Farming and COVID-19: Ottawa Valley farmers urge people to 'understand what we're up against'

·3 min read

If you’re slicing into a sizzling steak for dinner tonight, or getting a spoonful of lamb stew, then you have a farmer and butcher to thank. They are the silent, often underappreciated heroes of the food industry, and they are facing massive challenges amid the pandemic.

“We feel that people don’t understand us,” said Craig McLaughlin, owner of a medium-sized beef farm in Renfrew County.

“It would be so helpful if people understand what we are up against,” echoed Angie Hoysted, co-owner of Valley Custom Cutting, a provincial free-standing meat plant and full-service butcher shop in Smiths Falls.

So what exactly are they up against?

Bill Dobson, who owns an organic beef farm in Smiths Falls, said one of the biggest challenges local producers have is a lack of infrastructure for processing.

“There’s not enough abattoirs (slaughterhouse for livestock),” Dobson said.

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) website listed a total of 115 abattoirs in the province, and 360 free-standing meat processing plants (FSMP).

FSMPs do not slaughter animals. They conduct further processing activities such as the aging, boning, cutting, slicing, smoking, curing and fermenting of meat.

Once the animal carcass has been brought back from the abattoirs, the challenge is that there aren’t enough butchers (or FSMPs) to cut and process the meat.

“There’s just not enough people getting into that business. We have to encourage (the) government to open up spaces in community colleges and encourage people to go into that field,” Dobson said.

Hoysted’s husband Dan was head butcher at an abattoir when it closed unexpectedly. The beef producers in the area – who knew him and trusted his skills – expressed their need for a reliable butcher, so Dan and Angie opened a shop in 2016.

Hoysted said farmers invest two years of raising and taking care of livestock, so they’re not just “going take it to a random butcher to cut it. You don’t get a good yield, the cuts you want or your packages professionally done.”

Not only do farmers book months in advance for an abattoir, they also have to schedule for butchers, typically a six-month wait.

“Once the pandemic hit, spaces booked up at the abattoir. I used to be able to book slaughter space in a month or two; now it’s at least six months,” said Tyler Armstrong, a sheep farmer who owns Pinnacle Haven Farm in Renfrew.

“Now I book before the lamb’s even born,” Armstrong said, adding that this issue is not unique to this area – it’s an Ontario-wide issue.

McLaughlin said this poses a huge problem: “If I have cattle ready (for the abattoir), and they have no place to go, you have to maintain them. You can’t put them in a storage locker. They require daily care and (it) costs me more.”

Another challenge is labour shortage. If a farmer or a butcher gets sick, there’s not a ready source of labour they can avail themselves of quickly.

“You might find an able body, but they’ve never worked with livestock before, or trained in specific skills to operate specific equipment,” McLaughlin said.

“If we got sick, we have to go home, and everything in our cooler will be garbage by the time we reopen,” Hoysted said about the meat products they sell.

“We’re one of the youngest people owning a provincial processing plant in this part of Ontario. Everyone else is older. What’s going to happen in five to 10 years when they retire? You’re going to have a major, major issue,” Hoysted said.

Yona Harvey, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Smiths Falls Record News