Cathryn Atkinson @ Abbotsford
Monday June 14, 2004
Bradner community hall in British Columbia is packed with dozens of angry farmers, owners of small-scale organic poultry flocks that have been slaughtered by Canadian government vets. After the discovery of avian flu at a factory farm north of here, 17 million chicken, turkeys, ducks and geese were ordered to be gassed or shot, and the cull is nearing completion.
Many present at the meeting believe that organic poultry farming in British Columbia is doomed, and rumours of a class-action lawsuit have some bubbling with desire for retribution. One after another, they take to the podium to offer their testimonials and to decry the unhealthy industrial farming practices that place up to 85,000 broiler chickens in each factory-farm barn and make epidemic outbreaks difficult to avoid. Some mutter darkly of "Farmageddon".
As her home was a mile from the site of the initial outbreak, Stella Purdy's award-winning show flock of 132 Black Polish chickens were among the first to be killed, in a portable gas chamber set up in her driveway. They were later found to be free of contamination.
"They gassed them eight at a time," she says. "I couldn't stand to watch so I left, but when I came back and found the barns and incubators empty, I looked around for an escapee, an egg, anything. I found out later that my son did exactly the same thing. There was nothing, of course."
She mentions one lucky friend, whose hand-reared pheasants and cranes won a reprieve thanks to a pair of rare Hawaiian nene geese. When vets served notice that the collection was to be killed, they were told by endangered-species groups that the geese were half of the total North American population. The bureaucrats retreated, and her flock has quietly dropped off the cull list.
"Many of us think it might be a good plan to start breeding nene geese to avoid all this next time," says Stella.
Out of 140 farms represented at the meeting, only two still have birds. The first flock, situated on a Canadian armed forces base that is currently being used by the US army for "Iraq stuff", is definitely out-of-bounds. This leaves Paddy Head's 35 specialty hens, which have been kept in complete isolation since the outbreak began. Conveniently, they are to be gassed in the morning, so those present agree to hastily organise a blockade.
Early the next day, when the Canadian food inspection agency vets arrive at Head's isolated farm, 20 protesters are already blocking access and promise an indefinite 24-hour watch. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are called in, and an uncomfortable stand-off seems likely. But after consulting their bosses in Abbotsford, the officials and police leave, promising to return the next day.
On my drive home, I overshoot the turn-off that takes me west to Vancouver. Realising the mistake, I pull up in front of a nearby elementary school to make a u-turn on the deserted country road. As my car turns, I see something strange and hit the brakes.
In a ravine across from the school is a farm comprising six large metal warehouses. Next to them is a plastic-covered monolith, around three storeys high and half a football pitch in diameter. Keep-out signs are in abundance, but the stench works better than any notice.
I've stumbled on a factory farm, composting its mountain of dead poultry under thick plastic tarpaulins. The local dumps and incinerators have been unable to keep up with the carcasses, so tens of thousands are left mouldering on the farms that were supposed to process them in quite another way.
A moment later, I am on the right road, but the smell of rotting bird flesh chases me for another kilometre.