TFC Celebrates 40 Years

A look back at the history of turkey production and the development of the Turkey Farmers of Canada
Nick Van Allen
December 09, 2014
By Nick Van Allen

 Numerous past chairs were able to participate in TFC’s 40th annual meeting in Ottawa

On March 20th, 2014, in the halls of Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier Hotel, a gathering took place. Members of the Turkey Farmers of Canada (TFC – formerly the Canadian Turkey Marketing Agency – CTMA) enjoyed a luncheon and speeches to mark the 40th anniversary of the TFC. At the assembly were past TFC chairs Brent Montgomery, Eike Futter, and others. Mark Davies, the current chair, also recognized former chairs not in attendance, some posthumously. Here we take a look back at the origins of the TFC, its present and its future.

A few flocks and beyond
Turkey farming was once a sideline activity for farm families. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, according to British historian John Martin, turkey production was a seasonal activity undertaken “often as an adjunct to farming.”1 Many small-scale producers in Canada, Britain, and the U.S. kept flocks in order to make extra cash that was essential to family incomes. Farm women, who did the majority of the work, found that turkey rearing was an activity that fit well with their daily tasks. Since turkeys often wandered about poultry yards kept near farmhouses and fed upon “insects, mast, and other food on their own,” the women could complete other chores while rearing the birds, or instruct children to care for them.2

Soon, farming men and women became captivated by the possibilities that the turkey offered. Agriculturalists worked on better breeding and raising methods, enhancing quality and quantity. In the United States, by 1890, American farms housed 11 million turkeys, showing the popularity of the product among progressive farmers. However, as of 1910, less than a third of them remained. According to environmental historian Neil Pendergast, the decline was owing to the high levels of production that “courted disease;” blackhead had made its way through American farmland, from the east coast to the midwest, reducing producers’ flocks.  Agricultural scientists investigated solutions to the disease, and in doing so carried turkey farming out of the hands of small-scale farmers and into that of larger agribusiness. Over the next two decades farmers even developed turkey ranches, putting the “production of domestic turkeys on a new scale.”3  

Poultry Production in Canada to the 1960s
During the Great Depression, many Canadian farmers could barely put food on the table, but national concern for turkey production wasn’t far off. According to former Canada Poutlryman editor Fred Beeson, in the 1930s “it was enough” that producers “could scrape up sufficient food” to feed their families so poultry production remained small scale throughout the provinces. However, as Jim Knisley stated in a 2013 issue of Canadian Poultry, “when the war happened, it all changed.” Canadian farmers rushed to the service of the British cause — poultry production was a part of that effort. By 1945, for example, The Canadian Yearbook cited nearly 3.4 million turkeys produced on Canadian farms, whereas in 1927 the number had been only 1.9 million – farmers had doubled their turkey production in less than two decades.4 Canadian governments and farmers organized controls and systems to encourage such production, bringing poultry farming into centre stage.

Following the war, Knisely said, “no one was certain what would come next.” Neo-liberal economists and other businessmen called for a return to the free enterprise system and the removal of government influence. Many poultry farmers enjoyed the stability that wartime agricultural management brought them, but Canada remained non-committed to the idea of an official national production system in the face of such calls for a return to laissez-faire economics. Even though Australia was able to establish an egg board in 1949, Canadian farmers went without such representation until the “Chicken and Egg Wars” arrived in the early 1970s and producers and governments alike realized that they could ignore the question no longer.

Teetering on the Cliff: when 1974 seemed far off
Twentieth-century agricultural science, put simply, worked almost too well for Canadian poultry producers. By the 1960s, electrification, better barns, lighting, feed and ventilation systems raised production to new levels. Now, though, the problem was the overproduction of poultry. In 1961, for example, B.C. broilers shipped their surpluses to other provinces, drastically affecting prices at destination points. And in 1970, when Ontario and Manitoba egg producers shipped large quantities of eggs into Quebec, a fire was sparked that became known as the “Chicken and Egg War.” Quebec responded to Ontario and Manitoba producers by restricting future imports, and in retaliation the provinces sought to prevent the import of Quebec-originated chicken. While the battle was eventually taken care of by the Manitoba Court of Appeal, the Canadian poultry trade was, in essence, cracking under the pressure.

Even in the face of such a situation, “consumers groups, some economists, and many corporate interests” remained firmly against price and production controls, often seeing agricultural policy as being co-opted into a system of social welfare for farmers.5 However, with steep financial losses in the poultry production sector worrying politicians, and many farmers calling for some type of national planning, governments finally acted. After Bill C-176 was passed, egg farmers of Canada came first, establishing the Canadian egg Marketing Agency (CEMA) in 1972. Turkey farmers followed this step shortly thereafter. In 1974 producers founded the CTMA, and John Tanchak took the reins as the group’s first chair. Coming a long way since a few birds wandered about farmhouse poultry yards, turkey production became a fully nationalized and institutionalized system that year, and CTMA sought to give producers the representation and stability they would need going forth.

Turkey Farmers of Canada: 40 Years of Stability, Innovation and Public Service
In a 2003 interview, former agriculture minister Eugene Whalen said that supply management was intended to fix the chaotic system that existed in Canadian agriculture before the mid-1970s, “especially for perishable products. The principle was to provide some kind of stability to the overall economic situation.” While battles still had to be fought after 1974, the group’s next four decades brought stability to the industry, in turn encouraging innovation and public service.

Between 1974 and 2013, turkey production in Canada boomed. While the total number of producers actually declined (from 602 to 527), according the 2013 Turkey Factbook, cash receipts increased from $121 million in 1974 to $400 million in 2013.  The changes represent the consolidation of turkey production into the hands of successful producers, made possible by supply management.

A quick look at the TFC timeline, published in 2014 to celebrate the 40th anniversary, shows what the group did for turkey producers over the past forty years. Just three years after the group was established, CTMA practices encouraged a pricing increase of 25 per cent — from the 1964 price of just 77 cents, to $1.00 per kilo in 1977. Farmers could make that price work for them and their families. And in 1984, under chair William Chrismas, “signatories to the Federal-Provincial Agreement” agreed to allow “provincial Commodity Boards to enter into and execute a Promotion Agreement containing a monetary penalty for overproduction,” further discouraging the practice that had contributed to low prices in the early 1970s. Nearly ten years later, CTMA was also present during the NAFTA and GATT negotiations and the group helped ensure that the “long-term visibility of the Canadian turkey industry” remained on the minds of negotiators (keeping a drumstick on the table, so-to-speak).  With the CTMA at the helm, turkey farmers experienced a business environment they could operate in, expanding and improving their practices in a stable and relatively certain climate.

While the Canadian urban public often thinks of farmers as ultramontane or conservative, the CTMA and its members were actually quite innovative and willing to adapt to change. In 1987, for example, the group established the CTMA research committee, and in order to enhance humane livestock handling and biosecurity in the turkey production industry, the CTMA sought the publication of the Recommended Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Poultry from Hatchery to Processing Plant in 1988/1989, and the Best Management Practices for Turkey Production in 1996. In terms of biosecurity, the CTMA was present when avian influenza arrived in 2004 on a B.C. turkey farm and resulted “in a major culling program.” Turkey farmers benefitted from having standardized recommendations and a representative group constantly reflecting on the health and vitality of the industry, preventing and responding to disasters mild and severe.

The CTMA, however, was not just about service directly to turkey farmers. The organization has also worked to ensure consumers are aware of turkey as a consumptive product. In this sense, public service is also a key mission for the group. As early as 1976 the CTMA published its first turkey cookbook, Talking Turkey, which was distributed across member provinces. And to ensure that consumers didn’t just think about turkey at Christmas, Easter or Thanksgiving, by 1984 the CTMA looked at motivating Canadians to have “turkey anytime,” a mission that was further encouraged after 1996 when the CTMA website was established. The digital effort expanded into the 1996 website, the 2009 creation of a Twitter account (under the new name Turkey Farmers of Canada), and the 2011 Facebook page and YouTube channel. According to Mark Davies, the goal was to make turkey an “everyday choice” for consumers, and it worked.4

Increased purchases of non-whole turkey depicts the success of these campaigns. In fact, the 2013 Turkey Factbook shows that across Canada sales of “parts” tripled, from 2,325,000 kilos to 5,682,000, and “processed” increased even more substantially, from 579,000 to 11,695,000 kilos, between 1983 and 2013. The campaigns clearly gave turkey producers a bigger share of the market and allowed the products to find their way onto consumers’ tables. CMTA/TFC’s efforts continue to pay dividends to this day.

The critics and future of SM and the TFC
Even though the CTMA/TFC has shown itself as a benefit to both consumers and producers, it is not without its critics. Indeed, anti-supply management attacks have been part-and-parcel of the SM experience since the beginning, often popping up when opportunity strikes. As Canada has recently weighed the costs of entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), for example, the C.D. Howe Institute released a number of reports critical of SM controls, and even former Liberal leadership hopeful Martha Hall Findlay, now at the Calgary school of public policy, and National Post columnist Andrew Coyne chimed in. A 2013 C.D. Howe paper (commentary 382 – written by Robert Mysicka and Marty McKendry) referred to SM controls as “anti-competitive regulations” creating government-sponsored “cartels.” And Findlay, in her 2012 paper, said the TPP trade negotiations are a welcomed surprise as they offer Canada an opportune moment in which to abandon the “supply management regime,” similarly using the term “cartel” to label SM boards and agencies.

According to Eugene Whalen in 2013, “supply management is always under attack.” And, in typical blunt fashion, Whalen said that SM critics often “don’t know a thing about agriculture.”7 The only issue farmers should concern themselves with is “the fact that self-destruction is possible.” Those producers, turkey farmers among them, who have supported and prospered under SM controls, in other words, need to “continue to defend the system and continue to explain it.” Since such public service and educative efforts have been a part of the CTMA/TFC since its inception, and the group has proved itself adept at working with the public and policy makers, it is likely that in the future the group will have to dedicate itself to ensuring that the Canadian public understands agricultural systems and the benefits that SM controls brought producers and consumers — forty years of them, to be exact.

Mark Davies, commenting in the TFC Annual Report 2013, said that “in 1974, when Turkey Farmers of Canada was established under the federal Farm Products Agencies Act...staff members were tasked with the responsibility of administering national quota policy.” This was no easy task, but CTMA/TFC did it in spades. Working with farmers, politicians, negotiators and the Canadian public, the group proved itself capable of making the system work and it brought forty years of turkey successes and innovations. The advances experienced and the long- and short-term profitability of the TFC, Davies said, are “the ultimate confirmation of the supply management system and confirmation of what...individual farmers, leaders and business owners can accomplish when we work together.”

What the future has in store for turkey can never be known, of course, but the TFC will surely have an important role to play for consumers and producers alike. But, this year, let’s take a break and celebrate the 40th anniversary of the TFC which, as Phil Boyd says, “is a big deal.” Congratulations to the Turkey Farmers of Canada.

References available on our website or by request




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