YARKER — Kara and Darryl Enright are no strangers to side ventures. The beef farmers run a cow-calf operation at Tweed and a value-added operation turning hides into high-end leather bags, purses, and refinishing furniture. They offer a variety of beef cuts and recently started sending animal fat to local artisans to turn into soap and candles. They now offer home delivery.
So it was on-brand that they decided to take over Quinn’s Meats at Yarker last month. Owners Brian and Brenda Quinn had been looking to retire and were searching for a buyer.
The Enrights wanted the business to secure processing capacity, as their abattoir they use now has maxed out. They had already worked with Quinn’s so that made it an easy fit.
The Enrights have no background in beef processing. Taking over has been a significant learning curve made much easier by the 12 employees who stayed on, Kara Enright said. At the same time, the Enrights didn’t think there was much choice in their decision. They have two kids at home who are interested in farming and need a reliable access to processing to ensure the future of their business. The farmers raise purebred Simmental animals, and calve out about 60 a year. Kara and Darryl farm, run the abattoir and raise their two young children; and her parents run a farm down the road and help out a ton with the farm and the kids.
The Enright story when it comes to abattoirs is not unique. It seems to be a trend. Just last month a Forest-area beef farm family announced they were taking over the former Ryding-Regency plant at Toronto. The farmer-run Farmersville Community Abattoir at Athens was founded by a farmer who needed somewhere to send her hogs. It was taken over by Pakenham-area beef farmers Sarah and Chad Hunt. Beef and crop farmers Lori and Dan Springings took over their local abattoir in Prince Edward County in 2019. Former dairy farmers Elisabeth and Brian Vandenburg took over Desormeaux Meats at Crysler last year.
Ontario’s been bleeding small abattoirs for years. From 2006 to 2016, Ontario went from 189 to 141, a loss of 25 per cent. Capacity has been hewing ever closer to production and COVID-19 put a spotlight on that. Demand for local food skyrocketed and abattoirs were swamped with work last year. Many are booked out a year in advance.
One of the biggest issues is succession, said Sarah Hunt. There’s just not that much interest in the business of slaughtering animals these days. It’s hard work in uncomfortable conditions – people can get squeamish around slaughtering animals – and for many people, there are much easier jobs available that pay just as much. People who grow up in the business know that better than anyone, she said.
Elisabeth Vandenburg, at Crysler said many owners of nearby abattoirs are getting older, in their 70s or even older. Their children often have no interest: the regulations are onerous and frustrating, “the bureaucracy is unbelievable. Young people see that and don’t want in. Then the urbanites have no interest whatsoever.”
It’s not that it’s not a good business. Quite the opposite. Provincial abattoirs are swamped with work. But will they survive? “Will there be a younger generation to take them over?” Vandenburg wonders.
The industry is facing systemic difficulties as well. Securing a loan to build or buy an abattoir can be tough. Hunt was looking to build an abattoir closer to home (it’s over an hour drive from the farm to the abattoir) but it would’ve cost as much as $4 million and finding a backer was tough. It ended up being easier to buy a turnkey operation. The Springings were only able to buy their abattoir because the former owner was willing to finance them. “The bank wasn’t interested in loaning us the money to buy it,” Hunt said.
Tim Dowling, National Farmers Union chair of the livestock committee and Kingston beef farmer, said processing capacity is the limiting reason for his business growth. “It’s a 1:1 situation. How much bookings you have is how much revenue you have.
“To me, it sort of speaks to how desperate the situation is that for farmers, especially of a certain scale, the only way for them to grow their business is now to just buy an abattoir to secure the access to slaughtering their animals.”
But help could be on the way. Meat and Poultry Ontario, a marketing group for butchers and meat processors, is working on a strategy to boost provincial abattoirs.
The group surveyed farmers and processors and found that access to labour and succession planning were the two biggest issues in the abattoir business, said executive director Franco Naccarato. Technology is a ready-built answer to both, he said. Getting more sophisticated technology into abattoirs is a good way to attract two crucial, tech-obsessed groups: private investors and young people. Figuring out ways to incorporate more technology in abattoirs can help attract both the people needed to run the businesses and the investments they need to grow.
And while market access isn’t an issue, there’s opportunity to improve things there too. Until recently, meat couldn’t move between provinces if it went through a provincially-licensed abattoir. But the Canadian Food Inspection Agency created a tool for provinces to use to show their food safety standards match federal requirements, allowing those provinces to ship food across the country. Ontario hasn’t used it yet, he said.
The group sees opportunity for growth for a simple reason. Said Naccarato: “Nobody said they needed access to market. Nobody said finding new business was the barrier. In fact, most said they had more business they could manage.”
They just need help meeting it.