Birds get TLC from chicken man

Treated like pets | Bill Bryan raises heritage varieties and markets the meat and eggs

NEVILLE, Sask. — Bill Bryan dreamed of owning a pool surrounded by a bunch of chicks.

As an adult, the chicken farmer found his Shangri-la in a 25 acre parcel of heavily treed land in southwestern Saskatchewan.

Today, his free-range chickens peck at bugs and grasses in a fenced area with a filled-in pool when the weather allows them to venture outdoors.

“Everyone knows me as the chicken man,” said Bryan, who grew up in Killarney, Man., and worked in the oil industry before buying his orchard acreage for $69,000 in 2004.

Sarah Galvin, a food writer, home economist and farmers market seller, said Bryan takes pride in raising poultry.

“Often his phone voice mail says, ‘I am out with my chicks,’ ” she said.

In summer, he is most often found in denim coveralls, looking like a cross between a farmer and cartoon character Dennis the Menace, said Galvin.

Bryan markets eggs and meat birds by word of mouth, with his biggest competition coming from Hutterites, who sell their birds at $2 per pound less than his $4 price. The chickens sell easily, but he is just getting started marketing eggs.

Layers need to be raised in cages to get a Grade A rating and sell at farmers markets, so Bryan instead markets them as naturally raised using some organic feed.

“It irks him that he has hoops to jump through to sell his food,” said Galvin.

Bryan and his birds sit on a piece of prairie history. It was here that Sask-atchewan Agricultural Hall of Fame inductee Adolf Heyer helped the University of Saskatchewan test apple varieties. The prairie hardy Heyer 12 is named for the Scandinavian transplant who tested more than 2,000 varieties here.

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“What he did for the Prairies was phenomenal,” Bryan said.

“He lived on apples and toast and slept with a .22 by his side. I try to keep up with him, but I’m having a hard time,” he said of Heyer’s growing legacy.

“I figure I have to keep at my task or I’ll never get it done.”

Bryan wants the apple orchard to return to its heyday and has planted 100 cherry, raspberry, sour cherry, saskatoon, pear and currant plants.

He has also gathered information and photographs about Heyer, in-cluding his peony breeding efforts, and would like to write a book about the fruit grower.

Like Heyer, Bryan is single and eking out an existence by raising 999 meat birds, 299 layers and 28 Narragansett turkeys.

A variety of microclimates sheltered by mature trees allows for optimal growing conditions for the seven kinds of garlic he grows in addition to fruit and vegetables.

Twelve acres of fences are a must.

“Deer wouldn’t allow anything to grow,” he said.

Bryan grows barley inside his home in winter to distribute to the birds and also feeds waste from the orchard.

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“I spoil my chickens and treat them just like house pets,” said Bryan, who calls to many of them by name.

He prefers heritage varieties and a simpler approach to food production and feels uneasy about the long-term effects of genetic modification.

“I’m dead against those GMOs. I think it’s going to be another BSE,” he said.

Bryan invests his income back into the farm and plants vetch and clover to enrich the soil and create an ecosystem for the birds, bees and plants.

“Instead of building a portfolio, I’m building the soil,” he said.

Galvin called him an advocate for a more natural system of food production, citing his desire to create a dining experience at a local theatre that features local, ethically raised products.

“Passionate is a word that comes to mind. I don’t think his brain ever stops,” she said.

“His circle is the people who care about what they put into their bodies, people who care where their food comes from.”

She recalled his comments after buying a turkey from him: “Now you get to taste a turkey that lived its entire life under an apple tree.”

Galvin said he puts a lot of care into raising his birds.

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“When I was out to the farm last, he was carrying a chicken around with him on the golf cart like a pet. It was being picked on so he favours it to give it a better chance,” she said.