SALMON ARM – A lack of skilled workers is squeezing meat processing capacity in BC, forcing some small and medium-sized livestock operations to book slaughter dates a year out – and even then, spots aren’t guaranteed.
When their processor removed pig slaughter dates from its calendar, first-generation farmers Chelsea and James Keenan of Keenan Family Farms in Salmon Arm had to get creative.
The family markets pasture-raise Certified Animal Welfare approved pork through farmers markets and an online store. They process around 150 pigs each year, about 10 to 12 animals each month.
“We were taking them to Rangeland Meats in Heffley Creek, who just notified us in January that they’re no longer processing pigs,” says Chelsea. “This is a huge thing. Essentially it shuts our business down if we don’t have slaughter dates. We had already booked our slaughter dates through to the end of 2022.”
The Keenans had to act fast to get dates booked for future litters.
“We were able to get some of our pigs into another slaughter plant in Kamloops, Kam Lake-View Meats Ltd.,” Keenan says.
But moving forward, the Keenans are exploring options that could include setting up an on-farm butcher shop and applying for one of the province’s new Farmgate Plus licences to process cull animals.
“That being said, we’ve always skirted these slaughter and butcher issues because we’re booked all the way through until 2023. We had a great relationship with Rangeland, but they can only do so much. We were all of sudden left in a position where we were stuck,” says Keenan. “It seems like you’re either a hobby farmer or you have to go bigger. There’s not a lot of space for the middle guy. You have to do it full-time, get your own butcher, or just do it as a hobby.”
Rangeland regrets having to scratch pork slaughter dates, but the work is not feasible for the business at this time.
“It’s tough. We feel horribly having to cancel on [producers] and stop with the pigs,” says co-owner Anita Devick, whose family also operates Devick Ranch. “As producers, we’ve been in that position. We know what it’s like to have animals that are done but you can’t get them in anywhere.”
Unfortunately, the largest piece of the equipment in the abattoir, the pig dehairer, broke down.
“It’s very difficult to get parts or get it fixed at this point in time. Parts take forever to get here,” says Devick. “Basically, we’d either have to completely rebuild it or buy new. It’s too expensive for us.”
While equipment failure has caused business disruptions, labour is another issue the provincially inspected abattoir faces.
“We’ve found it very difficult to find enough people to help us,” Devick says. “It’s one of the biggest roadblocks of this whole thing. How can we even maintain let alone grow? We can only find so many people who can work.”
Rangeland Meats doesn’t kill every day, but workers cut and wrap every day during the week and on weekends if they’re available.
“Since COVID, we’ve been able to dip our toes into some retail stores and restaurants and other grocery chains locally. That’s flown off the handle in demand there. We could absolutely grow. There is no question,” Devick says. “We could build another plant and be just as busy with that one as well. The demand is crazy.”
In Kelowna, Dave Semmelink of Lentelus Farms also cites labour as a challenge for his provincially inspected Class A facility. It’s not yet fully booked but if it was, the labour crunch would be even more significant for him than it already is.
“Finding staff is tricky. Basically, it’s me and one other person and I’m looking for somebody else,” Semmelink says.
While demand for local food has increased since the onset of the pandemic, meat processing numbers have not followed a steady upward trend in BC.
In 2020, red meat slaughter in provincially inspected facilities increased from the year prior for cattle, hogs, and lamb and sheep by 17%, 6% and 8%, respectively. In 2021, cattle processing was flat versus the previous year while hogs declined 7.2% and lambs and sheep fell 4.6%.
Fortunately for Deb Sterritt of Grand View Family Farm in Salmon Arm, her family has been able to access processing since it started marketing its pasture-raised Kunekune pigs. She attributes this favourable situation to their breed choice, clientele and the flexibility of Rocana Meats.
“The ability for us to process locally means that we could take our pigs 15 minutes to the facility rather than what some farmers are having to do, which is [drive] hours,” says Sterritt. “We’ve worked with [Rocana] and they’ve been very accommodating for us. I haven’t had the situation where I have to book a year in advance.”
Rocana Meats does not offer cut and wrap, but the restaurants that Sterritt works with prefer to buy the whole carcass.
Quails’ Gate Estate Winery bought all of Grand View’s nine processed pigs last year. The family looks to process at least 50 pigs this year and hope to sell their products to eight restaurants by the end of the year.
“Cut and wrap is expensive so selling by the carcass makes it better for the restaurants because they want to be able to use nose to tail,” Sterritt says.
This business model requires strategic planning for all parties involved.
“If I process a pig, I have to deliver it right away. There’s a lot of coordination between the restaurant, ourselves and the processor,” she notes.
While Sterritt has not faced any processing problems, she’s well aware of the risks involved in being a small-scale meat producer. And as a new farmer, she’s still learning about production timelines and diet optimization.
“Ideally, they could be processed on-farm but that’s not an area we want to get into at all because we are so close to Rocana,” Sterritt says.
“I would like to see mobile processing facilities. It takes time to travel, load and unload,” Sterritt says.
She argues that it’s hard for livestock farmers to grow their businesses if they cannot secure processing.
Through a province-wide sector survey, the Small-Scale Meat Producers Association confirmed that access to slaughter is the number one challenge small-scale livestock producers face.
In addition to profitability and the lack of access to slaughter, producers named access to cut-and-wrap facilities, limited personal or staff time, access to land base and availability of insurance as significant challenges.