By Connor Lynch
PAKENHAM — Farmers wear more than one hat. Increasingly farmers have been taking on an unusual one: Slaughterhouse operator.
It is no secret that Ontario has been bleeding provincially-licenced slaughterhouses. The messy but necessary business has been struggling for years with burdensome regulation, expensive investment to stay in business and fading interest from the next generation. In 2004, an expert panel doing a review of food safety in Ontario found that in 1999 the province had 229 provincially-licenced abattoirs. As of May, 2020, there were 117.
It’s not as though there’s no business for them, particularly in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. With federal plants intermittently closing as infections break out and consumers increasingly turning to local suppliers for food, many provincially-licenced plants have been run off their feet. Brian and Elisabeth Vandenberg, who re-opened Desormeaux Meats at Crysler this spring, were working 12-14 hour days as soon as they opened to keep up with demand. Farms that offer online meat sales have seen demand spike, and to meet it, they need processing.
Upon hearing that a local abattoir was closing, four Eastern Ontario farmers have taken over three provincial abattoirs. One abattoir was taken over twice.
Hog farmer Barbara Schaefer took over the Athens Abattoir several years ago. Then Pakenham-area beef farmers Sarah and Chad Hunt took over in February. The Vandenbergs, at Crysler, are former dairy farmers who got out of dairy and went into the abattoir business knowing how much need there was for it. Down in Prince Edward County, beef and crop farmers Lori and Dan Springings took over their local abattoir one year ago.
The Hunts were busy enough with their own beef farm and direct marketing before taking on this new challenge. Things were busy from the get-go and then the pandemic lockdown occurred. “(It’s) 300 times what we would have expected,” Sarah Hunt said. Normally bookings would be 3-to-4 weeks out, with some wiggle room to squeeze in last-minute demand. But by mid-May they were booked almost to August with no wiggle room.
“Toilet paper hoarding has gone to meat. People are buying as much as they can at any given time.”
The farmers live at Pakenham (about an hour’s drive away) and were actually planning on building a facility of their own before they found out the Athens Abattoir was for sale, Hunt said. The biggest hurdle to building close to home was the price tag: $3 to $4 million just to break ground. Trying to find an investor was difficult, she said.
As for existing operations, it’s just hard to find people, Hunt said. Many are family-owned operations with kids that grew up in and around the business and want to do something else, she said.
Outside the industry, not too many are clamouring to get involved with slaughtering or butchering animals.
One thing she doesn’t take umbrage with are the regulations, both as far as cleanliness and animal welfare go. “I wouldn’t want them to be any less.”
If the government wants to support the provincial abattoirs, a good way would be through grants, she said. Investing in upgrades or improvements are hard things for these small operations to pencil out. And what funding there is, is often behind layers of red tape.
The current crisis has just highlighted the importance of having a diversified processing system, she said. “When the big plants get hit, the smaller ones can’t keep up.”
EASTERN ONTARIO: Farmers take over abattoirs when business has never been brisker
By Connor Lynch