ABBOTSFORD – First-generation poultry farmers Krista Harris and Cathy Van-Martin ask fellow egg producers many questions about production and welfare to ensure they have their chickens in a row. They take time to make business decisions with their business partners Barry and Jessica Kragh.
But in addition to managing B Jack Farms, an organic free-range commercial egg operation, Krista is a full-time firefighter in Abbotsford. Her wife Cathy recently retired from firefighting after a 27-year career.
When flooding hit Sumas Prairie last November, the couple didn’t waste time asking questions.
Harris responded to emergency calls the night of November 17 during a second effort to evacuate remaining residents on Sumas Prairie.
“My crew was going door-to-door in the middle of the night to assist with delivering the evacuation order,” she says.
When she wasn’t at work, she offered support as an emergency operations centre rep for the poultry sector to plan routing to move water, feed, birds and eggs.
As an emergency and disaster response specialist, Van-Martin pulled many 16-hour days as a voluntary ECO director during the flooding.
She had been part of previous Eons on the government side of things, helping with COVID-19 responses in the City of Burnaby and during the wildfire season in the Clinton area. These skills came in handy on behalf of industry.
“Representing industry was different,” says Van-Martin. “Being on the other side and being a little bit excluded from the information channels was a challenge. Anytime there’s a disaster, it’s common that communication breaks down between multiple levels of government and multiple ministries of government. We did sort of see that happen as we moved into the second week of the response.”
However, thanks to the BC Poultry Association’s at-the-ready emergency operations centre, reps were able to get to work right away. The association had built out an ECO following the last two avian influenza outbreaks and had systems in place.
“Because we have this standing ECO, we activated before some of the government and ministries did,” says Van-Martin. “We had a lot of success early on, right out of the gate – accessing the flood and evacuation zones and getting necessary supplies to producers.”
Water was a priority as many producers lost access to city water for several days. ECO members were able to start shuttling water between farms that had wells and those that did not.
“All the people we had involved already were just a phone call or email away,” says Van-Martin. “This distribution list we already have made it really easy for us to get up and running fast. That made a huge difference for us to be able to protect and take care of a lot of the birds that we have down there.”
The five poultry boards in BC responsible for turkeys, hatching eggs, chickens, eggs and broiler breeders collaborated during the response phase.
“The agility of industry is really awesome,” says Van-Martin. “We didn’t necessarily know each other professionally a lot before, but everyone just worked seamlessly together to take care of all the impacted people down in the zone.”
Part of Van-Martin’s day-to-day tasks was to create action plans and report to the Abbotsford ECO. She would in turn receive briefings from the agriculture branch director. But information on response, operations and decision-making was elusive.
“I assigned our deputy director of planning, which happens to be Harris, to try and gain information from Environment Canada and any other sources she could get because I wasn’t able to ever get the actual situation reports that were generated by the Abbotsford ECO,” says Van-Martin.
While information was shared within municipalities, regions and the province, those trying to plan on the ground were not part of the conversation. That complicated the development of action plans.
“It was a challenge not having all the information and it became more complicated as more layers of government became involved in the response,” says Van-Martin. “Decisions were being made and it’s a top-down structure. By the time we were informed of the decision, we didn’t have any input into the decision-making process. We weren’t able to point out ways the decision could be altered to be more of a win-win for government and industry.”
Van-Martin and other ECO members look forward to making more connections with government officials and decision-makers in future as well as involving more stakeholders in training and exercises.
Fortunately, B Jack Farms sits on a hill overlooking Matsuri Prairie and was largely unscathed by the flooding. But the couple know many farmers who were forced to evacuate. Some remain off their properties while others lack heating.
“It was an extremely challenging and stressful time, and it was disastrous for some farmers who we received mentorship from,” says Harris. “Our hearts went out to them and the animals that were affected. It was devastating.”
During the series of intense atmospheric rivers that rolled across the region, feed companies were also part of the ECO and showed flexibility and resilience.
“Feed was a significant concern from the get-go. Feed is what keeps these birds alive, and it became a top priority,” says Harris. “There were challenges but all the suppliers in BC and Alberta collaborated. … All the companies worked together to be creative and diligently worked to make sure any farm that needed feed was able to get what they needed.”
B Jack Farms is also fortunate in that the family sources organic feed from a local mill, which proved to be especially useful amidst a slew of road closures.
“Our feed company was consistent, and they communicated with us daily,” Harris says. “We were lucky to not have any disruptions.”
Through the extreme winter weather in late December and early January, Harris and her family focused on the positives and tried to make the most of a rare white Christmas in the Lower Mainland.
“The biggest challenge is keeping snow cleared and making sure trucks can get in for feed and eggs. I don’t know how much more the world can throw at us, but it’s hard to complain after what some people have been through this year,” says Harris. “We all have our health, and the birds don’t care what it’s like outside. They just expect us to take care of them.”
During the most demanding times, the family find refuge in the barn.
“When life is stressful, chaotic, busy, annoying or limiting, with everything we’ve been through the last couple years, you go in the barn every single day at the same time. It’s so consistent,” says Harris. “It’s routine and pattern. You go out there and it gives you purpose. You interact with the birds, and it just balances you out. That’s something all of us enjoy. Sometimes you just need to go to the barn.”