Chicken Poop for the Soul: In Search of Food Sovereignty
November 4, 2013
Review By Katherine Dunster
Chicken Poop for the Soul is, in part, a personal journal documenting Kristeva Dowling’s quest to take more control of the food she consumes by spending eighteen months growing, foraging, bartering, hunting, and fishing for enough food to be self-sufficient. It is also an important contribution to the literature on local food and farming. This is not a “how-to” book but, rather, a book that describes the various ways Dowling acquired the practical skills to fill her freezer and pantry with home-grown and processed food. For anyone over the age of fifty, most of these domestic skills are within living memory, having been passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter. For younger generations, new tools and techniques are required, and Chicken Poop provides good advice based on practical experience – with a few recipes thrown in for good measure. Postwar prosperity and the popularity of commercially prepared foods led to a decline in the growing and raising of food for personal consumption. This decline is also linked to the growth of urban populations in Canada. In 1931, one in three Canadians lived on a farm (Trant 2008), and people were more connected to the growing and processing of food for home consumption, whether they lived in cities or rural areas. These food-related connections were at the core of every community, as Dowling soon discovered when she began to farm at her home in Hagensborg in the rural Bella Coola Valley. Dowling’s central coast location faces some severe geographical challenges, including isolation from the regular food supply chain and an unusually wet climate.
Though the knowledge about self-provisioning has not been completely lost, at least two generations have had fewer connections to food, other than going to the grocery store to buy it. By 2006 more than 25 million Canadians (80 percent) lived in urban areas, a complete reversal from 1871, when only 19 percent of the population were urban dwellers (Statistics Canada 2006). Rising interest in local food has, however, led to a resurgence of interest in learning or re-learning how to grow, process, stockpile, and cook food. Self-provisioning has recently become a positive cultural trend, along with community gardens, community-shared agriculture, farmers markets, and all things local. Most important, whether in rural areas or inner-urban neighbourhoods, food is again bringing communities and community groups together around this most common human need.
Dowling provides a window through which urban dwellers can view the trials and tribulations of becoming a farmer, and the lifestyle of a newly aspiring ruralista in British Columbia; but the subtitle, “In Search of Food Sovereignty,” is perhaps the more important part of Chicken Poop. In 2007, at the Forum for Food Sovereignty in Mali, delegates from more than eighty countries adopted the Declaration of Nyéléni, which defines food sovereignty as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It [food sovereignty] puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute, and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”
In British Columbia, Dowling argues, there is too much federal and provincial bureaucracy, policy, and regulation standing in the way of small farms’ being able to actually grow and process food and to participate in their local economy by selling or trading surplus to others. As yet, there is no need to worry about selling your surplus zucchini to strangers because no marketing board has been created to regulate supply and demand, but small farmers in British Columbia involved in creating value-added specialty farm products from such raw materials as meat, dairy, or poultry are required not only to navigate marketing boards and the quota system but also the BC Meat Inspection Regulation of 2004. Consumers wishing to purchase the same value-added specialty foods from their local farmer and move towards food sovereignty are caught in the middle of this regulatory nightmare.
While the 2004 regulation was intended to protect consumers from contaminated food and to protect animal health and welfare, it effectively shut down the small-scale abattoirs and mobile meat-processing facilities that helped small farmers either by coming to their farms to assist with butchering or by being within close travelling distance. And, as we have learned, all the meat inspection and regulation in this country did little to prevent the tragic listeria outbreaks at several large meat-processing plants in Ontario.
As a small farmer on a small Gulf Island, I looked forward to the annual call that the mobile poultry butcher was on his way to the island. The costs were shared by friends and neighbours, all of whom were in need of butchering services; the day became a chance for members of the small farm community to get together, help each other, and talk. The mobile butcher offered a far more efficient way to handle thirty or fifty chickens than doing it yourself, and it was far easier for the birds than having to endure ferry line-ups and a drive across the Lower Mainland to the nearest meat-processing plant.
Dowling brings all of these issues into the perspective of local food and food sovereignty within the BC agri-food system. Farmers are intimately aware of the policies and regulations affecting their right to farm. Consumers of food, especially consumers partaking of local food, are becoming increasingly politicized as they connect with farmers and realize the need to become more involved in defining and defending their rights to food. Chicken Poop for the Soul is a good introduction to the subject of food sovereignty as it relates to both the producer and the consumer.
Declaration of Nyéléni. 2007. Available at http://www.world-governance.org/spip.php?article72 (viewed 8 August 2011)
Trant, G.I. 2008. Historical Statistics of Canada, Section M: Agriculture. Available at http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/11-516-x/pdf/5220015-eng.pdf (viewed 8 August 2011)
Statistics Canada. 2006. Census, table “Population and dwelling counts, for urban areas, 2006 and 2001 censuses. Available at http://www12.statcan.ca/english/census06/data/popdwell/Table.cfm?T=801&SR=1&S=0&O=A&RPP=9999&PR=0&CMA (viewed 8 August 2011)
Chicken Poop for the Soul: In Search of Food Sovereignty
Halfmoon Bay, BC: Caitlin Press, 2011. 256 pp. $26.95