When the tide goes out, Nova Scotia’s Cobequid Bay recedes into a muddy plain so shallow you could walk across. It’s nature’s daily demonstration that changes can be swift and dramatic.
This lesson is not lost on the Jennings, whose Bayview Poultry Farms straddles the Cobequid coast. They–along with thousands of farmers–are going through a period of unprecedented transition in the egg industry.
Glen Jennings is the boss of the operation, and a good one. He smiles broadly and laughs warmly. Glen’s 21-year old son Blake works the farm with dad. “Blake was born a farmer,” Glen beams. “Blake knew this was what he wanted to do since he could walk or talk.”
“It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle,” Blake says. “I get to be here with my family, to argue occasionally,” he chuckles.
Glen’s father Cecil Jennings, the family patriarch, has been working on this plot since the 1940’s. Back then Bayview Farms was home to about 4,000 hens. Cecil vividly recalls the labour needed to feed thousands of chickens by hand. “The feed was handled five times per day.”
But the struggle was not just physical. Raising healthy hens was a constant battle. In the outdoor flocks of that era hens faced endless threats. Then came what would eventually be known as conventional housing.
“That was all new technology for the betterment of the birds,” notes Glen.
Conventional housing brought another game-changer: automation. Feed and manure removal that once required human hands could now be moved by mechanical belt. “It was amazing not just because of efficiencies,” Glen notes, “but for labour. We were freed up to do other things. All of a sudden we could go camping on the weekend. Before we couldn’t do that.”
A few years ago, Glen decided to replace one of his two barns with an enriched housing system. It offers more space and amenities for birds. Glen loves it. “We see the difference between the two,” he says. “Not just the numbers–better feed efficiency and lower mortality. The birds are ten times happier in enriched housing.”
Glen and Blake want to convert their remaining conventional barn to enriched housing. But contemporary controversies have made their course unclear. As some companies announce they will only source eggs from cage-free farms, the Jennings find it harder to picture what the future holds.
Asking Glen what would happen if he had to convert to cage-free, our conversation takes a dark turn. “You’re talking about a huge investment. I don’t even know if we could,” Glen remarks sadly. “That might just be the ticket to put us out of business. Is there even enough of a market for cage-free eggs?”
Simultaneous to the debate over hen housing is a debate over the future of supply management, policies that ensure a fair selling price for farmers. For Glen, supply management is simple: “If the border were to open without supply management, we would lose our market.”
Cecil remembers the days before supply management. “Wholesalers might give you spot price or they would quote you something smaller, “ Cecil recalls. “That’s what we had to live with. You didn’t know one week to the next what you were going to get.”
For Blake, the issue is black and white: “I don’t have a future without supply management.” But a future under supply management, and the right to continue expanding the farm with enriched housing? Blake calls that future “bright.”
Through five generations, the Jennings’ industry has changed like the tide of their Bay. But they would never pick any other life.
“I’m proud of this farm because of family,” Blake says. “Five generations on this farm, sticking together.”
“I’m proud to have a son and grandson taking over the farm,” Cecil emotionally admits. “Otherwise the farm wouldn’t be here.”
Will their farm still be there, years from now? If Blake has his way, it will be. The Jennings have thrived through five generations. They are ready for what’s ahead.