Today’s stop on Scott’s Cambridge Listening Tour: Mark Hermann, local Chicken Farmer at ‘Whistlebare Poultry Farm’ in North Dumfries.
Farming is close to my heart. My Dad grew up on a farm in northern Saskatchewan. Living in a log house, he didn’t even have electricity until he was 18. But farming taught him discipline, patience, and a respect for Nature and the Earth. Above all, it taught him about hard work and persevearance.
I visited Mark and his family chicken farm this week, and had a conversation with him and his son Jonathan about community, the passing of his chicken farm down through generations of the Hermann family, and what it’s like to be connected to farming in a world that’s becoming increasingly technological, and under environmental stress.
Here is some of our conversation. Thank you for teaching me about your farm, Mark and Jonathan!
1) Mark, tell me about your farm. What’s its history?
“My parents were immigrants to Canada from East Prussia. Once the Russians took over that area, they fled here. My Dad was a carpenter, and he started in Cambridge by working at the furniture factories up in Hespeler, building houses as well. My Dad bought this farm himself in 1967, and at that time we had only one old barn with some cattle and chickens. In 1989, with the industry growing, we built a new barn, and I took over the family farm.
2) How big is your farm?
We have two other farms down the road, about 24,000 square feet each. About 65,000 chickens there, and we have 75,000 chickens here. And we’re looking at about 900 acres of land in total.
3) For residents living in cities, what IS chicken farming?
We specialize in receiving chicks out of their eggs. We get them at day 1, and it’s our job to raise them right, to be healthy, and to be the right target weight (about 2.3 kilograms). It’s an 8 week cycle from chicks to chickens, and we get about 140,000 chicks in here every 8 weeks!
4) What’s the market like for chicken farmers?
It’s always changing, and we have to be dynamic and adaptable to the market. Consumers are very health conscious these days. There’s a focus on organic food, and ensuring the microbial components are safe. But overall, it boils down to the cost of the chicken. Organics, as we know, are more expensive, and conventional chicken’s still cheapest, so it flies off the shelves.
5) Is it a challenge keeping chickens healthy?
Just like people taking penicillin, we’re incredibly cautious about giving chickens anti-biotics and anti-microbials, because there’s always a danger of creating unintended microbial resistances. Taking antibiotics, chickens can’t be shipped, and there’s a lot of paperwork needed. They’re required to avoid and prevent outbreaks, and they provide more control.
6) June and July were some of the warmest months in recorded history. Has this affected your farming?
It’s a struggle with high temperatures and high humidity, especially if the birds are market-ready! At 25 degrees Celsius, it’s great for market weight. But if the barn gets too hot or too cold, chicks are lost, unfortunately. So these days there are big advances in barn construction, such as using new venting systems and ‘evaporative cooling’ water systems to keep temperatures safe without consuming as much energy. Energy efficiency is extremely important.
We’re as concerned about the environment as anyone else. We live here too! So, we have our environmental plan; we know every field, and we do tests of soil, water, food, to make sure they’re safe. We rotate our crops, harvest our own wheat, and even use ‘green’ manure on the crops that creates more organic matter in the soil. Our barns now have special energy-efficient ‘solar walls’, and out lights are all LEDs. Everything we do is environmentally friendly, and geared towards saving energy.
7) What are the issues that farms face today?
Farms are still independent, and run by individual families. Local independent farmers feed cities. It’s become more expensive, and more technical, but it’s still local food for local families that we grow.
Our local concerns include the expansion of construction and housing into the greenbelt. Here, sometimes it feels that farming takes 2nd or 3rd place to worries over gravel pits and subdivisions. These are important issues, it’s true. But once you take a farmer’s field and turn it into a subdivision, you’re never going to get that field and that food back – from its beauty, to its drainage, to its ability to grow food, not only is it gone, but now you have 4000 car trips being taken on roads beside farms. Can we handle that?
So we need more thought put into the relationship between agriculture, infrastructure, and development. For example, what if we developed the downtown cores of Cambridge, instead of expanding outwards into farmland?
On the government side, supply management and trade agreements need to be protected, but tightened up. Technically we allow 10% imports, but in reality it’s 20% after certain rules are bent by other countries to get their products in here. The government needs to strike a balance of letting the market operate, but protecting the limits they’ve set to a greater degree.
8) What message about farming do you want Cambridge residents to hear?
Farmers sometimes get a bad or unfair ‘rap’ in the media because of reports of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), or unsanitary practices, or whatever. But these are cases where one bad operation creates stereotypes affecting thousands of good farmers.
Farmers are passionate. We do what we can to help out our communities. We’re not out to harm anyone, and we follow regulations and safety protocols for our animals, so people that we feed are safe too.
Farmers have a drive to do better, to connect with their family’s land, and to contribute to their community.”