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Eggs-asperating!

It is interesting to look back at the history of the organic egg industry here in light of the current struggle organic milk producers are having. More persecution of the small.

Fred Reid was an organic egg producer, the largest in BC, with a healthy customer base. His operation, Olera Farms went organic in 1986. The organic chickens that laid the eggs also kept weeds and plant debris in check around the raspberries and vegetable crops as they foraged for food. Their manure then fertilized the plants and even supplied other farms with natural fertilizer. In an organic system, everything works together to feed and sustain each other.

When Reid first started producing organic eggs, there was no infrastructure to support the selling and marketing of the product. So he and a few other farmers worked hard and spent a lot of money to set up a federally inspected grading station, a distribution system and find a market.

In 1998, the BC Egg Marketing Board (BCEMB) approached Reid and told him he would have to buy a quota. He argued that his eggs were not the same commodity as conventional and would not benefit from their system. In fact, buying a quota from them at $80 to $100 per hen would mean he’d have to raise the price of his already dear eggs by a buck a dozen.

According to the British Columbia Farm Industry Review Board (BCFIRB) web site (originally the BC Marketing Board), the boards were set up in the mid 1960’s to promote, control and regulate “the production, transportation, packing, storage and marketing of natural products, or the prohibition of the same.” In BC there are currently eight marketing boards administering “schemes” (they actually use this word on their web sites!) on milk, eggs, chickens, hogs, turkeys, veggies and cranberries. Large-scale conventional producers sit on these boards calling the shots. So the very bodies designed to help farmers sell their product also cater to the big. They react harshly to anyone seen as infringing on their territory and are quick to take legal action. The organic sector in particular has been harassed and persecuted.

Organic eggs are in fact different from conventional eggs. That is to be organic, the hens that lay the eggs have to be eating an organic diet with no animal proteins (mmmm love that ground mad cow) or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They can’t be chugging antibiotics or showering in pesticides. Their living conditions are quite different from their conventional cousins too; a luxurious two square feet of barn space minimum and six hours of grazing and running around in the yard a day. Organic standards are even more stringent than for free run layers. Because of the added care and expense given to organic hens and their eggs, customers pay a premium, about twice as much as for conventional.

The BCEMB was suing Olera Farms for over $93,000. Reid decided to take on the marketing board and its unfair quota system. In an open letter to his customers, he wrote, “I find it extremely frustrating to be faced with a legal battle that will cost close to half a million dollars to defend a type of agriculture that other countries have committed millions of dollars to encourage.”

The quota system regulates the amount of eggs produced with respect to market demand. It also buys up any surpluses to ensure supply never exceeds demand and the price doesn’t come crashing down. A quota is roughly determined by a producer’s average sales over three to five years. There are national agencies that govern trade between provinces as well as export trade. This quota-based supply-management system for commodities (note that they don’t call it food, but a thing that is bought and sold) is used around the world and manages to concentrate power in the hands of a few big corporations.

Only a small number of eggs (or layers or broilers or turkeys or milk) is permitted to be produced outside of the marketing board system. The markets have changed a lot since the inception of the boards especially with the rise of organics, but the marketing schemes have not. Organic producers object to being regulated by a conventional system and especially to paying levies that actually support a system that not only doesn’t support them but flies in the face of their values. Organic grain farmers have lobbied for years for self-governance. In Reid’s case, he did not want to support the inhumane treatment of hens in cage laying production for one. He and others are also concerned that if conventional producers control the organic industry, it will lead to the erosion of standards.

The Certified Organic Associations of British Columbia (COABC) tried to negotiate with the BCEMB for three years, proposing an independent organic egg marketing board. But their request was denied. In spite of a petition of support for an independent organic industry with 7000 signatures and a letter writing campaign that blasted the Ministry of Agriculture with 60 communications a day, the provincial government still backed the ruling.

The organic market is still just a small slice of the overall market, so why would it be perceived as a threat we might ask? Reid believes the marketing boards are fighting so hard for control because having the organic market under their thumb allows them to limit promotion of a form of agriculture that is alternative to theirs and perhaps one that casts a shadowy light on their practices.

After the COABC lost its battle, Reid was forced to shut down, an enormous loss to the organic industry and its customers. Organic poultry and milk producers are fighting the same battle. Read the eggs-asperating story in Reid’s own words here. And to make sure you’re buying certified organic eggs, check out Chicken Out, a project of the Vancouver Humane Society. Rabbit River is a safe bet.

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