Don Adamson On His Poultry Farm in the 1950s
I, Lorne Adamson, was born in 1949, just a few years after my parents started a poultry farm in Surrey, British Columbia. The following is the story of that farm as my father and I remember it. I have attempted to chronicle the life on the farm from my father's point of view and my own. Although I cover a brief period from the late 1940s to the mid 1960s, when my parents got out of the poultry business, it is an important time because it marked the change from the family farm, which my parents owned, to the modern industrial farm.
Having grown up on a mixed farm in Ontario, my father always had a desire to become a farmer. Because there was little work in Ontario in the early 1930s, he decided to move to British Columbia where he could live with his aunts and grandparents. However, he found the job market in Burnaby worse than Ontario, but he persevered until he was hired by Fred Beeson, a poultry farmer in Burnaby, who published the Western Producer, a news magazine for poultry farmers. In addition, Beeson worked with Professor Beeley of the Agricultural Department at the University of British Columbia to do experiments to find more efficient ways to run poultry farms. While working on his farm, my father learned a great deal about the scientific management of poultry before he went into business for himself.
In 1946 after the Second World War had ended and my father was discharged from the army, he and my mother chose to buy a farm with the help of the Canadian government through the Veterans Land Act. They were shown a number of farms in Surrey, but settled on one in Port Kells that had been owned and developed by a veteran of the First World War, Captain Lawson. My mother and father, looking for a farm that had barns and a source of water, found this property met their needs.
Donald and Gertrude Adamson and their son Lorne in 1950.
They moved to 19256 Townline Road in October, 1946 and immediately they started to work cleaning the barns so they could purchase their first batch of baby chicks in the following spring. Meanwhile, fixing up the house, apart from adding some much needed wall paper in the kitchen, was not a priority as all their efforts had to go to cleaning nests, roosts and the brooder house.
The farm house on the Adamson farm. This was at 19256 Townline Road (96th Ave.) in Port Kells.
The land was divided into two natural areas: a swamp and forest that bordered Townline road and a higher area at the back of the property where our house and the barns were located. The barns were separated from the house by a five minute walk. Not having the barns adjacent to the house meant that we did not have to smell the chickens when we went outdoors, but, on the other hand, it was hard to keep an eye of the barns and check for intruders, wild animals and other disturbances. Often my father had to make the long walk to the barns in the middle of the night to check on the baby chicks.
The large chicken house on the farm in Port Kells in the winter of 1948.
To have a successful farm in the 1950s required prudence and good business sense. My parents worked very well together to manage the farm and they did not want to go into debt. They paid for feed, baby chicks, and all the other items necessary to running a farm, in cash for the most part. My parents rarely asked for credit; they always kept money aside for emergencies, the next feed bill and for the next batch of baby chicks.
My parents started out with 1200 laying hens in the early 1950s and then increased the flock to 1500 layers, and by the early 1960s, they had 5000 young and old birds in total. Increasing the size of the flock was essential in the 1950s in order to maintain the profit margin they had in the early 1950s. However, even though they had a larger flock in the late 1950s, price fluctuations allowed them to barely break even during some of the lean years. Eventually, competition from highly automated farms, with twenty thousand layers in the early 1960s, made my parents farm, with four thousand laying birds, uneconomic.
Agricultural scientists had two theories that explained good egg production. They recognized that good breeding produced better chickens that would lay more eggs. At the same time, they assumed that good feed caused chickens to produce more, better quality eggs. With that in mind, farmers were always searching for the best quality feed, and purchasing reliable feed for the chickens was the major problem in the first few years in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Buckerfields feed did not have enough nutrition and its quality was inconsistent. The best feed came from Rogers Mill in Fort Langley. It had far more food value and its quality was consistent. Occasionally, my father purchased some feed from the Surrey Co-op, which was milled in Cloverdale, but generally he had better success with Rogers feed.
The Rogers Feed Truck delivering sacks of chicken feed in 1959 just prior to the switch to bulk feed deliveries.
Every week the feed truck would arrive at the farm and the driver unloaded an average of one hundred sacks of feed each weighing fifty pounds. (The sacks of feed from the Co-op weighed 80 pounds) At first, the sacks were made of cloth, but in the early 1950s all feed came in paper sacks. In addition to the regular feed, my father would buy some fortified feed and some feed medicated with a worm killer. Also, sacks of chick starter feed were unloaded separately at the brooder house when baby chicks were being raised.
The system of delivering feed changed in the late 1950s as farms became larger and putting feed in sacks was no longer efficient. Rogers switched to delivering feed in a bulk truck that piped it into a large wooden bin that my father built. The bin had a sloping bottom two feet above the floor of the barn and it could hold 6 to 8 tons of feed. After school I would have to load the five gallon pails with feed, being careful to open the wooden chutes just enough to let the feed out but not cause the pails to overfill. Sometimes the feed would pour out of the bulk bin in an avalanche if I had not been able to close the chute soon enough. I would be left with powdery yellow mash all over the floor. However, as nothing could be wasted, all the feed had to be shoveled off the floor and put into the pails. At other times, the powdered mash became compressed in the bin making it difficult to remove. To improve this situation Roger's produced feed in the form of pellets that flowed out of the bin easily.
Water was a prime concern for the family house and the barns, both of which needed wells that my father had to dig with a shovel. He found water just fifteen feet below the surface, although the amount varied seasonally. During most of the years we were on the farm, we had to ration water over the summer and early fall. We were lucky the property had a spring in the swamp near the house that we used to supplement the well at the barn during the driest part of the summer. We pumped 45 gallons of water by hand, two and three times a day, to take to the barn and add to the well water, carrying the water cans to the pump house in a wagon which was pulled by a small garden tractor. Lack of an abundant supply of water ultimately limited the size of the flock and prevented my parents from expanding the farm.
The pump house for the barns is in the foreground, and the buildings housing chickens to be culled and the brooder house are in the background.
After the feed pails were all filled we would put them on a trolley that ran on an overhead wooden track from room to room in the chicken house. It carried eight pails of feed to the birds and several baskets of eggs back to the feed room. We would have to push the trolley from room to room being careful to avoid letting the chickens slip into an adjacent room as we were opening the doors. When I was young it was great fun to ride the trolley that my father pushed. As I got older it was my job to push it and I got no more free rides.
The trolley was used to carry feed to each of the rooms and to carry eggs on the return trip.
The birds were always fed in the morning at 9 a.m. At first, we used long flat hoppers that had a piece of wood in the middle that could rotate, preventing the chickens from sitting in the middle of their food. Later, we had metal cylindrical feeders that were suspended from the ceiling by a wire. These could hold more feed. Gravity forced the feed down to the round tray at the bottom of the feeder, much like a large wild bird feeder.
Once the birds were fed in the morning my father would gather eggs. The nests at first consisted of two rows of individual boxes each big enough for one bird to lay her eggs. Latterly, we had larger communal nests that were three to four feet long with a small entrance at one end. There was a hinged door that we opened in order to reach all the eggs in the nest. When the door was closed the nest was dark, which the chickens preferred when they were laying their eggs.
Later, when my parents switched to producing hatching eggs, the process became even more tedious as my father had to write on each egg the room number and date he collected it. It was necessary for the hatchery to know which chickens laid the hatching eggs and they also wanted to know when the eggs had been laid.
Gathering eggs presented challenges. If a bird were sitting on eggs in a nest, she would likely peck the back of my father's hand as he reached under the bird to get the eggs. Sometimes the birds would become frightened when he opened the door of their nest. In their rush to get out, the birds would sometimes stab an egg with their sharp claws, therefore we were very careful to try to disturb the laying hens as little as possible to avoid broken eggs.
The eggs were placed in a yellow rubber coated wire basket. Each basket could hold about 150 eggs and they were specially made to fit into an egg washing machine. We gathered about ten baskets per day.
Beside food, chickens also needed stones: limestone shell to produce strong eggshells and grit for the bird's crop, which enabled them to digest their food. After feeding and gathering eggs, my father would give the birds their shell and grit.
Don Adamson and his son, Lorne, bringing eggs from the chicken barns to the house in the back of the panel truck.
Next, my father cleaned the water trough in each room and gave them fresh water. After morning chores he would carry two pails of eggs up to the house and have a coffee break in the middle of the morning. During the remainder of the morning he would go back to the barns to clean rooms, or he would do carpentry, often rebuilding nests, roosts and feed hoppers.
After lunch he fed the chickens oats and barley, and then collected eggs for the second time in the day. Following these chores he would continue cleaning or repairing equipment. In the late afternoon he would gather eggs for the third and last time. Work continued on into the evening. During supper the egg washer would be running in the utility room next to the kitchen, and this would last until eight p.m.
Washing eggs was another tedious job on the farm. For the first few years they had to be washed individually by hand. In 1957 my father purchased a Whilaway egg washing machine. Each pail of eggs had to be washed separately for five minutes. The egg baskets were spun around while hot jets of detergent-filled water were sprayed on the eggs. Those eggs that were not cleaned in this process still had to be washed a second time by hand.
After washing, the pails of eggs were set out to dry. After supper my father took the pails of eggs downstairs where he packed the eggs into paper keys, each of which held two and a half dozen eggs. The keys would then be loaded into wooden egg crates, ready to be shipped to the wholesale company. The workday was long and there were no days off.
Every week a truck from a wholesale egg seller would come to the farm to load the eggs that had been packed that week. Over the years my father shipped to a number of wholesalers, but the two he relied on the most were the Lion's Gate Company and the Roy Adams Company.
J. Porter picking up eggs for the Roy Adams Company in 1960.
The price paid for eggs was determined at the beginning of each week by the wholesalers. Every Monday, while having lunch, my parents would listen to the CBC farm broadcast from Vancouver to hear the wholesale and retail prices for small, medium and large eggs, which they recorded on a chalk board next to the radio in the kitchen. The prices varied only a few cents per dozen each week, nevertheless that variation spelled the difference between making a profit or a loss.
In addition to selling eggs to wholesalers, my parents sold a small number of eggs to stores and individuals in the Surrey and White Rock area. Of course, these eggs could be sold at a higher price and this egg route supplemented the monthly income. Every week my father called on a few stores in Cloverdale and White Rock, however this was time-consuming work and he could not afford to do much egg peddling because it took away from the time that had to be spent on the daily farm chores.
The Ford Thames truck Don used to transport chickens and eggs in the early 1950s.
In wintertime there was extra work, especially when the temperature dropped below freezing. To prevent the water pipes from freezing and splitting, the water had to be turned off and the pipes had to be drained in the late afternoon. When the weather was very cold, water could not be piped into the rooms at all. Instead, my father had to fill a forty-five gallon drum in the feed room and keep it warm with an electric heater. He had to carry water pail by pail to each of the rooms. It was essential to give the chickens warm water otherwise they would quickly go into a moult and stop laying eggs.
Don shoveling snow off the brooder house in the early 1950s.
Fabric curtained screens had to be raised to cover the wire mesh windows to help the chickens keep warm in the evening. The body heat from the chickens was usually adequate to keep the rooms from becoming chilly, so long as the windows were covered to prevent the wind from blowing into the rooms. In winter, the moisture from the birds’ breath caused the rooms to be much too humid, which, in turn, caused the litter on the floor to get too wet. As a consequence, my father often had to throw out quite a lot of litter and replace it with fresh shavings.
After a heavy snowfall the long driveway leading from Townline Road to the barns became impassible. Occasionally, feed trucks had to drop the sacks of feed at the end of the driveway and we hauled the sacks up to the barns using my sled.
When the hours of daylight shortened in winter it was necessary to turn on the lights in the barns for two hours from four o'clock to six o'clock so the birds would follow their summer waking and sleeping schedule. To simulate the setting sun the light would gradually be dimmed between six o'clock and seven o'clock. At our house we had an electric timer and three very large dimmer bulbs. Every night as the lights in the barn dimmed the dimmer lights in our basement burned brightly in order to use the excess electricity.
The chickens had a life span of four years. My father would carefully monitor how many eggs they laid each month. When production dropped below an acceptable level the birds were sent to market. The chicken catchers would come in the evening and catch the birds when they were quietly roosting. For me, being quite young, it was a great thrill to be allowed to stay up late and help catch chickens. We would catch them on one leg with a long metal hook, and then carry them upside down to wooden crates, which would be placed on a flatbed truck.
In the days following the chickens being removed from a room, my mother and father would shovel litter out of the room using a spade and a pitchfork. This was an especially exciting time for our dogs as we regularly encountered mice nests in the litter. The dogs chased the mice all over the room and sometimes there were so many mice the dogs could not decide which mice to follow, letting all the mice escape.
After the litter was removed, the nests, the roosts and the feed troughs were taken out of the room and washed in the field next to the barns. The rooms then had to be hosed and scrubbed until every bit of litter had been removed. My father would then spray the ceiling and walls with carbola, a whitewash laced with pesticides. The floor was painted with creosote and furnace oil that also killed insects. Next, shavings or sawdust had to be carried into the rooms, pail by pail, a very tedious job. Latterly, a sawdust truck, owned by Bob’s Blower, would pipe sawdust from his truck directly into the rooms. I will never forget the smell of a fresh room ready for young chickens, a combination of creosote and cedar sawdust which created a rather pleasant smell.
The roosts, nests and hoppers were cleaned outside in the farm yard when the rooms were emptied and scrubbed.
Getting good baby chicks was essential. At first my parents bought chicks from Forster’s hatchery in Newton in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Later, in the 1950s they bought chicks from Dick Sendall in Langley and finally from Sander’s hatchery, also in Langley.
The price of eggs generally followed an annual cyclical pattern with highs and lows that were somewhat predictable, and my parents used the price of eggs to determine when they bought baby chicks. Egg prices usually increased in spring, when eggs were in short supply because many farms had sold off their old birds, and in October, when people needed eggs for baking for the Christmas season.
My parents bought baby chicks three times each year but especially in December and June so the birds would start laying eggs when the prices were highest, in March and October. Timing the market did not always work but it did help to keep a small farm in business during lean times and it made the operation a little more profitable during good years.
In the late 1950s, the chickens were almost all white leghorns or a hybrid leghorn cross, which were preferred because very few died from the time they were chicks until they came into production as egg layers. Moreover, they were good egg layers, producing on average one egg per day.
The arrival of baby chicks was a special occasion. They were brought to the brooder house in cardboard cartons that were approximately 30 inches square. The cardboard containers had small holes punched in them so the birds could breathe, and they were partitioned so the chicks were divided into small groups that would not smother each other. My parents bought three hundred chicks at a time, and they were able to raise three hundred birds in each of the two rooms in the brooder house.
Mickey Sanders picking up hatching eggs from the farm to take to his hatchery.
The brooder house the baby chicks were kept warm initially with pails of warm water, but in later years with propane heaters.
In the early 1950s the farm had an old brooder house for raising chicks. Inside, the chicks were kept warm under an electric brooder. The disadvantage of this system appeared as soon as the farm experienced a severe winter storm that brought down electric power lines for a number of days. My parents, being desperate to keep the chicks warm, heated water in the house and brought it to the brooder house in small pails, and as it cooled, it had to be replaced every few hours day and night for the duration of the power failure. My father was very pleased that he did not lose a chick, however he realized that he needed a power source for the brooders that was more reliable. As a result, he switched to propane brooders when he built a new brooder house in the early 1950s. These did not provide as much heat, so he supplemented the gas brooders with infrared electric light bulbs.
The new brooder house built in 1952.
In 1952 my parents hired my grandfather to help build a new brooder house, and to pay for its construction my parents sold a number of trees on their property. This building was different from the others on the farm in that it had a cement floor and it rested on the ground whereas the larger buildings, which housed older chickens, had wood floors which rested on cement posts three feet off the ground.
The brooder house had two rooms, each of which had a propane gas brooder to keep the chicks warm and they were placed under the metal heater hood of the brooder that was raised off the floor a few inches. The floor was covered with shavings and a cardboard fence surrounded the heater hood at first. Then, as the chicks grew, the brooders were raised higher and the cardboard fence was made larger. Gradually, the birds were allowed to roam around the entire room with infrared heat lamps being installed to provide additional heat.
If the brooders and lamps did not provide enough heat, the chicks would get cold, causing them to crowd together and suffocate. Therefore, keeping them warm was critical to their survival, and my father's main goal was to keep as many young birds alive as possible. He prided himself on having a low mortality rate.
The baby chicks had miniature feeders and water containers, consisting of jars of water that were turned upside down, resting on a special plastic bowl. Also, to keep the chicks calm, a red light bulb was used to light the room.
Young chicks were particularly vulnerable to viruses and bacterial infections. As a preventative measure we had to wear gum boots which we would disinfect in a solution of blue copper sulfate every time we entered the brooder house.
No longer baby chicks, these young chickens are feeding from hoppers in the brooder house.
In the early years my father let the young birds out on a fenced yard adjacent to the brooder house when they were nearly full grown. This was the only time in their lives when they were allowed outdoors. However, my father stopped letting them go outside once hawks started attacking and killing some of the young pullets. Also, occasionally pullets would try to fly out of the enclosure, but they never were able to go very far as their wings had been clipped at birth. I recall only once seeing a bird fly from the range pen across the yard and land on the top of the aluminum roof of the small chicken house. It lost its balance and skidded down the aluminum roof and landed behind the barn where our dog found it and prevented it from escaping.
Young chickens were allowed to roam outside in a field adjacent to the brooder house and they roosted in the range house.
Predatory wild birds were not only a problem for chickens on range. Once a small owl managed to get through an opening in one of the rooms and it killed a number of hens before my father dispatched it. After that my father blocked even small openings in each of the rooms of the hen houses.
When the birds were four months old they would be moved from the brooder house to the recently cleaned rooms in the main barns. This was another occasion when I got to stay up late to help catch the young chickens. My parents said that when I started to catch chickens they were almost as big as I was, and I had to hold them high so their heads would not drag on the ground. To make sure the chickens did not become too scared we had to catch them in the dark, with the aid of a very dim light. At this point the birds were taken to a small temporary pen inside the room. My father hired a man approved by the government who helped to vaccinate the birds. At the same time they used a machine with a hot knife to cut a quarter inch off the top beak of each bird. This was done to prevent the birds from pecking each other and drawing blood when they became adults. After these procedures my father placed the pullets in slatted crates, which he put in the back of his small panel truck, and then he drove them across the barnyard to the large hen houses.
Chickens could get a number of diseases, but in the 1950s the most worrisome was Newcastle Disease. It produced flu–like symptoms in the birds, and although it did not kill them, it weakened the birds so they would be poor layers. The government agriculture department destroyed some flocks when they became infected, but my parents avoided having their flock killed. My father sprayed a vaccine over the birds when they were roosting at night that helped to prevent a serious outbreak.
My father was constantly on the lookout for other less contagious diseases and when he saw a sick chicken he would remove it from the others and put it in a separate building known as a cull pen. If the bird did not get well he would kill it and, if he was not sure of the cause of the illness, he would have a government inspector examine the remains in order to identify the disease.
From the late 1940s to the early 1960s was a period of transition in the poultry business in the Fraser Valley. Farmers in the late 1940s could make a modest livelihood with one or two thousand birds. By the 1960s poultry farming had become a large-scale industry where farmers could not succeed unless they had twenty thousand laying birds. To provide stability for these large farms, it was essential to institute a marketing board, which controlled the supply of eggs. The era of the small family farm had ended. Poultry farming had gone from the family farm to the industrial farm in this short time period.
The revolutionary change in the poultry industry came in the form of the automated barn. Modern farms in the 1960s had barns on ground level built on a cement slab with electric ventilation systems. Also, newer farms introduced battery cages, along with automated feeding and egg collecting systems.
My parents barns were obsolete as they could support none of these innovations. Also, our farm did not have an adequate supply of water. My parents did not want to go into debt in order to expand and modernize to meet the market requirements of the 1960s. Therefore, in the early 1960s they specialized by raising breeding stock and selling the eggs to hatcheries. The price of a dozen fertilized eggs was two or three times as much as a dozen eggs sold to the wholesalers. In that way they were able to stay in business using their existing barns and equipment for a few more years, until 1965.
The large chicken house in the 1960s.
Meanwhile, my father became a school custodian, starting to work for the Surrey School Board in 1962. As he had less time to work on the farm, my mother and I had to do more farm work. However, in 1965 we sold our chickens and rented the barns to Ed Morgan who had large poultry farm a few blocks away in Port Kells.
The barns were dismantled and burned in 1969. Today there are office buildings on the property where we had our farm.
In this article I have attempted to document life on a small poultry farm in the pre–industrial phase of poultry farming in the Fraser Valley. It was a labor–intensive operation to say the least, in that to be successful the farm family had to work long hours every day with no days off. Hiring extra help was only done rarely, when we took a short holiday or when my father became too sick to work. For the most part, when he had a minor ailment he continued to do chores and my mother and I helped to do the work. It was simply too expensive hire someone outside the family.
Despite the problems, the long hours and the disappointments, my father and mother enjoyed the farm because it gave them a sense of independence and accomplishment. As my father used say, "We were our own bosses."