Influential Women in Canadian Agriculture

Who’s Who 2020 – B.C. – Bev Whitta

August 6, 2020
By Lilian Schaer
Women in AG

To tens of thousands of B.C. school children, fair goers and grocery shoppers, Bev Whitta is the face of chicken farming.

That’s thanks to the former educator’s role as coordinator of the industry’s Poultry in Motion program on Vancouver Island, as well as her ongoing willingness to talk about chicken farming to consumers at grocery stores and other events.

Whitta and her husband Brian have been chicken farmers near Nanoose Bay, just north of Nanaimo, since 1995. They first moved to their farm in 1979, when it was just land that needed clearing so it could be used for agriculture. Today, they farm with their son, raising feeder cattle in addition to broilers, and growing corn and forage crops.

Brian is a long-time director with the B.C. Chicken Growers Association and Bev devotes a lot of her time to outreach efforts on behalf of the industry.

It’s something she believes in very strongly to help Canadians get an accurate picture of where their food comes from.

“At one time, everybody knew a farmer and could do trips to the farm, but that has mostly changed. Now, they don’t have that way to learn about Canadian food production, and what’s on the internet is often not accurate or Canadian,” Whitta explains.

Poultry in Motion
Poultry in Motion is an educational trailer developed by the B.C. Chicken Growers Association and B.C. Broiler Hatching Egg Producers’ Association that Whitta takes to schools and fairs to talk about chicken farming.

Three compartments on the trailer display live birds at different ages – day-old chicks, broilers and breeders – to demonstrate their life cycle. Each compartment is set up just as it is in a real barn with nesting boxes, feed and water and a computer to control that inside environment. A separate table displays feed samples, a comparison of hatching eggs versus table eggs and printed materials for people to take home.

“When I go to schools, I talk about each compartment, the birds and the equipment – students love detail,” she says. “They’re focused and they listen to everything you say.”

During a school visit, students come out to the trailer by class throughout the day, but kids also come back at recess or lunch time with a clipboard to copy down information from her display. Some teachers also integrate the material into their classroom lessons.

“I get a lot of feedback from the teachers – that’s how I know the details are so important to the kids,” she says. “And when you’re talking to students, it’s like a mushrooming effect because they’re taking all this information home to their families so you’re also talking indirectly to their parents and grandparents.”

In addition to covering how birds are raised and what they eat, Whitta makes sure to highlight how chicken farmers practice respect in how they care for their birds and the rules that producers have to follow.

At the high school level, she also talks about supply management, the impact of trade agreements, career options in agriculture, food security and how to buy local. The use of antibiotics is a frequent topic that comes up too, so Whitta addresses different ways farmers keep barns clean to reduce germs, the science of feed and the role of good gut health.

Last year, Vancouver Island got its own Poultry in Motion trailer. Previously, Whitta just borrowed the trailer from Abbotsford. This has dramatically expanded the program’s reach. In 2019, Whitta visited 33 schools and spoke to more than 9,700 students.

“Bev has almost single-handedly managed the Poultry in Motion educational program on Vancouver Island for years,” says Bill Vanderspek, executive director of the B.C. Chicken Marketing Board. “She has brought the story of the life cycle of the chicken to countless people at schools, country fairs and other events, and we are very fortunate to have such a passionate advocate for the B.C. chicken industry and Vancouver Island agriculture,”

Poultry in Motion is an educational trailer that Whitta takes to schools and fairs to talk about chicken farming.

Important conversations
Another key part of her work is attending five island fairs with the exhibit. The largest is in Saanich and attracts about 50,000 visitors annually. People are naturally curious about the birds, but some also come with strong views about farming or eating meat, which makes it an ideal chance to have a conversation, Whitta believes.

“For me, that’s a must of a conversation, but it has to be done in a very gentle, respectful way by acknowledging what they say they know and being gentle and genuine. Most of the time you can move the conversation along to talk about our Canadian industry and you can see they’re listening to you and are taking it in – that’s very powerful,” she explains. “I don’t know if I convert anybody but as farmers, we can personalize that conversation to help people learn the true facts.”

The food service industry is keen to learn more about chicken production too, so when Cheryl Davie with the B.C. Chicken Marketing Board had a request from Sysco Victoria for a farm tour, she knew who to call. Forty chefs and restaurant owners visited the Whittas’ farm and the company reported a jump in new customers and a 10 per cent increase in sales after the tour.

“Bev is one of the strongest advocates for the broiler industry in B.C.,” Davie says. “When I need a farmer for an event, Bev is always there and gives 110 per cent.”

For Whitta, it comes down to making personal connections with consumers. She encourages fellow farmers to find ways to have those conversations too, like organizing a social event at a club or church if spending a day at a fair or going into a classroom isn’t something they’re comfortable doing.

“It doesn’t have to be a big thing; little things add up. Consumers are the pillar of our industry and we want them to know the respectful, caring way chicken is raised in Canada, and that farmers are accountable and responsible for following all the regulations.”