By Tom Collins
OSGOODE —While lamb prices are up significantly from a year ago, archaic rules and regulations are making it difficult for Ontario lamb producers to sell the product across the country, says an Eastern Ontario farmer.
Lambs in the 65-79 lb., 80-94 lb. and 95 to 109 lb. range are up about $55 per one hundred pounds over the same time period a year ago. Lambs in the 65-79 lb. range have been above $275 for most of this year and topped $300 for most of March. Ontario lamb producers supply just 22 per cent of all the lamb consumed in the province, which imports 18 million kilograms of lamb each year.
But the current supply is lower as farmers shipped more animals last fall than previous years because of high forage prices thanks to last year’s drought, said Sally Jorgensen, a provincial director with Ontario Sheep Marketing Agency for district 10 (Prescott-Russell, Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry, and Ottawa).
“Talking as a producer, the higher (the price), the better in the short-term,” she said. “But in the long-term, you have to be kind of concerned too that the processors don’t get squeezed too much because the margins on lamb are far less than any other meat. And if the processors get squeezed too much and decide to bail, then that puts the producers in a real bind in the longer term.”
Jorgensen said the greatest growth potential is getting farmers with a medium-sized flock (about 100 sheep) to expand to a large flock (about 500). Ontario Sheep is looking at a program where farmers could get a loan to keep more ewes to get those farms to expand without the farmers having to worry as much about the extra cost, but that proposal is still in the planning stages.
“Obviously, the income we receive from sheep is more positive than in other years, but you have to understand that our cost of production is also going up, and it’s been quite some time since there’s been any sizable increase,” said Colleen Acres, a sheep farmer at Osgoode, south of Ottawa. “To say we’re making all kinds of money, I wouldn’t say that. I would say many of us are a little bit closer to covering our costs.”
One of the issues facing producers is getting Ontario product into large chain stores. For Ontario lambs to be sold in other provinces, the lambs must be processed at a federally-inspected plant. But there are only 12 such plants across Canada, and none in Eastern Ontario. A farmer raising sheep in Renfrew would have to ship the lambs four hours away to either Toronto or Quebec. So most of the lambs processed in Ontario are at provincially inspected abattoirs, meaning the lambs can only be sold in Ontario stores. This leads to the chain grocery stores importing lamb from other countries rather than selling Ontario lambs.
And while many producers get into the industry when prices are high, many leave once the prices drop, making it difficult to justify a federally-inspected plant in Eastern Ontario.
“You don’t build new processing plants without looking at the long-term,” said Acres. “Somebody’s got to continue making those monthly payments, and in boom and bust cycles, it’s not an easy thing to forecast.”
Another challenge is transportation. A truck transporting federally-inspected meat can’t pick up provincially-inspected meat in the same load.
“It’s archaic, the rules and the regulations that we’re trying to work around,” said Acres. “No wonder we can’t compete.”