My big livestock protection dog was sitting beside the dinner table listening to a family discussion about how we would all have to look after each other through the pandemic.
The very next day, he went out on his morning patrol and brought back a turkey — a shrink-wrapped, 10-pound bird from Walmart. I called around the neighbours to see where he might have found it and my old friend John McKee said, “Danny, that’s a good dog. I think he is possibly a breeder. Did he eat much?”
I said, “Just one of the legs.”
“That’s fair,” said John. “It’s about 15 per cent, which is a reasonable finder’s fee. He’s doing curb-side pickup for you. That dog may be very important to you over the next few months.”
John is a chicken man by training. He and his brothers helped their parents feed, kill, pluck, clean and sell as many as 10,000 Sussex broilers a year on their little farm on the highway in the 1940s and early 1950s.
In the summer of 1953, the price of chicken dropped from 30 cents a pound to 10 cents and that was the end of the chicken business for John. He ended up leaving agriculture and founding a tire business.
John’s granddaughter had just returned from the grocery store and reported a shortage of beef in the meat counter. John was puzzled about that. “Surely we have the same number of cows we had last month,” he said. I explained to him that most of the beef in Canada is now processed by two companies. One of them had to close and, at the time we spoke, it appeared the other one would have to shut down, too. So, as is always the case in agriculture, the supply may be just fine but the distribution system has some arteries that can suddenly become clogged.
Over the last month, I have heard various farm leaders announce bravely that the supply ‘chain’ in Canadian agriculture is robust and that we need not fear food shortages. Then they come back the next day to report a couple of choke points in processing that, even when explained in the measured words of the experienced farm advocacy expert, give a person the impression that these links are made of something not quite as robust as iron. Swiss cheese and daisies come to mind.
Two of the daisies in Canada’s beef supply chain are Cargill and JBS who together process more than two-thirds of the nation’s beef and, surprise surprise, may be out of business because they can’t protect their workers from COVID-19. The union for the federal meat inspectors complained recently that these large companies have been regulating themselves for years, a charge that was made abundantly clear by the XL inquiry in 2013, which concluded that the problem was caused by a ‘weak food safety culture.’
Not only have the companies been regulating themselves, they have been sending executives to Ottawa to re-write food inspection policy in their own favour, doing their best to stamp out provincial inspection and make sure people buy only federally inspected beef either in a store or a restaurant and nowhere else.
I phoned Scotty at our local abattoir last week to ask about buying a quarter of beef. “Can’t do anything till the summer at the earliest,” he said. He is only allowed one kill day a week. You pretty much have to book your kill day a year ahead with Scotty, or when you see the bull breeding the cow.
There are lots of cows in the fields around us and lots of people who want some beef on the plate. But it takes Scotty and his crew the better part of a morning to slice up a steer. Cargill does one every few seconds — until suddenly they can’t do any at all and the grocery store beef counter empties out.
Another friend of mine left the small local abattoir business in Thessalon last year because the inspectors decided his kill room ceiling was six inches too low and the facility would have to be re-built. His story has been repeated all over this province and the population of local abattoirs has dropped from 800 when I was a young man to about 90 today.
The beef shortage and the inevitable price hikes to follow will prompt yet another wave of people to decide that maybe they don’t really need to eat beef anymore and it will create enormous hardship for cattlemen. So much for the economies of scale.
My wife will fight the trend because she is a dedicated carnivore. She just brought home a bushel basket of antique cast iron meat hooks she found on a Facebook Buy and Sell page and she wants me to set up shop in the drive shed like it’s 1956. You gotta love these farm-raised girls.
Until sanity returns to meat processing in this country I think my dog has the right idea. He can handle a turkey because he’s young and strong. But I will stick with my backyard broiler chickens, if I can find any. (Only two companies in the world control the genetics for them.)
And I will smuggle a few contrabands over to John while I’m at it.
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca.