Originally from Ontario, Melanie and Shawn Jennings met in Powell River on the Sunshine Coast of southwestern British Columbia. Melanie was working at the local u-brew and Shawn was a general labourer. Five years later, they were ready to start their own organic farm. Finding ample property at an affordable price, however, meant casting an eye across the province to find the ideal place. In 2009, they settled their young family on Mac Lake in Baker Creek, 45 minutes from Quesnel.
Although they knew their future was in organic farming, initially there were no definite plans as to what they would farm. “We talked to a lot of people about what to raise, and visited a farmer who did turkeys and chickens, and she said not many people were doing turkeys and that would be a good one to get into,” says Melanie. They looked at doing organic with heritage breeds but found it wasn’t as cost effective as using the Nicholas Whites. “We would have to sell the heritage breeds for $8.00/pound versus $4.35/pound, and no one would pay that much. Also, the heritage breeds take two months longer than the Nicholas Whites, which increases your costs.”
The property was not set up for farming, and Shawn and Melanie realized that if they were going to raise or grow anything, the first thing they needed was a greenhouse. “We are quite high up here, and spring is about two weeks later than in Quesnel,” Melanie explains.
“The best part of organic farming is we like watching the animals grow, and knowing we are feeding healthy food to our children.”
They purchased a prefabricated greenhouse that required assembly; although it was a struggle, they managed to get the 4000 ft2 building up in good time with teamwork. The poly has two layers to help insulate the building, and the sides roll up and the peak vent remains open to allow plenty of fresh air and natural light.
As soon as they can access the greenhouse (usually when the snow melts in May or June) the brooder house is cleaned and set up inside the greenhouse. Using 10’ x 10’ walls that stand up and join together, 40’ x 60’ brooding pens are constructed. Poultry waterers and feeders are installed for 500 birds. Shawn and Melissa disinfect everything in a manner compatible with organic production, keeping things scrupulously clean. Because their operation is not continuous, the ground isn’t littered with excrement and spilled food all year.
“The first year we used an automatic waterer and have stuck with it. It’s hooked into the main house and there is a constant supply of fresh water,” says Melanie.
The five-acre pasture connected to the greenhouse is shaded naturally with Douglas fir, lodgepole pines, and a host of understorey vegetation, allowing the birds to move freely and engage in natural behaviours. This part of the property borders on the lake, so the turkeys get to enjoy the beach.
The turkeys arrive in the first half of June, the most labour-intensive time. Each bird is taken out of the box by hand and introduced to feed and water. Melanie checks every two hours for the first 48 hours. Temperatures are checked constantly because the heating system in the brooder house isn’t automated. For the first week the temperature needs to be 98 degrees Fahrenheit, and then it can drop 2 degrees per week. “When they get most of their feathers,” Melanie says, “we can wean them off the heat.” Once the turkeys are big enough, the smaller brooder house is removed and they have access to the entire greenhouse and outdoor range.
The birds are well-protected from predators and there is a dog on the premises, so predation hasn’t been an issue. Most predators are active at night, so the turkeys are tucked into the greenhouse every night. They are protected by a double fence, four feet high and buried six inches deep in the soil and under the greenhouse. “There was one incident of the dog getting in,” Melanie laughs, “but the turkeys cornered him so we had to go and rescue the dog.”
The climate is both a blessing and a stumbling block. The -40° freeze kills everything. Shawn and Melanie have had no disease issues. However, the first year, they wanted to have fresh turkeys for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, but they found the birds didn’t grow much from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Water lines froze, the weather was too cold to let the birds outside, and driving the birds to slaughter in adverse winter driving conditions was an issue.
“We were more concerned about the welfare of the birds,” says Melanie. “We felt that they weren’t having the quality of life we wanted for them in those extra few months, so now we just do fresh [turkeys] at Thanksgiving and frozen at Christmas.”
Common to many small farmers, Shawn and Melanie find that getting feed and equipment from the coast is challenging. Melanie explains, “Being [certified] organic costs a lot. Turkeys eat several tons of feed. The first stage food is $1,300/ton; second stage is $1,200/ton; third stage is $1,100/ton and the final stage is $1,000/ton. They eat one ton of food in the first two weeks, and progress up to 3-4 tons per week. Feed comes from Vancouver through Canadian Organic Feeds and shipping [costs] $75 to $100 per pallet. Community Futures helped us start up and pay for half of the feed.”
Raising and marketing products away from big hubs like Vancouver offers both benefits and challenges. Although there are fewer people in rural areas, good things are going on. A large portion of consumers in their community care about—and are very aware of—what they are eating. Venues like the local farmers’ market are important and a great asset to all producers. The use of social media such as Facebook is important, and farmers have creative ways of mitigating costs.
Melanie explains, “We trade for beef, vegetables, pork, moose, and bread at the farmer’s market. Someone from Naramata, The Evil Cherry Company, sent us 80 pounds of peaches and 60 pounds of cherries in exchange for turkeys. It’s very important to us what we eat, and that the kids know what they’re eating, what a vegetable is, and how animals are treated.”
“The best part of organic farming is we like watching the animals grow, and knowing we are feeding healthy food to our children. Bartering for other products is fun, too.” However, Melanie and Shawn wish organic farming wasn’t something consumers have to pay extra for. “That’s atrocious,” Melanie says passionately. “The factory farms should be charging morefor their produce to pay for all the chemicals they spray on food. Non-organic should have to pay to use that junk.”
The Jennings are happy they opted for organic farming, and are excited to see what the future brings. Their advice for others considering organic farming is to learn from your organic farming community. And be positive!