Small-Scale Meat Sector Challenged and Energized by COVID-19 Crisis

Small-scale meat producers are a notoriously resilient faction, but the global pandemic is testing the resolve of even the most resolute, prepared producers.

The Small-Scale Meat Producers Association (SSMPA) is fielding emails and calls from concerned members and working directly with the Ministry of Agriculture to share the needs of this sector as the government and industry pull together to ensure that our local food systems are protected. Some producers are seeing an unprecedented spike in sales, but all are steering their operations through a world constructed on shifting sands where both challenges and opportunities are amplified and the future is uncertain.

While sales have been brisk for direct-to-consumer marketers, producers who primarily supply the food service industry have seen a dramatic decline. Others sell at farmers’ markets and are facing delayed start dates and uncertainty over market attendance. Efforts to connect with customers through online platforms are paying off. Customers have been grateful for continued safe access to local meats, with producers adjusting payment and fulfilment protocols to maintain social distancing requirements. Steve Meggait of Fresh Valley Farms explains, “It was very simple to adapt our existing system by positioning a table between us and our customers. We place their order on the table, step back six feet, and then they move forward to pick it up.”

Despite the demand, it could be difficult for producers to maintain or increase production given supply chain challenges and existing structural barriers to growth. Ongoing abattoir access issues frustrate producers who would like to scale up their operations to meet the growing demand for locally produced meat. At a time of year when abattoirs are generally slower, many are seeing a surge in bookings. With slaughter & processing facilities already operating near capacity and experiencing labour shortages, any disruption to service caused by illness or shutdowns would be disastrous, leaving producers with no option for getting products to customers.

The Ministry of Agriculture has held a number of consultations about on-farm slaughter in the past two years. The SSMPA has been actively involved in these conversations and continues to work with the Ministry to represent members in this regard. The SSMPA recently received funding to design an affordable on-farm slaughter facility that would meet the needs of Class D operators with the potential to become a Class B facility. An expansion of the current on-farm slaughter license designations could alleviate some of the bottleneck at abattoirs, create resiliency in case of disruptions to service and allow producers to scale to meet consumer demand.

Small-scale poultry producers are finding that they are not able to procure chicks. Some hatcheries have stopped offering pickup as an option. Cancellations to air freight service and the recent announcement from Canada Post that they will no longer be shipping live chicks leaves very few options for small-lot poultry growers, most of whom grow seasonally on a tight timeframe.

Another top issue causing concern is uncertainty around the supply of livestock feeds. While this has been designated an essential service, the delivery of feed often depends on a complex supply chain. That said, producers of ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats), which can be fed entirely on forage, have greater security than those who rely on grain (poultry, pigs). Well-managed grasslands and pastures may prove to be more important than ever.

The unfortunate reality for many small-scale operations is a reliance on income from other jobs to pay the bills and keep the farm running. For farm businesses operating in the red, the loss of off-farm income could be devastating. New loans or deferrals for debt payments are a stopgap, but they do not solve the underlying problems facing producers. Subsidizing the farm with other income or debt is particularly frustrating for producers who might scale up their operations were it not for structural challenges and regulatory barriers to growth.

But it isn’t all doom and gloom. This pandemic offers opportunities as demand and appreciation for local food continues to grow. With the right infrastructure, support and resources in place, the small-scale meat sector could come out of this stronger, growing regional food security and building livelihoods.

As is so often the case when faced with adversity, communities are coming together. Small-scale meat producers have close relationships with their customers and are working tirelessly to ensure an uninterrupted supply. There has been an outpouring of support for these producers, who are determined not to let the current crisis stand in the way of feeding the families who depend on them.

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