Demand for local meat grows as abattoir capacity dwinldes

·12 min read

Driven by the current COVID-19 pandemic and by a growing interest in ‘buying local’, the demand for locally-produced meat is at levels that Renfrew County livestock producers could previously only dream of.

One farmer calls it ‘the COVID-19 blessing’, citing his best sales figures in over 30 years of farming as customers turn to Valley beef, pork, chicken and lamb. Local farmers are eager and willing to meet the increased demand, but the shortage of abattoir capacity has created serious slowdowns in what was an already overburdened part of the local food chain.

Abattoirs, or what used to be called ‘slaughterhouses’, are a crucial link in what is often called the ‘farm to fork’ food movement -- meaning the food chain from farm to kitchen table. Often small family operations with a few employees, these provincially-licenced facilities dotted the farming countryside until a decade ago. Each abattoir had a schedule of ‘kill days’ for beef, for pork and for lamb when an Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs OMAFRA)-licenced inspector had to be on the premises. The rest of the week was occupied with custom cutting and wrapping, with smoking and sausage making. Forty years ago, there were almost a dozen abattoirs in Renfrew County. Now there are two. Both are stretched beyond capacity.

Canadian abattoirs operate under a two-tier licencing system. Federal licencing covers the large ‘packing plants’, such as Cargill and Maple Leaf, familiar names after early COVID-19 outbreaks at the plants shut down production. These huge processing plants, mostly located near Western Canada’s beef feedlots, employ hundreds of workers bussed in from surrounding communities. Virus outbreaks were facilitated by crowded assembly lines where butchering is done by workers who must shout over the roar of machinery. These federal plants supply major grocery chains, restaurants and fast-food outlets. Although heavily regulated by health and labour standards, they have seen outbreaks of listeria and other health issues. Meat processed in federally-licenced packing plants under the licencing of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) can be transported and sold anywhere in Canada.

Under the provincial licencing system which covers smaller abattoirs, meat is approved only for sale in that province. The system means that a recently built abattoir in Shawville, Quebec cannot process animals for farmers just across the river in Renfrew County.

Marshall Buchanan, president of Renfrew County Local 330 of the National Farmers Union who raises Scottish Highland cattle, dairy goats and free-range chickens on a Scotch Bush farm, says farmers have asked for a harmonization of provincial and federal rules for abattoirs.

Hilary Moore, who represents nearby Lanark on the board of the NFU, says the federal government is currently looking at adjusting the CFIA regulations which prohibit cross-border sales of meat. Meanwhile, Mr. Buchanan feels there could be some immediate harmonization which would assist the underserved areas of Renfrew County.

“If slaughter capacity remains bottlenecked, some customers will find their favourite farmer is out of stock, sometimes for several months because they couldn’t book a slaughter date,” he said. “It’s not ideal if you are trying to encourage customers to support local. For some local farmers it will mean reducing the size of their herds.”

Abattoirs Have Disappeared

The lack of abattoir capacity is a problem which extends far beyond Renfrew County. Eastern Ontario has lost 35 per cent of its small provincially-licenced slaughterhouses in the past 10 years. Rising costs, increased regulations, lack of succession plans and shortages of labour have driven many small operations out of business. Decreased demand for traditional by-products, such as hides, tallow and bones, have reduced revenue while overhead costs such as electricity and insurance have increased. There’s a lack of workers willing to do physically difficult and often unpleasant work for relatively low wages. The effects extend well beyond farmers to the entire rural economy including livestock truckers, auction barns, butcher shops and other processors. One farmer estimates the impact on the local economy is in the millions of dollars range.

Bob Dobson, a fourth-generation cattleman near Cobden, sells custom cut halves and quarters of grass-fed beef through the Carp Farmers Market, the Ottawa Valley Food Co-op and by direct sales to customers throughout the Ottawa area and Renfrew County. A long-time customer of McGarroch’s Meats in nearby Micksburg, Mr. Dobson had to scramble for abattoir facilities when McGarroch’s stopped processing beef last year due to the owner’s health issues.

“Because our beef is grass-fed, the cattle will just get a little heavier if we have to delay slaughter, instead of putting on fat like feedlot animals,” says Mr. Dobson. “But an animal that can’t be slaughtered when it reaches market weight becomes an ongoing expense for the farmer who must continue to feed it and meet other expenses.”

He has already scheduled dates well into 2021 to make sure he can ensure a steady supply of meat for his customers.

Booking A Year In Advance

At the other end of this far-flung county, Paul Shulist near Combermere trucks his cattle and pigs over an hour to Reiche’s near Rankin or two hours to an abattoir in Hastings County. Mr. Shulist has seen a slow erosion of agricultural services within Renfrew County since the days when he farmed with his father.

“We don’t value agricultural workers and COVID-19 has revealed how insecure our food system is. We have lost our local infrastructure, beginning in the 1960s when economies of scale and increased regulations drove smaller abattoirs out of business,” says Mr. Shulist who processes 25 to 30 head of cattle and a similar number of pigs each year to supply ‘custom cut and wrapped’ beef and pork orders for his weekly clients at three farmers’ markets and through farm-gate sales.

“Our yearly sales started early when people started panic buying in April,” says Mr. Shulist who, with his wife, Halinka, took over the Shulist Family Farm 30 years ago and now farms with his son and his family. “We’ve developed our own marketing systems over the years and built our business but we still need off-farm income and always will if we don’t have the proper supports for farming businesses in the county. We are supporting two families with this farm, but we need the local infrastructure to do that. I would normally be booking in two weeks to a month in advance but now I’ve had to schedule a year in advance to make sure I’ll have my animals processed next year.”

Mr. Shulist now spends hours on the road to deliver animals to the abattoir and to pick up the frozen packaged meat. “If there’s too much backlog with smoking and some processing, then it can affect the quality,” he says. “It’s not good for animal welfare to spend hours on a truck or trailer, not to mention the productive time lost when you’re away from the farm.”

Mr. Shulist thinks that a mobile abattoir might be a solution to the problem.

“It would mean less stress for the animals if they didn’t have to be transported and it also lessens the chances of contamination or disease from one animal to the other.”

The mobile abattoir system would see animals professionally and humanely slaughtered on their home farm under the supervision of a health inspector.

“I would be glad to put in a refrigerated walk-in cooler and a freezer on my farm,” Mr. Shulist says. “We have to invest in a local food economy that will allow our young people to stay on the land. We need to have food security. We shouldn’t be dependent on distant sources of meat.”

Clark Smith of Bonnechere Lamb markets the lambs from 30 Rideau Arcott x Suffolk ewes through the Ottawa Valley Food Co-op and by direct sales from his farm along the Bonnechere River between Eganville and Douglas. He’s also booking six months in advance at Reiche’s which means by spring he’ll be scheduling lambs not yet born to ensure he’s on the roster. He too cites COVID-19 as increasing the interest in locally raised meat and the problems in maintaining a consistent supply for the freezer trade with only one full time abattoir in the county.

NFU representative Mr. Buchanan says, “Farmers have so little time to advocate for their needs and their voice is so small. We are the 1% of the population trying to work the land to feed the other 99 per cent. With 2020 being the third summer in a row with a period of severe drought, farmers have not had time to lobby. And now, with COVID-19, who would be listening? When I was young, butchers earned a lot of respect,” he says. “Now how many young people are excited about working in meat processing?”

Little Official Support For Abattoirs

Craig McGarroch at McGarroch of Micksburg Custom Butchering also cites the shortage of willing labour as a huge factor in his decision to limit their slaughter operation to processing the pork they handle from only one kill day a week. Mr. McGarroch, who is himself a butcher, built the facility 40 years ago and feels there is little official support for his type of business.

“You can blame the government for continually changing the regulations,” he says. “You never know what changes they will want next.”

Abattoirs are costly to build and to operate. Increased government regulations aimed at food safety and traceability make retrofitting an older facility prohibitively expensive. Despite this, Jeff and Sarah Bennett of Beachburg purchased Reiche Meat Products near Rankin in 2017. The 40-year-old facility, formerly operated as a family business by well-known area farmer Walter Reiche, currently has 19 employees working at full capacity processing cattle, pork and sheep. For the long-established abattoir, the temporary closure of McGarroch’s in Micksburg last year and the sudden impact of COVID-19, created a perfect storm. Time spent training new staff and the shortages of cooler and freezer space meant that doubling output couldn’t even meet farmer demand.

“We have the ability to kill more animals, but we’re limited by our cooler and freezer capacity. Right now, our freezers are full after one day of cutting,” says Sarah Bennett.

Provincial law requires that meat must be frozen before it leaves the premises or picked up in a refrigerated trailer.

Two Abattoirs Needed

Jim Zadow, butcher and owner of Uncle Jim’s Meat Market, picks up entire carcasses once they are cooled to the required temperature, hangs them for aging in his own cooler and then breaks them down on his own premises.

“I’m lucky because I have had regular slaughter days at Reiche’s for years,” says Mr. Zadow.

Two or three cattle and four or five pigs are processed biweekly into steaks, roasts, chops, sausages and pepperettes under stringent OMAFRA safety guidelines in his shop on the Stafford Line outside Pembroke. He says two full-time abattoirs are needed to satisfy the demand in Renfrew County.

“Three is too many. One is not enough.”

“People panicked about the meat supply at the beginning of the pandemic,” he says. “But there’s no shortage of meat in Renfrew County. There’s just delays in getting it slaughtered.”

He says the danger is that the long waits for slaughter dates may lead to illegal on-farm non-inspected slaughtering. (Currently farmers are allowed to slaughter meat on farm only for their own personal on-site family use.)

“If customers want local product and they can’t get it from their regular farm suppliers, some will take a chance on non-inspected meat,” says Mr. Zadow who, like McGarroch’s and Reiche’s, also has a booming business processing hunters’ wild meat in November.

“We hate to have to postpone farmers,” says Sarah Bennett. “Nobody wants pork chops with three inches of fat on them because the pigs have gone past their ideal weight. The cost of feeding animals past their market date is too high.”

Expansion would require large amounts of money for new infrastructure and, while there are some government incentives available, all require matching funding and lengthy complicated applications.

“Banks don’t understand our business,” Ms. Bennett says, “and most of the government grants are for things like building a web site or advertising.”

However, the Bennett’s have recently been able to access funds to buy Burnt Bridge Meats, a retail meat shop in Petawawa which will supply their customers who want smaller orders. In turn, this will free up space and labour at the Rankin location.

OVFC Helps Market Products

A sizeable number of local farmers market their products through the non-profit Ottawa Valley Food Co-op (OVFC) which has provided an online ordering system and a central depot for distribution since 2007. OVFC serves a vital need during the six months of the year that farmers’ markets are not operating, with a network of volunteer drivers who transport the OVFC’s products throughout the county and to Ottawa once a month. Cheryl Keetch, OVFC co-ordinator, says that frozen meat comprises between 35 and 50 per cent of their monthly inventory, with sales doubling in the months following the lockdown. In 2019, meat sales alone were well over $40,000.”

The shortage of abattoir facilities will likely require a multi-pronged solution. Harmonization of regulations would allow access to the facilities in Shawville on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. Government incentives to create more infrastructure, such as refrigeration and cooler space, could expand current abattoir capacity. A licenced mobile abattoir might be a solution for some farmers.

In any event, with the anticipated demand for local meat during the second wave of COVID-19, the pressure on the existing system is far from over!

Johanna Zomers, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader