Steve Easterbrook tries to give chickens at Richmond’s Rabbit River Farms a good life
Raising animals for food can be kinder and more humane—if people are willing to pay
Every so often, Steve Easterbrook’s roosters, who act as sentinels for his thousands of brown hens, mistake a plane descending into nearby Vancouver International Airport for a predatory hawk or eagle.
The warning squawks send the hens scurrying back into the barn, their dainty clawed feet clicking like rain on the hard ground. Once the perceived danger is past, the chickens re-emerge to continue foraging in the fenced, six acre enclosure of pasture grass that includes rye and clover. Their day is busy: pecking at the ground, gulping water from puddles, chatting in low throated chortles and dust bathing in hollows. “You can tell the birds are really enjoying it,” Easterbrook says.
Lean and grizzled, the 62-year-old has been producing organic free-range chickens in B.C. since 1994. “I’ve always loved birds,” says Easterbrook, who began his first, modest, backyard free-range operation while a boy. “I can look at a bird and know if it is feeling happy or healthy or sick.”
Easterbrook’s facility, Rabbit River Farms in Richmond, houses up to 7,000 hens that lay about 175,000 dozen eggs a year. The farm is SPCA-certified, so it’s audited annually to ensure that it meets higher standards of care.
Easterbrook’s assiduous husbandry starts when the birds first arrive as pullets— hens on the cusp of adulthood, not quite mature enough to lay eggs. He habituates them to the barn that will be their home until they’re slaughtered at 72 weeks of age, when egg production slows.
Socially complex, the hens find friends and establish what are known in the business as neighbourhoods. They’re trained to come in at night, when they find a perch to sleep on. Unable to go outside during cold, rainy B.C. winters, the chickens live under a translucent roof that lets in daylight, with enough space, food and drink to support a “normal social order,” Easterbrook says. “I believe in giving animals as good a life as possible.”
Thanks to the care that the birds receive and the quality of their organic feed, Rabbit River Farms eggs are premium-priced in grocery stores—and gobbled up by discerning consumers. Grocers make a higher margin on the free-range eggs, too, says Easterbrook, who upholds a foundational ethic: “Don’t let your animals suffer or be exposed to danger.”
Not all operators are so conscientious. Last April, animal rights activists walked onto three egg production facilities in the Abbotsford area where hens were housed in small conventional cages—also called battery cages—to “document the conditions,” says Geoff Rigear. A former undercover investigator for Mercy for Animals, which works to expose cruel husbandry practices on industrial farms, Rigear chose the operations at random.
He found hens dehydrated and starving—and some dead— stuck in deep pits of manure. Rigear videotaped efforts to rescue the birds and sent the footage to CTV News for broadcast. “It’s sad and horrifying, the suffering the hens were made to endure,” he says.
The video sparked SPCA and BC Egg Marketing Board investigations. The conditions at one farm were so substandard that about 14,000 chickens had to be removed and re-homed, says board executive director Katie Lowe. The result? BC Egg developed a barn fitness policy that includes more than the usual four inspections per year of older facilities, Lowe explains.
For egg producers like Easterbrook, this proposed change doesn’t address the more immediate issue of battery cage use, which “limits the quality of life” of chickens, he maintains. In B.C., Lowe says, 65 percent of the province’s 3.1 million egg laying hens live in such cages, which give each bird 67 square inches of space. The enclosures won’t be phased out until 2036 due to the cost of upgrading facilities, she adds.
Thanks to education, largely by animal rights groups using social media, as well as clandestine videos from activists exposing sometimes-cruel handling and living conditions, the public know more about how food-production animals like hens live. Such awareness has inspired corporations like McDonald’s and Starbucks to report plans to switch to cage-free eggs in the next several years.
Concerns over animal welfare are affecting consumer behaviour. In 2018, Dalhousie University food distribution and food policy professor Sylvain Charlebois led two surveys to assess Canadians’ eating habits and food knowledge. The first poll showed that 7.1 percent and 2.3 percent of Canadians consider themselves vegetarian and vegan, respectively. They made this choice due to three main concerns, Charlebois found: treatment of farm animals, a desire to reduce their environmental footprint and their own health.
His second survey notes that some 6.4 million Canadians are eating less meat or eliminating it from their diets.
Will people’s tastes ever converge with more-humane animal husbandry practices? There are many low-income consumers as well as food production businesses like bakeries that will always choose the cheapest product, Easterbrook says. Still, with more education and awareness, and an increase in food variety, such as plant-based offerings to replace animal products, the time may come when farm animals enjoy a life that lets them express natural behaviours from birth to death.
But change hinges on public pressure, Easterbrook says. “Consumers need to vote with their dollars.”
Consumers with the highest income and the most education are “ethical foodies,” a new study co-authored by UBC assistant sociology professor Emily Huddart Kennedy found.
EATING FOR TASTE AND EATING FOR CHANGE: ETHICAL CONSUMPTION AS A HIGH-STATUS PRACTICE, SOCIAL FORCES