Right around this time every year, Aaron Hofer, a Manitoba farmer who is known throughout North America's tiny, boom-and-bust goose meat industry simply as "Young Aaron," allows himself to wonder if this will be the season that Canadians finally take to the Christmas goose again.
Mr. Hofer, who runs a goose meat farm and hatchery operation at James Valley Colony, a Hutterite enclave about a 30-minute drive west of Winnipeg, has been in the business for most of his 42 years. His uncles and grandfathers raised geese before him, he said, a soft Hutterisch German accent rounding out his vowels as he spoke. At one time, every Hutterite family Mr. Hofer knew raised 2,000 geese or so, and many of those birds wound up on Canadian dinner tables at Christmas.
But then the modern turkey – easy to raise, cheap to feed and prodigiously endowed in the all-important breast meat department – took over. Compared with turkey, goose gained a reputation for being oily if you didn't cook it right (you need to prick the breasts and scoop the rendered fat from the pan as it roasts). While bottom-of-the-barrel turkey can cost as little as $1 a pound, fresh goose averages about $7. Even pheasant and quail – which cost more than that – sell better than goose these days.
Yet on James Valley Colony, the goose business that Mr. Hofer manages has grown nearly fourfold in the past five years, from 15,000 birds to nearly 60,000 today, and every one of them is already spoken for.
The business is growing in Kyle Colony, Sask., too, where Leonard Waldner, operator of the country's largest licensed goose hatchery, said his orders for day-old goslings have grown by 10 per cent in the past few years, to about 52,000 birds annually.
For Mr. Waldner and Mr. Hofer, part of the reason is the type of bird they're raising: Their geese are a Danish breed that weighs less on average than standard North American birds but yield a higher percentage of meat.
Other small farmers and butchers, meantime, credit Canadians' return to good eating in recent years for the growth. "I think people are going back to an old way of cooking," said Lise Marcotte, an owner at Au Goût d'Autrefois, a goose farm on Île d'Orléans, Que. "They want to eat good food that's raised in the field and they can see running around."
While it's probably too soon to call it a Christmas miracle, roast goose – the holiday dinner with the PR problem – may just have a future yet.
The goose industry has nothing on other poultry. While turkeys and chickens can be raised in enormous, automated factory operations, geese are as high-maintenance as meat birds come. "You need a lot of big open ranges, you need barns, and the goose thing is highly seasonal: It only goes for six months of the year," Mr. Hofer said.
What's worse, geese eat between five and seven pounds of grain for every pound they grow – that's more than three times as much as turkeys – and they take 16 weeks to reach maturity. (Broiler chickens, by contrast, convert feed at a rate of 1.5 to 1, and go to market after just 35 days.) "A goose is not a modified hyperbreed like a turkey or a chicken," Mr. Hofer said.
Agricultural scientists have tried to change that. In December, 1988, Agriculture Canada announced that it hoped to "restore the goose to its past Christmas glory," as the agency put it. "Selective breeding is being studied as a means of reducing fat and increasing breast meat in the goose, factors that appeal to today's consumers," the announcement continued. But give or take a few improvements, a goose is still just a goose, pretty much.
It also takes specialized slaughterhouses to process them: facilities that can collect the feathers and down (the feather business is a major part of the industry), and that ideally have separate waxing areas to remove pinfeathers. Though there are plenty of provincially inspected plants that can do this, a provincial inspector's stamp isn't enough to get a piece of meat across provincial and international borders: You need a federal inspector's plant for that. There are only two federal plants in Canada that do geese. Both are in Quebec.
Elaine Atlin, the president of La Ferme Black River, a specialty food supplier near Toronto, said her company will sell 100 fresh geese this year – that's all they have. Ontario doesn't have any major goose farmers, she said, and, with the exception of a few Quebec producers, she can't bring in birds from other provinces. Once she sells her supply, she'll sell frozen ones that she brings in from New York State, she said.
In Western Canada, Northern Goose Processors Ltd., an enormous, state-of-the-art, federally inspected processing plant in Manitoba, bought most of the region's production for decades, making pillows with the down and feathers, and selling the meat across North America and Europe.
But following an inspection in 1997 that turned up a few easily corrected issues, officials with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency wrote to the European Union, asking to have the company removed from Europe's trading list. Almost overnight, the company lost much of the business.
The company sued the federal government and won an $8.5-million settlement nearly 10 years later, but many of the colonies around Mr. Hofer had stopped raising geese altogether by then. The plant is now shuttered. "It's changed dramatically," he said. "Back then, every colony raised probably 5,000 geese. The big ones would raise probably 8,000 geese apiece. Since then it's become a lot more concentrated."
Mr. Hofer found a solution in shipping the birds live. He started sending truckloads of geese to Schiltz Goose Farms in South Dakota. His orders kept growing. Next year, he expects to ship more than 60,000.
Schiltz is the largest goose meat processor in North America. The company sells goose fat and livers to chefs, and the feet, chitterlings, wings and "Confucius style" birds to Asian markets. Schiltz even ships frozen whole geese back into Canada. But the future, Mr. Hofer hopes, is in the company's whole smoked, heat-and-serve geese, as well as its preroasted birds.
"People don't have time any more to cook a goose for five hours," he said. "Now we cook it for them and present them with it. We hope that it's going to take off. I hope it flies."