More options may be coming for B.C.’s small-scale meat producers

by Sarah Hughes

Small-scale meat producers and processors are in a bind in British Columbia. The industry lacks proper oversight and struggles with tight capacity in peak months and a steady decrease in skilled labour, but help may be on the way. Scores of meat producers and processors voiced these and other concerns and pushed for improvements during a review by the provincial government.

This April, nine provincial MLAs met as the Select Standing Committee on Agriculture, Fish and Food—or agriculture committee—for the first time since 2000. The committee was asked to help Agriculture Minister Lana Popham renew B.C.’s local meat-production rules and regulations to increase livestock production, improve training and development within the sector, and optimize slaughter capacity. Its members spent the summer reviewing the current inspection system and listening to recommendations from small abattoir owners, meat and poultry farmers, and farm association members.

The public hearings occurred in Courtenay, Williams Lake, Castlegar, Kamloops, and Cranbrook. Meetings in seven other towns, like Abbotsford, Prince George, and Powell River, were cancelled due to low turnout, to the chagrin of regional farmers.

“We were all pretty upset about the timing,” says Julia Smith, president of the Small-Scale Meat Producers Association. “It took place during the busiest time of year for farmers.” The SSMPA petitioned the committee for more time to prepare presentations to no avail. The committee ultimately heard from roughly 50 members of B.C.’s agriculture community at the five hearings.

Prior to their province-wide road trip, the committee received a crash course in the history and laws of provincial meat processing by the Ministry of Agriculture’s food safety and inspection branch. “There’s a robust range of opinions about how to meet the challenge,” says Ronna-Rae Leonard, committee chair and NDP MLA for Courtenay-Comox. “But there’s also some interesting things that have risen to the surface in terms of what is causing the problem with why it’s not growing the way we’d like to see it grow so far. At first I thought, ‘Oh, small-scale meat processing—that’s a pretty narrow focus,’ but it’s a deep well we have to go down.”

British Columbia is a geographically varied province compared to others in Canada. Deep valley bottoms make for excellent soil conditions but are difficult to access compared to the flat plains of the Prairies. According to Statistics Canada, Alberta produces seven-and-a-half times more red meat than B.C. on average, raising roughly five million cattle and calves every year to B.C.’s 650,000. But our chicken game is on-point with more than 20 million processed each year—six million more than Alberta in 2016.

The meat-processing industry in British Columbia breaks down into six categories. At the top, there are federally licensed facilities inspected by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) that process meat for retail in and out of B.C. Second and third rankings are Class A and B operations, monitored and inspected by the Ministry of Agriculture. Class A facilities slaughter and perform “cut and wrap” procedures, exclusive to this category. Class B operations are slaughter only, effective for wholesale retail in B.C.

Class D and E are both on-farm licences that allow for slaughter for small-scale direct regional sales only. The difference between D and E is the amount of livestock that can be processed, up to 25,000 or 10,000 live animal pounds each year of their own animals, respectively. Class D operators can sell to consumers and food shops, including restaurants, within their region. Class E licences only allow direct-to-consumer sales in the area and are only permissible when there are no suitable slaughter services available within a two-hour range of the farm. The very bottom is Personal Consumption—slaughter that doesn’t leave a farm and isn’t sold to anyone.

Of the 28 regional districts, 10 are designated as “rural remote areas,” due to low population density, small amount of livestock, or transportation barriers such as ferry access or seasonal road closures. The rest of the province—the majority of it—is divided into 18 “non-designated areas,” and this is where Class Es are allowed. These small-scale on-farm slaughter licences are only prescribed after a feasibility study affirms a need for “additional slaughter capacity” or for halal, kosher, or certified organic butchering.

A 2016 report by the BC Association of Abattoirs (BCAA) notes that the number of licensed abattoirs is rising, “going from 40 to 65 in less than two years,” and these facilities are appearing in rural areas. But small-scale producers at the hearings claimed that there aren’t enough abattoirs to meet demand in certain regions. Travel to and from distant abattoirs drains farmers’ resources, and abattoirs can be booked to capacity during peak seasons.

A group of cattle stand in a green field on Vancouver Island
Natural Pastures Beef cattle on Vancouver Island. Photo: Natural Pastures

BOOKED TO THE BRIM
Summer months aren’t as hectic for processors as for farmers, so a number of abattoir operators spoke at the hearings.

“The biggest problem, when it comes to slaughter capacity, is seasonality,” Sheldon Gunter from Gunter Bros Meat Co., a multi-generational processor based in Courtenay, told the committee on June 11. “A huge majority of farmers are not finishing their animals throughout the year. Everyone wants to get their animals processed in the fall and, of course, you know what happens: our plant operates at 50 percent of our capacity from mid-December to late August and then jumps up to over 100 percent capacity in the fall months.”

Several other abattoir operators reiterated Gunter’s complaint: concerns about finishing schedules, overloaded capacity, the lack of skilled employees, and then the need to lay staff off in the slow seasons.

Julia Smith says she and the rest of the Small-Scale Meat Producers Association understand the concerns, but says it doesn’t help to know that many abattoirs are against small-scale meat producers opening up Class D and E operations to relieve slaughtering pressure. Smith would like to see more cooperation between producers and abattoirs. “Their success depends on our success, and fighting against each other isn’t going to help matters at all.”

Abattoir owners and cattle producers recommended changes to finishing schedules. Farmers “finish” livestock with a specialized diet to prepare them for slaughter, typically in the fall. Many B.C. cattle producers send their herd to finish in Alberta or Washington, as grain and feedlots are more abundant there. The remaining cattle are finished on grass, which is subject to seasonal weather patterns. If finishing schedules were rearranged from fall to spring, it could reduce pressure on abattoirs in the peak months. It’s a creative solution, but for many producers off Vancouver Island, in areas where the climate isn’t as mild, it might not be realistic.

LOOSENING THE KNOT
Tristan Banwell runs Spray Creek Ranch in Lillooet. He advocates for standardized inspections across the different licensee holders and revised regional boundaries. For five seasons, Banwell has been operating a Class D abattoir and producing certified organic beef, pork, chicken, turkey, and eggs.

“We have our Class D licence, but that doesn’t give us the ability to cut and wrap meat,” he explains. “I can sell someone a whole chicken at a farmers’ market, but I can’t cut a pig up and sell pork chops.” There are no cut-and-wrap facilities in Lillooet, so until Banwell gets a Class A licence, potentially years away, he has to travel more than two hours—on a good day—to get to Kam Lake View Meats in Kamloops.

The issue with the regional designations is that they restrict opportunities for other farms to operate abattoirs. Banwell says he can go four kilometres from his property and enter a different region, which already has Class A and B abattoir, but because of the regional boundary designation, it restricts other farms nearby from gaining Class D and E licences.

“A lot of farmers just want solid access to a good abattoir,” he says. “If I’m creating safe food with this system, then another farm should be able to, too. I don’t think it’s going to take away business from the abattoir; I think it’s going to give more opportunities for farmers to get into this business and scale up.”

Gunter and some other abattoir owners don’t agree. Regardless of the complaints of capacity issues and strain on abattoirs in the peak seasons, some Class A operations argue that opening up the field for more Ds and Es isn’t the right solution. “It won’t help with the cut-and-wrap portion,” says Gunter.

Gunter Bros. Meat in Courtenay. Photo: eatdrinkbreathe.com

THE BAKER, THE CANDLESTICK MAKER, AND…?
Abattoir owners and meat producers at many hearings shared a concern about the lack of skilled labourers. “Since 1990, meat processing has changed from a master butcher model to a minimum-wage, high-stress, assembly-line job,” said presenter Janet Thony of the Coombs Farmers’ Institute in Courtenay.

Only one post-secondary institution in North America still teaches a full program on slaughter procedures: Olds College, nestled between Calgary and Red Deer in Olds, Alberta. Other institutions like Texas A&M stopped running their butchery programs years ago. Some entry-level courses exist elsewhere, like the ladder-program at Thompson Rivers University, which transfers to Olds for completion. The BC Abattoirs Association has created a 10-week program that offers an overview of the trade, from inspection regulations and animal welfare to safety and procedures. The program stops where TRU takes over and students gain a bit of field experience.

“There used to be a number of [programs] that used to teach slaughter procedures but they don’t anymore,” says Nova Woodbury, BCAA executive director. “Abattoirs are short-staffed. Retail meat-cutting shops are short-staffed. Finding qualified instructors is a challenge, plus finding people to work for the association that have breadth and depth of knowledge on a number of different topics is proving to be a challenge.”

To fix the knowledge deficit for the industry, presenters recommended the ministry provide funding and outreach programs so farmers have proper training resources and upgrades—anything to help new farmers grow and to bring “fresh meat” into the field.

THE COMMITTEE’S FINAL report and recommendations are due by October 1. Whatever it recommends, the small-scale meat industry has some old knots to untangle. It will take the entire community of ranchers, farmers, butchers, inspectors, and officials to create a system that works for everyone. Hopefully, this province-wide review will shed light on how to make small-scale meat production a more viable option for local farmers and to increase food security for producers and consumers alike.