himself, "I would not have entered the egg business."
Pastured eggs, poultry and milk are the rage of the food world right now, and for a single reason: flavour. A heritage chicken takes three times as long to get to roaster size as its factory equivalent. What it lacks in speed, it makes up for in taste. It's the same story with pastured eggs and dairy. They are all textbook examples of slow food.
Slow costs money. Heritage chicken varieties cost more than fast-growing factory birds. Frank Reese – a fourth-generation Kansas farmer who raises legendary Silverlace Wynadottes, Jersey Giants and Plymouth Barred Rocks – charges $4.99 a pound at local stores. Mr. Reese and his partners raised 30,000 heritage chickens last year, which in my province, Ontario, would cost about $600,000 in quota. "There's no way we could afford that," Mr. Reese told me by phone. "We'd have to charge $25 per bird, and at that price, who would buy them?"
In other words, the quota system works for low-margin, high-volume factory operations. But it puts the price of artisanal products in the domain of the 1 per cent.
There is one bright spot in Canada's food landscape: cheese. Thanks to a policy loophole, cheese makers can get around paying for quota as long as they can prove their cheese doesn't taste like any other Canadian cheese (otherwise it would take away market share and upset the price fixing scheme). To qualify, cheese makers send applications and samples to Ottawa, where a team of bureaucrats sits in judgment. If the cheese is deemed "innovative," permission to produce the cheese granted.
It has nothing to do with quality. Numerous superb cheeses have failed because they tasted similar to cheeses that already have quota. Thanks to supply management, none of those cheeses will ever make it to your cheeseboard.
But there at last may be hope. The rumour in Ottawa is that Stephen Harper – perhaps the world's most unlikely champion of slow food – is considering scrapping supply management so that Canada can be part of a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. It's nothing more than backroom talk, at this point. But if it happens, this country's reputation for blandness – at least when it comes to poultry, eggs and dairy – may finally start to change.
Special to The Globe and Mail