Hog farmers in the North Okanagan-Shuswap are having to reassess their operations following the recent closure of a Salmon Arm slaughter facility.
Rocana Meats abruptly closed its doors in August, forcing local producers to consider their options which, as far as abattoirs go, are increasingly few and far between and difficult to access.
“The very limited number of abattoirs that are in the region are completely booked up this time of year and/or do not offer custom services, so it isn’t really reasonable to expect someone to be able to just rebook their animals elsewhere at this time,” said Julia Smith, executive director and project manager of the Small-Scale Meat Producers Association (SSMPA).
Smith noted processors have been closing all over the province since 2008.
“The most recent closure only goes to highlight how terribly fragile our industry is and how important it is to build resilience by having a network of abattoirs and meat-processing facilities available across the province so that when one shuts down unexpectedly, or the owner dies, or there is a Covid outbreak at one facility, the whole supply chain doesn’t break.”
For Deb Sterritt of Grand View Family Farm near Salmon Arm, the closure of Rocana has been dire.
Sterritt and family have been raising Kunekune pigs on the farm for about about two years, and had been using Rocana’s facility. With its closure, and the lack of a feasible alternative, she made the difficult decision to sell her breeder pigs.
“I can’t keep feeding these animals; every two weeks it costs me $800 at least in just grain feed…,” said Sterritt. “One livestock producer cannot afford to have the risk of not being able to process your animals. If you have to book two years or one year in advance, who knows what your needs are and that’s crazy too because that’s what farmers are having to do all the way down to the Lower Mainland.”
Smith said the SSMPA has been providing support to affected producers and helping those who are interested in acquiring a Farmgate licence, which allows for limited slaughter on farms.
“If Rocana had closed last year, it would have been an even bigger disaster,” said Smith. “The Farmgate program is a step in the right direction but with a limit of only 25AU (animal units) per year per producer, it is not an alternative to inspected abattoirs.”
Salmon Arm’s Keenan Family Farms is one of two in the area to recently receive a farmgate licence. Chelsea Keenan said they were sending their pigs to Kamloops for slaughter, cut and wrap. When that service was discontinued in January, they turned to Rocana. The Farmgate licence allows the Keenans to slaughter about 100 pigs per year on their property. However, Keenan said they produce up to 200 per year.
To address their need, and possibly the need of other producers, the Keenans are looking into establishing their own abattoir.
“We are looking into pursuing a fully licensed abattoir that would take our capacity and hopefully other farmers’ as well,” said Keenan. “We’d like to try and get some sort of funding because of the need for this facility.”
In an email to the Observer, the Ministry of Agriculture acknowledged the unfortunate impact Rocana’s closure has had on employees, business owners and pork producers in the area. The ministry said it has been working with pork producers to arrange alternative processing options, including using other large abattoirs in the region, several of which are within 150 kilometres, and neighbouring farms that are licensed to process animals at a smaller scale.
The ministry said it has also advised local producers of the Farmgate licence, and offered step-by-step assistance to help them through the licensing process.
“These licenses were a key driver behind the meat licensing system announced last year, which makes it easier to sell locally raised meat in B.C. whether it be at the farmgate, farmers’ markets, retail outlets or restaurants,” said the ministry, adding the meat licensing system “supports food security, agriculture and the economy in rural communities…”
The province supported the recently completed Agri-Hub Feasibility Study, conducted by the Township of Spallumcheen. The study was done to determine what uses could be supported in an area proposed to serve the region as an agricultural hub.
A repeated finding in the study is the need for local meat processors “to process everything from pork to poultry to wild game.”
“We had an informal meeting with some of the pork producers and our proposed agricultural hub, or agri hub, would have the ability to have meat processing there, not just for hogs, but for all species,” said Spallumcheen Mayor Christine Fraser. “So we are going to work really hard with our local small producers, and producers in general in the region, to set up a facility that’s on municipal land so this doesn’t happen in the future, so producers still have a place to go if a business goes under or someone shuts down.”
Fraser said one of the next steps is getting property zoned to allow processing.
“That will go to the Agricultural Land Commission and the ministry for their comments,” said Fraser. “We have heard really good comments back already that in general they support the idea as long as there’s actual businesses that want to go there.”
Fraser stressed that whatever Spallumcheen moves forward with will be driven by the needs of local stakeholders, from farmers to grocery stores.
“It’s to try and create a full circle agricultural system here in the Okanagan…,” said Fraser.
Meanwhile, Smith said the SSMPA is in the process of building an inspected abattoir in partnership with the Coldwater Indian Band. It is also supporting Spallumcheen’s Agricultural Advisory Committee in the development of meat processing facilities and other efforts to broaden and support increased processing capacity.
Keeping it local
For the Keenans, with the farmgate licence they’re seeing a benefit to processing their own pigs.
“We really see the value in having the pig never leave our property, which I think is starting to gain traction – this kind of zero-transport meat,” said Keenan. “People are really exited about an animal not being on a trailer for a long period of time. And so having all our pigs born on the farm, and then never leave our farm until they’re in a plastic-wrapped package… I think it’s really cool to be able to say we do the whole thing, start to finish, on our farm.”
Keeping things local is an underlying driver behind Spallumcheen’s proposed Agri-Hub.
“If you go back 70 to 100 years, everything was grown local and processed local and bought local. That’s how things were,” said Fraser. “And I think the more climate change and different things come into play, even just the fuel costs to ship products, it just makes sense… Then you’re eating those local products and buying local and supporting all those local farmers producing those foods.”
Solutions needed now
Sterritt supports Fraser and Spallumcheen’s Agri-Hub future goals. However, that doesn’t help her now and she said the Farmgate licence is not a solution for everyone.
“It’s better to stop than to continue,” said Sterritt. “There is no plan B for me so my choice is clear. I can’t continue.”
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