Saving the Abattoir
In an effort to maintain the supply of local meat in eastern Ontario, a North Augusta woman has undertaken an audacious plan — to purchase a local, unused abattoir and have it up and running as a non-profit business by August, the beginning of the fall rush on meat processing.
“Lots of people want local meat. You can see that in the increasing sales at farmers’ markets,” says Barbara Schaefer, who is spearheading the project. “But the number of local abattoirs is falling precipitously — and if it continues, the supply of local meat simply won’t be there.”
The decline in the number of abattoirs is caused by provincial regulations that have been putting the squeeze on small operators, Schaefer says. “And we have no problem with those regulations — they are needed if the food supply is to be safe, a goal the province has every right to seek.”
The problem is that the numerous small, “mom and pop” operations that used to dot eastern Ontario have been unable to meet the expenses of retrofitting to meet provincial regulations.
“Eastern Ontario has lost 35 per cent of its provincially licensed slaughterhouses over the past 10 years,” Schaefer says. “And for many of those that remain, the business case for remaining open is not particularly good.”
Abattoir owners across the province seem to be in much the same situation. In a 2010 survey done by a private committee of abattoir owners and later distributed by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, 91 per cent of respondents felt that some regulations forced them to make expensive renovations that seemed more cosmetic than important for food safety; 93 per cent felt overwhelmed by paperwork; and 74 per cent felt the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs did not give them enough forewarning of upcoming regulatory changes.
Schaefer — who mostly raises heritage swine on her farm, Upper Canada Heritage Meat in North Augusta, halfway between Smiths Falls and Brockville — considers herself typical of the farmers squeezed by the increasing lack of regional abattoirs.
“Except my case may be a little worse,” she says. “I go to the slaughterhouse every week — and if I can’t find a reasonably nearby operation, I would have to find the time to drive hours to deliver the animals, put them under the stress of being transported and make the visit back to pick up the packaged meat. That would be almost impossible for me.”
The fact that she raises swine makes her problem worse. A number of old abattoir operations have been purchased by Muslim groups who use them for halal slaughter. “And, for religious reasons, they won’t allow pork in — which further limits anyone who raises pigs.”
If the new abattoir gets off the ground, it will be accepting swine, of course, as well as a range of domestic farm animals, including cattle, lamb, sheep and goats. Within a year of opening, a poultry facility will also be added — very important, Schaefer says, because many farmers are raising chickens under the artisanal chicken program offered by the Chicken Farmers of Ontario, which offers support to operations that raise between 600 and 3,000 chickens annually for farmers’ markets.
For farmers in her area, the closure of Rideau Meats in Smiths Falls in February was devastating, Schaefer says. Rideau Meats was one of the largest facilities serving the counties of Leeds and Grenville, Frontenac, Lanark and Ottawa-Carleton. “For a lot of people, this was the nail in the coffin,” she says. “So now people are trying to book at other slaughterhouses, but are being told there won’t be any openings for four months, an impossible wait.” An animal that can’t be slaughtered when it reaches market weight becomes an ongoing expense for the farmer who must continue to feed it and meet other expenses.
Schaefer fears the slaughterhouse she is currently using, in Mallorytown, is under pressure and may close. “And that would be devastating. My business would not work without them.”
With the horizons narrowing on all sides, Schaefer has decided to take matters into her own hands. She now has her eye on a nowdormant abattoir located near the town of Athens, in Leeds County. The building’s owner has spent the last year upgrading the facility with the intention of selling it as a turn-key operation that can be up and running as soon as a new owner takes possession. The plant is located on land already zoned for slaughterhouse use, has a full range of equipment and already meets most provincial regulations. The cost of purchasing the 5,500-square-foot building would be $200,000, with an additional $50,000 or less required to bring the building fully up to code.
“To build a building from scratch would cost well over $1 million,” Schaefer says. “This is a wonderful opportunity.”
If the business does get off the ground, Schaefer intends to run it as a non-profit, a form of operation she is well familiar with, having worked with and for non-profits, earlier in her career.
She believes that operating the business as a non-profit will give it far more financial stability, with access to funding from foundations and a few government programs that a private business would not have, and no single owner bearing all the financial risk. With this stability, it should be able to ride through whatever regulatory changes come into play in the future.
Schaefer has already formed a non-profit corporation, the Farmersville Community Abattoir, to raise money. The board of directors includes not only Schaefer but Kyle White, owner of Milkhouse Farm and Dairy in Smiths Falls, and Brandon Jelly, owner of B. Jelly Farms in Rocksprings. The management team includes Schaefer and Bernie Barber, the original owner of the facility, who will work as a butcher, consultant and mentor.
Her August deadline for opening has made the search for funding urgent. “But I feel quite confident,” Schaefer says. “Already thousands of dollars have come in from donations, and the bank seems to find our business plan solid and has been quite supportive.”
She hopes to raise as much as possible through donations and hopes that farmers, restaurateurs, chefs, butchers, retailers and concerned consumers will come forward. A donation of $1,000 will entitle the donor to become a voting member; any farmer who becomes a voting member will be entitled to prompt slaughter services.
Her vision includes more than merely opening the facility. She wants the abattoir to become Canada’s first “certified humane” slaughterhouse through implementing the guidelines of Dr. Temple Grandin, an American specialist who has devised ways of keeping animals relaxed and of ensuring pain-free slaughtering. She also wants the operation to become a provincial training facility for new butchers, which, if developed, would be the province’s only accredited program. And finally, to make the operation environmentally friendly, she plans to install solar panels on the roof. (Hydro, she says, is one of the largest expenses of any abattoir.)
Her fellow board member, Kyle White, says the proposed August opening date is ambitious but doable, especially with Schaefer at the helm. “You don’t often find people with that kind of conviction. Her certainty that things were going to happen frankly galvanized me — and all the groundwork she’s done does make it all seem plausible.”
The facility is “quite close to ticking all the boxes on the inspectors’ lists,” White says, “and our sense is that the inspectors do want the place to open, to reverse the pattern of closures across the region.” Local farmers, he says, “are expressing a ton of interest. It wouldn’t surprise me if we get even more support than we’re anticipating.”
Though some observers say abattoir owners face especially severe problems in Ontario, the number of abattoirs has also been declining in Quebec and other provinces for several decades. Across the agriculture sector in general, fewer and bigger seems to displace many and smaller — a galloping trend that gathers an increasing air of inevitability.
But that trend won’t be continuing in Leeds County, at least not for a time, if Schaefer has her way.
Those interested in learning more about Farmersville Community Abattoir can contact Schaefer at 613.340.7353 or at email@example.com.