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Fifth-generation farmer Lindsay Steele continues the legacy

FIVE GENERATIONS of Steele family members have farmed the rocky soil of Scotts Bay, a small and isolated community on the upper Bay of Fundy in Kings County, NS. Lindsay Steele, 31, is the fifth-generation owner of Hustle Farms and Cape Split Farms, growing poultry, corn, and soybeans. With her mother, Theresa Steele, she also raises horses for dressage and jumping.

Lindsay has always worked on her family’s farm operation. “I started working as a kid, but got my first real pay cheque when I was 13, for cutting and tying cauliflower and pulling weeds. I earned enough money to buy school clothes and was very proud of myself!” she says as we drink coffee at The Haze, the seasonal restaurant and convenience store that she and her family opened in the spring of 2014.

It was Oxley Steele, son of noted shipbuilder Jonathan Steele, who began the farm. His son Cyrus, who was high sheriff of Kings County, built the farm on its current location. Lindsay’s grandfather took over for a while, but as she puts it, “he really wasn’t into farming.” It was her father Darrell who built the farm and diversified, raising beef, poultry, potatoes, turnips, cabbage and related crops.

Growing up, Lindsay used to joke with her father’s employees that she would one day be the boss. After high school, she headed to Olds College in Alberta to take an equine science course but continued to think about the farm. “One day I called Dad and told him I wanted to work with him with a long-term goal to take over from him.”

Returning to Nova Scotia, Lindsay enrolled at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College (now called Faculty of Agriculture-Dalhousie University), graduating in 2007 with a bachelor of science in agriculture, specializing in animal science. She founded her own business, Cape Split Farms, and bought out Walter Huntley, who had shares in Hustle Farms. Although he technically “retired” at that point, Walter has remained working for her, and she’s been grateful for his experience. In addition, Walter is a volunteer firefighter, a skill that came in handy last year. (See afterword.)

In February 2009, Lindsay’s father Darrell was seriously injured in a farm accident, so Lindsay had to step up her long-term plans to immediately managing all aspects of running the farm. Fortunately, Darrell made a complete recovery, but is content to act in an advisory role.

Darrell had gotten out of raising cattle some years previous; Lindsay chose to get out of vegetable growing, as it was losing money. “Focusing on growing good chickens and some grain crops made the most sense.”

“I’m the first of my kind”

“If I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me who I’m married to, I’d be rich!” Lindsay says wryly. She’s not the only woman operating a poultry farm in Nova Scotia but, as far as she’s aware, the others are married and in partnership with their husbands. “I’m the first of my kind,” to be single and running the farm.

Standards and controls

It takes up to eight weeks for chickens to go from day-old chicks delivered to the farm to processing size. Chickens, which are a supply-managed commodity (see Marketing and quota in poultry production below), are grown according to strict guidelines for raising healthy birds in a humane manner. There are specific standards for making sure feeders and water sources are available and accessible, how much space they have to grow in, air quality, and how injured or ill birds are to be treated and euthanized. “Unless our chickens are happy and in a good environment, they won’t grow well,” Lindsay says.

The majority of chicken grown in Nova Scotia, and some from PEI, is processed in Berwick, but some producers still ship to a plant in New Brunswick. “It is really important for us to have... a strong processing plant,” Lindsay says.

Marketing and quota in poultry production

Chicken in Nova Scotia, as in the rest of the country, is grown under a supply management quota system, with marketing boards operating in each province. This ensures that farmers are producing chicken according to provincial and national consumer needs.

Chicken Farmers of Nova Scotia (CFNS) is a farmer-operated, not-for profit organization. The marketing board operates 100 per cent on levies received from each chicken producer in the province, based on the amount of chicken they grow. These levies fund the administrative and marketing operations of the provincial and national organizations. There is no government funding involved in the organization’s operation, and to be on the board of directors, you must be an active producer. Currently, Lindsay Steele is vice chair of CFNS.

CFNS works with its counterparts in the rest of Canada to allocate quota every eight weeks. Through Chicken Farmers of Canada, they determine how much chicken needs to be produced to match that demand. Each farmer is licensed to grow a portion of that demand based on the amount of quota registered to them.

In the summer, the amount of birds a producer grows often goes up as demand for chicken increases; at other times of year, that number is reduced, so that the additional birds can be grown during the peak times. This way the market isn’t flooded with too much chicken; local processing plants like Eden Valley Poultry in Berwick have a steady supply to work with, and producers receive a fair price for their product.

The quota system is based on kilograms; in 2014, Nova Scotia chicken farmers produced more than 52,000,000 kilograms, about 3.5 per cent of all the chicken raised in Canada. Lindsay Steele produces 500,000 kilograms of chicken a year, just over a million pounds, and grows 250,000 birds a year, on average 40,000 birds every eight weeks. Her family was in poultry production before there were marketing boards: her great-grandfather Cyrus was a founder of CFNS.

The buy local issue is different for chicken producers than it is for other commodities. Lindsay explains, “Because we are part of a national system, you could find chicken from a just about any province in just about any grocery store in Canada. With our industry, it’s not so much about finding a chicken grown in your province or even your region at your local grocery store; it’s about having good quality, fresh chicken available when you want it. We are a little different in that way from other sectors of agriculture. Buying local can directly impact the success of farmers who grow our fruits and vegetables, for example. Buying more locally generally means that those farmers can then increase their production next year.”

With poultry, the amount each NS chicken farmer can raise is determined and controlled within the context of the national demand. As Lindsay explains, every time someone eats one more chicken in Canada, Nova Scotia gets to grow 3.5 per cent of it. “Every 29 more chickens eaten in Canada gives NS one more to grow,” she says. “It doesn’t matter whether those chickens are eaten in Quebec, Manitoba or Nova Scotia. Our focus is on encouraging consumers to buy fresh chicken, and to look for the “Raised by a Canadian Farmer” logo on their grocery’s poultry shelves.”

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