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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.

COVID – 19 Response

The COVID-19 crisis is affecting everyone profoundly and in unprecedented ways. Here at SSMPA things are a little less complicated than at some bigger organizations. Our operations are run entirely by our volunteer board who are all working farmers and ranchers so social distancing hasn’t been a problem for us. We have no office to shut down and no staff to send home. But we’re wondering how you are doing.

Many producers are seeing a large increase in demand for their products but social distancing calls for some creative distribution solutions. It seems like a good opportunity to scale up operations but just last week the Ministry announced that we will be losing inspectors at the abattoirs due to recent budget cuts.

Our contact at the Ministry of Agriculture has been checking in with us to help the government understand how this crisis is affecting small-scale meat producers. We would appreciate it if you could take some time to tell us your story. Some questions to think about:

  • How is COVID-19 affecting your operation?
  • What pain-points/opportunities are you experiencing now.
  • What concerns do you have looking towards the future both in the short and long term?
  • Are you concerned about the availability of feed and/or other necessary supplies or services for your livestock?
  • Has the closure of restaurants affected your business?
  • If you supply grocery stores or other retail establishments, have you been affected?
  • How has your communication with customers changed? What are telling you they are concerned about?
  • What events/activities related to your business have been cancelled or postponed in your area?
  • What precautions are you taking to ensure the safety of both your family and your customers?
  • Do you rely on off-farm income to support your operation and if so, has that income been compromised?
  • Have school closures and the resulting child-care challenges affected your ability to run operations?

Please feel free to speak to these and any other issues you are facing as a result of the COVID-19 situation. We want to be sure that your voice is heard.

Please send us an email to info@smallscalemeat.ca

FYI we will not share your personal information with anyone without your permission. Will will be sharing this information with people and organizations who are coordinating resources and support for our sector. Your name and any other obviously identifying information will be removed before your feedback is passed on. Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions about this.

We encourage you to share this inquiry with other producers who may not already be on our mailing list.

Additional Information & Resources

Current COVID-19 Outbreak information from the Government of Canada

British Columbia Centre for Disease Control

March 18 Letter from Minister Lana Popham

Farm Folk City Folk COVID-19 Impacts Survey

Canadian Federation of Agriculture COVID-19 Info

Keeping Kids Safe on the Farm During COVID-19

Business Health Tips to Deal with COVID-19

Scientific Assessment of the Zoonotic Potential of COVID-19

Notes for those who work with livestock

Fraser Valley & Metro Vancouver Flooding Preparation and Emergency Contacts

This Ministry of Agriculture has asked us to share this with our members…..

The province of BC has activated the Southwest Provincial Regional Operations Center (SW PREOC) to support the response to the 2018 lower Fraser River freshet and the potential for flooding.  Additional PREOCs have also been activated in other regions of the province due to the flooding situation and the following information is also applicable to those impacted regions.  The Ministry of Agriculture is providing support to Local Governments, First Nations, and agricultural producers through the PREOC.  Below we have attached a number of links to provide producers with key information and resources to assist them in preparing, responding and recovering from potential flooding and related impacts.

Producers requiring assistance should first contact their Local Government or First Nation Band Council.  Local Governments and First Nations can in turn seek any additional support they require by contacting the SW PREOC.

Key preparedness considerations:

  • Plan early for potential livestock relocations
  • Remove pesticides, fuels and other hazardous materials from areas at risk of flooding
  • Protect wells from flood water intrusion
  • Register with Premises ID program to ensure emergency planners and responders have critical information about your operation

1)      The River Forecast Center https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/environment/air-land-water/water/drought-flooding-dikes-dams/river-forecast-centre posts key information regarding flood warnings and advisories, snow pack information and current flow models for some waterways.  Flood warnings can be accessed at: http://bcrfc.env.gov.bc.ca/warnings/index.htm

2)      During an emergency event, your local government or band council is a key source of information, here are some of our area regional district links.

3)      Some reminders of operational items to consider in preparing for an emergency  are available at https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/farming-natural-resources-and-industry/agriculture-and-seafood/farm-management/emergency-management/factsheets/900_200-3_emergency_preparedness.pdf  Section 1.2 deals with flooding.  Other links including notes on well disinfection are available at https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/industry/agriculture-seafood/business-market-development/emergency-preparedness/flood-preparedness

4)      Safety tips for floodwaters and how to sandbag effectively are available at https://news.gov.bc.ca/releases/2018PSSG0021-000832

5)      Disaster Financial Assistance (DFA) has been announced for some events in BC in relation to flooding.  For more information on DFA go to:https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/safety/emergency-preparedness-response-recovery/emergency-response-and-recovery/disaster-financial-assistance and for a list of eligible events please go to: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/safety/emergency-preparedness-response-recovery/emergency-response-and-recovery/disaster-financial-assistance/eligible-events .  If you and your operation have been impacted please take a moment to look at eligibility criteria to see if this program may apply to you.  There are also links to cleanup and recovery information on these pages.  Remember that whether you are dealing with a program or your private insurer, careful  document any impacts and costs is important and that photos are a great documenting tool.

Steve Meggait – Fresh Valley Farms

Owner of Fresh Valley Farms and treasurer of the SSMPA. 

Our farm, located in the township of Spallumcheen, 5 km from Armstrong, is primarily dedicated to producing hay and pasture, but our main business is selling our pasture-raised beef, pork, and chicken.  Since 2012 when I moved back to help on the family farm, I’ve been building up a marketing business around our meat to support the farming addiction.

I started Fresh Valley Farms as a cooperative marketing venture with another farm producing pork and lamb. My concept from the beginning was a meat only CSA box. 5 years later, after multiple incarnations and business partners,  my spouse, Annelise, and  I now run a successful CSA with over 120 monthly customers. We regularly use four different abattoirs, three different butchers, and sell our product from Kamloops to Salmon Arm, with the bulk of our customers in Kelowna.  The best part of our sales model is that we get it done in one week of the month, and I’m free to actually farm the rest of the time.

Learning the ins and outs of the slaughter/butcher industry has been a process to say the least. It’s taken a long time to figure it all out, not that I have, but I can say one thing for sure: if I’m not hauling 10 hogs, or 4 beef, when I drive to the Slaughter house, I’m not making enough money. The whole process takes a lot of time. Getting the animals loaded,  knowing what to order and how to order it, or hauling sides to the butcher who will actually make a product I can sell, then picking up, labeling and sorting, and storing it. All this labour and the requisite infrastructure eats heavily into our bottom line. I’ve learned that the price/lb that the butcher charges is only part of the equation. It’s all about getting a quality product that’s consistent, and packaged in a presentable way. I often pay more than $4,000 to process 10 hogs.  That’s too much of our margin, I’m aware, but it’s better than having a poor product that doesn’t sell.

Before I started managing the farm, my family used to get all the beef slaughtered right  on the farm. This was prior to the implementation of the current Meat Inspection Regulation (MIR). I didn’t have a lot to do with it back then, but I remember seeing how easy it was. It took about an hour for them to pull up to the farm with the mobile kill trailer, shoot it, gut it, skin it, and load it in their trailer. 3 weeks later you picked up your beef.  I’m not all that keen on doing the slaughtering myself, but I sure would be happy if we could just call someone up and have it done on the farm. It’s safe, clean, and my animals would get to live in peace right up until the end.

I helped form the SSMPA  because I think it’s time to re-evaluate how the current meat processing industry is regulated. Why is it hindering farmers from reaching their potential and feeding their community? We have a right to produce food, and to process food. We need to hold the government responsible for the negative effect the current MIR has had on our industry. We need to make sure that any new regulations that are written are based on sound scientific evidence, and not imagined “risk” that can’t be proven.  We need to get organized so that we can speak to government with the authority of an organization that knows the rights of those it represents. In the case of meat inspection regulation, we need to have our voices heard because we are the people it affects most. If we can’t afford to have animals on our land, what will happen to our land? How can we maintain an agricultural land reserve in a province where no one with a small to medium sized land holding can even afford to keep some cows on it?

If you’re thinking about joining, but can’t justify the $35 for one reason or another. Please join as a supporting member at the very least. Follow our progress through the newsletter and on Facebook, and help out when you feel you can. We’re currently member supported, with no outside funding, so please help out in any way you can.

Thanks,

Steve W Meggait

 

Response To Ministry of Agriculture’s Class D/E Survey/Consultation Process

PLEASE NOTE: UNTIL APRIL 30TH, THIS IS A LIVING DOCUMENT THAT MAY BE EDITED TO REFLECT FEEDBACK FROM OUR MEMBERSHIP

The current system is not robust enough to contribute significantly to the sustainability and growth of the small-scale meat industry in British Columbia.

Capacity at Class A & B facilities is an issue, with most of our members being unable to book animals in to be slaughtered and butchered reliably. But the Class D & E system is not a reasonable alternative.

LIMITS

The limits are too low and do not allow a producer to process enough animals to earn a living or to earn enough profit to justify the expense of setting up the infrastructure required to do so safely and efficiently. We propose that the limits for Class E be increased to the current Class D limit and that Class D limits be assigned on a case-by-case basis based on capacity/ability.

REGIONAL RESTRICTIONS

The regional restrictions are impractical. We believe that anyone in BC who wants to apply for a Class D or E licence, should be able to, regardless of their geographic location or their proximity to a Class A or B facility. They should also be able to sell their product anywhere in the province.  

Class D is currently limited to 10 designated regional districts. The majority of our membership is in non-designated regional districts and as such, do not qualify for a Class D license. Without a Class D license, you cannot sell to wholesale/resale buyers. These are the ideal client for someone doing on-farm slaughter, as these clients will most often take the whole animal with no further processing required. Assuming the limits for Class D could be increased, a farmer or rancher could reasonably expect to be able to earn a living doing on-farm slaughter and selling to these types of clients directly without having to deal with the further complication of cut and wrap. The easiest way to reduce the pressure on local abattoirs and increase the viability of small-scale meat producing businesses would be to open up the Class D designation to anyone in the province and increase the limits.

Class E is limited by proximity to a Class A or B facility and by the feasibility study process. We believe that no producer should be forced to use the services of an abattoir simply because of its geographic proximity to the producer. There are many other important considerations including animal-welfare, service and quality of work, which may influence a producer to wish to slaughter their animals on site. Furthermore, the requirement to “attach a letter from regional or municipal authority confirming no bylaws or restrictions would prevent slaughter on the farm/property” can stop an application in its tracks due entirely to bureaucratic inefficiency. Often, municipal government workers do not have any knowledge of the relevant bylaws or may not be forthcoming with the required documentation even if they are. It should be enough that the producer has checked and confirmed that there are no relevant bylaws. Furthermore, there is the question whether some municipal bylaws contravene a farm’s right to process their own animals which is protected under BC’s Farm Practices Protection Act which defines a farm operation as:

any of the following activities involved in carrying on a farm business:

(k) processing or direct marketing by a farmer of one or both of

(i)  the products of a farm owned or operated by the farmer, and
(ii)  within limits prescribed by the minister, products not of that farm, to the extent that the processing or marketing of those products is conducted on the farmer’s farm;

The “time-limited” condition on Class E licenses is also problematic and may result in a producer losing their license simply because a new facility has opened within two hours of their location. This is punitive and unfair as most producers would be required to invest considerable time/resources in order to be able to slaughter their own animals and it isn’t reasonable that once given, this license should not be renewed for this reason.

The “seasonal slaughter” condition is problematic for similar reasons. It takes the same amount of capital to get set up to slaughter safely once a year as it does to slaughter safely year round. It’s either safe or it isn’t. It doesn’t suddenly become unsafe for part of the year just because the local abattoir has capacity at a given time.

REGULATORY OVERSIGHT

The current system of regulatory oversight provided by the Regional Health Authorities sets up a two-tiered system whereby Class A & B facilities are under Provincial and/or Federal jurisdiction but Class D & E licensees are under their Regional Health Authority.  We would like to see ALL classes overseen by the same authority. We would support more regulatory oversight, particularly with regards to Class D and especially if the limits are increased/eliminated.

We would also be in favour or greater traceability and more ongoing support for licensees including online resources/training, on-site visits, phone and online support and funding.

TRAINING

The current Slaughter Safe training is sufficient but could benefit greatly from putting the whole course online where multimedia resources could be used for educational purposes and address timing and geographical constraints. It could also dramatically reduce the cost of implementation.

Additional  online databases of common parasites, their presentations and actions required, with links to more information, for example, would be very beneficial. Videos, animations, even interactive content could enrich the course and offer information that is difficult to present in the current format. It would also make the course more accessible to a larger number of people, especially those in more remote areas. An online platform would also act as an ongoing resource for licensees which would be valuable, particularly for those who may slaughter only infrequently and benefit from a refresher.

One area of concern is the lack of education and oversight with regards to the actual slaughter process. An online platform would better allow for the demonstration of proper slaughter techniques but demonstration of good technique should be a requirement before issuing a license. This could be accomplished by having an inspector on site at the licensees first kill, or perhaps by having the licensee participate in a kill at another licensed facility with sign off from another licensee or even someone from our Association.

CONNECTIONS

An online platform would also be a way to connect licensees all across the province which would be the start of a valuable support network. Our Association would be happy to take on a leadership role in establishing, administering and maintaining this network if funding were provided. We can bridge the divide between governance and administration and the licensees, disseminate information, offer support, information and resources as well as collecting useful data that may be useful to the Ministry.

FUNDING

Adjustments to the current Class D and E license systems could help to relieve some of the issues we currently face with regards to capacity at A and B facilities and contribute to food security in BC. There is precedent for significant funding being provided to A & B facilities to help cover setup costs in the past. Directing some funding towards programs, training, and even helping to offset some of the setup and ongoing costs, particularly for Class D licensees seems appropriate.