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From the courtroom to the farm: one lawyer’s advocacy

Article originally published on September 2, 2016 by Advocate Daily.

Toronto criminal lawyer Aaron Harnett is taking his advocacy work beyond the courtroom to the farm to create awareness about raising animals more humanely without chemicals and antibiotics.

The self-professed animal lover, who owns a farm about a two hours’ drive north of downtown Toronto, recently teamed up with a Mennonite farmer to raise free-range, antibiotic-free chickens for market. They’ve created a Facebook page for the project, Open Sky Chickens, and have already sold 100 chickens in their first month of operation.

Turns out, the birds are quite a hit among Harnett’s foodie friends and others in Toronto.

“The birds live the most natural life we can give them,” Harnett says. “They live in a flock, which improves their quality of life; they are free to run around on grass and forage for bugs and worms, which is essential to their well-being. Under a protective tent, they eat what chickens eat, and do what happy birds do.”

Lester and Erla Martin own a farm neighbouring Harnett’s property and lease some of Harnett’s land to farm as well. 

“They wanted to transition into organic farming, so they converted our farm to organic-certified,” Harnett says. “And as part of the same experiment in farming ideology, Lester decided to try raising chickens as humanely as possible.”

Harnett was keen to become involved and thought he might be able to help find a new market for the chickens.

The long-time criminal lawyer, who is passionate about food sustainability issues, explains the chickens live somewhat of a unique existence in a field under a tent-like structure to protect them from natural predators such as red-tailed hawks, fox, coyotes and weasels. 

“They live in an open-air protective structure, which is then moved every few days to give them access to fresh grass,” he says. “It is amazing how voracious they are. We have a picture on our Facebook page and it looks like two ships leaving a wake of depleted grass behind them.”

The birds are later sent to a federally-inspected chicken-processing plant.

“I help them out by selling them in Toronto,” he says. “I’ve had to learn about chicken processing, cold-water chilling versus air chilling and other issues but in the end people love what we are providing and they want more because the chickens taste delicious. I’m happy to help promote positive changes to the way folks farm animals.”

Harnett says the chickens have proven to be super popular because the birds are free-range and they eat grass, worms and bugs with only a small amount of supplemental food, which is non-GMO and carefully sourced.

“There is great flavour to the meat because of the nature of their diet and there is higher density to the meat because the chickens run around and get lots of exercise,” he says.

Harnett says he’s happy to be involved in a larger movement around food sustainability and farming practices and feels that he is uniquely situated at his farm to contribute to it.

He adds that many of the farms around his property are also owned by Mennonites who have moved to the area from southern Ontario.

“It’s interesting — we have far fewer cars and trucks on our roads up here now,” he says. “In many ways, the area has returned to the 19th Century and it has been a fascinating transition for us to observe.”

Harnett is meeting with other food producers in the region and has already found there are opportunities to add similarly raised ducks and free-range pork to the local project.

“Our motivation is to help local farmers who want to raise animals more humanely and to expose those farmers to a new market,” he says.

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