For years, beef farmers in Ontario have faced a frustrating bottleneck in slaughtering and processing their herd because of a shrinking number of local abattoirs.
Now some producers have decided to tackle the problem head-on by taking over meat processing operations.
One of them is Arthur Schickedanz of Uxbridge who has taken over ownership of the former Apple Meadows Premium Beef plant just east of Mount Forest on Hwy 89. The plant is in the process of being renovated and obtaining a new federal license. It will be rebranded as Kinder Foods.
Brian Read, who will serve as manager of Kinder Foods plant, said the acquisition was prompted by the need for a reliable processing facility for the beef operation.
“That was the big reason,” said Read.
Schickedanz operates as Galten Farms in Newmarket, Galten Land and Livestock in Scugog Township and Kawartha Meats in Little Britain.
Last August, a deal was announced to have the Mount Forest abattoir taken over in a partnership between Schickedanz and Artisan Farms Ltd, but Read said that partnership dissolved effective Jan. 1. Schickedanz is now the sole owner and operator and has invested $300,000 in upgrades. The plant will have the capacity to offer processing to beef and lamb farmers in the Mount Forest area but Read said it will also highlight its own products, focusing on hormone-free Angus beef. Kinder Foods has hired an experienced salesperson to develop domestic and export markets.
“The plant will generate its own brand – Kinder Foods. We are going to sell locally and think globally,” Read said.
The abattoir previously had capacity to slaughter about 100 cattle a day but the upgrades will boost that capacity to about 160 cattle a day. He said Kinder Food will rehire as many of the current 42 employees as possible and expand the workforce to about 75, with a focus on local employment.
“We want to ensure people in the surrounding area have a chance to make a living there,” he said.
The plant was originally built by the Frey family but has changed hands several times. Previously it was owned by a Chinese company that used it as a processing-for-export facility, and most recently ran as Apple Meadows Premium Beef.
In another acquisition, the Burgin family, who operates a cattle feeding and grain operation near Forest, is launching TruHarvest Meats, a beef and veal plant operating out of the former Ryding Regency plant in Toronto.
Ontario’s been bleeding small abattoirs for years. From 2006 to 2016, Ontario went from 189 to 141, a loss of 25 per cent. Demand for local food skyrocketed during the Covid-19 pandemic and abattoirs were swamped with work last year.
The trend for beef producers to take over abattoirs seems especially strong in eastern Ontario.
Kara and Darryl Enright, who run a cow-calf operation at Tweed in Eastern Ontario, have taken over locally operated Quinn’s Meats. 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 the abattoir they use now has maxed out. There are at least three other Eastern Ontario abattoirs that have been taken over by beef farmers in the past two years.
The industry, however, is facing systemic difficulties. Securing a loan to build or buy an abattoir can be tough. 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.
“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.
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.
Read said he is optimistic that small to medium abattoirs meat processing have a bright future.
He said the large meat plants are more vulnerable to the whims of multi-national corporations and shifts in global markets.
“I think the smaller and mid-size plants will survive. I am not so sure about the big boys.”