Link between farm gate and plate
If you are ever on Salt Spring Island during a big earthquake, head to the abattoir’s holding pens. The government’s edict that they be built to the highest seismic standards is just one of the thicket of regulations through which the community group that built the facility had to weave to open the doors of the abattoir. And because they were creating a multi-species slaughterhouse, officials overseeing the process were as skittish as some of the turkeys that turn up for slaughter.
Delays and compliance changes pushed building costs 34% over budget by the time doors opened in 2012. It left a debt which volunteers have been chipping away at ever since. Another attempt to liquidate the remaining $30,000 deficit is tonight when the Abattoir Society holds its second birthday bash, a $40-a-plate fundraiser at the Farmers’ Institute in the island town of Ganges.
Ten years ago the BC government announced a tightening of the rules about meat. Commercial on-farm killing was banned and livestock had to be slaughtered in a licensed and inspected slaughterhouse or it couldn’t be sold.
When the changes were first announced, Margaret Thomson knew it would hit Salt Spring hard. “It was going to be really awkward. Nothing existed here that could be upgraded to meet the new standards.” The retired nurse, now a sheep and turkey farmer, called a meeting of island farmers and midwifed an agreement to build a local abattoir.
“If it doesn’t run as a business, it won’t last.”
It took years of planning and fundraising for volunteers with the Salt Spring Agricultural Alliance to get to opening day. There was added urgency to the work when a study showed that livestock production had dropped 50% over four years, this on an island renowned for its top-quality lamb. “No one wanted to be bothered to go off-island,” says Thomson.
Since the doors opened two years ago, things have changed. “There’s been a huge impact,” says Anne Macey, the Alliance president. Livestock numbers are on the rebound. “People had been giving up. It was too complicated with the new regulations and that was unfortunate at a time of such an increasing demand for local food.” But that early success wouldn’t have been possible without countless volunteer hours.
Built to move
The large white trailers and the bullet-proof corrals are on a scrubby piece of land about five kilometres south-west of Ganges along the main road. Originally designed as a mobile facility that could travel to other Gulf islands, the abattoir hasn’t moved since it was built. Inside is the knock box where the killing takes place, a skinning room, a sterile room for evisceration and government inspection plus coolers, hanging space and butchering tables. Total cost: $470,000.
Throughout the March to December slaughter season, lambs are killed on Wednesdays, chickens on Thursdays. Goats, turkeys, ducks and geese come through periodically. Cutting and wrapping takes placed on Fridays for farmers who want that service. Daily volume is usually two dozen lambs and 250 chickens.
There are five part-time employees plus David Astill, a retired high school teacher, sheep farmer and president of the Abattoir Society, which runs the facility. Astill is also the volunteer operations manager. Lately that takes about 25 hours a week. “I got mad at myself Sunday night,” he admits. “I spent two hours taking calls about abattoir business; I could have been reading a book instead.” When he’s not on the phone Astill helps pull animals out of trucks, fetches supplies, completes paperwork, handles water tests, deals with the inspector and meets delivery drivers. “It can swallow your time,” he says ruefully.
That dependence on free labour is why island farmer Sandy Robley doesn’t think the abattoir will survive. With one of the larger flocks of sheep on the island, Sunset Farm’s could put its lambs through the abattoir but instead Robley trucks her livestock to Vancouver Island. “The place has to stand on its own two feet,” says Robley, who also runs three other businesses. “It can’t survive on donations and volunteer labour. If it doesn’t run as a business, it won’t last.”
Margins in small-scale livestock are thin. An average lamb carcass earns a farmer about $250 and that’s before feed and hay costs. Adding $116 for ferry transportation means that going elsewhere for slaughter only makes sense for people with large numbers of animals like Robley. “Only serious growers can take them off the island,” says Thomson.
“… for locally sourced food you’ve got to have an abattoir.”
With such thin profits the abattoir can’t increase its cost to kill and process an animal. It can only increase efficiency and attract more volume. But that’s not something Robley – and some other larger scale producers on the island – are about to offer, even though she admits that increased volume is what will make the facility more viable. “I have a 20-year relationship with another abattoir and no matter how granola you are, people are still price conscious.” Astill agrees that volume needs to go up but right now his focus is on increasing efficiency and ensuring staff are well-trained.
Original plans for the abattoir called for slaughtering of pigs and cows but that remains a dream. Expensive renovations to the buildings are needed before that can happen. Already the Salt Spring abattoir is unique in that it handles a range of animals. Most slaughter houses specialize in only one species. And most are only interested in volume; larger facilities elsewhere in Canada process thousands of animals a day. “No one else has tried to do both red meat and poultry on the same site. And one of our unique features is that we can take just one animal,” Macey says with a laugh.
On the 200 acre Ruckle Farm, Mike Lane is one of the biggest producers on the island. This season he put 130 lambs and 60 turkeys through the local abattoir. He admits he “took some on the chin” last year when inexperienced staff messed up but he adds that things are better now. He says a local operation reduces the stress on the animals of taking them on the ferry and it saves hours of his time. “Something like this is vitally important. Without small abattoirs, next thing you know you have to take your animals to the big places which is completely unviable.”
Robley sees viability as an enduring value. She doesn’t want to sign on to a service she isn’t convinced will last. “People around here are tired of the fund raising. Every breakdown, every renovation…. where will the money come from? And if they had to pay for the government inspection that would kill it.”
“I’m quite optimistic about the abattoir’s viability,” says Macey, who is the organizer of tonight’s birthday party. “For a new business we’re doing well. There are always challenges.” Astill describes them as birth pains. “It’s been a struggle but we’re getting better at what we’re doing. If we can stay open and running for a couple more years it’ll be around for a long time. For those who really value having locally sourced food, you’ve got to have an abattoir.”
One of the original proponents of the facility remains convinced that it can thrive. Thomson will miss tonight’s birthday party because she is giving a talk today about how to set-up a small-scale, multi-species abattoir at an international conference in Texas. “Success is possible although not guaranteed yet.”
– written & photographed by Bramwell Ryan
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