Eighteen months after the Province introduced significant reforms to meat production regulations, a farmer’s lobby group says much still needs to be done to strengthen the industry.

“We are happy – they did make some excellent changes,” says Julia Smith, the president of the Small-Scale Meat Producers Association of BC. “There’s a couple of issues. One, it doesn’t allow you to slaughter enough to become a viable business. So you tend to have very, very small producers, or very, very big producers, and really not much in between.”

That’s why Smith is meeting with Kootenay-area meat producers, processors and farm advisors on March 16 for an interactive discussion about concerns and opportunities in the small-farm meat industry in British Columbia. They’re looking for ways to fill that gap in the scale of local meat-producing farms.

“It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation,” she says of the current state of the industry. “How do we grow these businesses, invest in the infrastructure required, when we are constrained by the amount we are allowed to produce or kill?”

Smith says the solution isn’t just that the government needs to do something, but rather there are systemic issues farmers can solve together.

“That’s our niche. We’re looking at taking these small operations and scaling them up to be viable businesses without necessarily needing to have, say, hundreds of thousands of chickens.”

The Small-Scale Meat Producers Association of BC (SSMPA) started out as a Facebook group with just 75 members about five years ago, and quickly swelled over the last few years into a province-wide organization for small meat producers. 

In October 2021, the Province revamped the rules overseeing farm gate sales of meat. New regulations were designed to allow small farms to produce more meat they could slaughter themselves, and streamlined processing regulations for larger farm operations.

At the time, there was a lot of optimism. Smith herself was quoted saying it would help farmers “break out of the hobby-farm prison.”

Pushing the bottleneck

While the changes have been positive, there are still many producers trapped behind the bars of regulatory and systemic problems. Smith says there are still labour pool and wage issues in the processing industry, a lack of access to regional slaughtering services, and concerns about insurance and general profitability.

“The rule changes only handled the slaughter,” she told the Valley Voice. “So you still need to get those animals cut up. It pushes the bottleneck down a bit, then we have to address cut-and-wrap capacity. There are not enough butchers.”

As a result, Smith says animals are raised here in the Kootenays, sent to a cattle yard in Alberta, slaughtered and butchered, then sold back to consumers in BC.

Smith says there’s opportunity for a better way.

“That’s the industrial model as it exists. Between that and a hobby farm, there’s a business opportunity, as witnessed by the ever-increasing demand for this kind of production,” she says.

“People want to know their farmer. They want to know where their meat came from, that it was raised outside in a regenerative way that is contributing to climate change solutions and higher animal welfare. 

“There’s a huge demand for these products but it’s very difficult for people to earn a living in that space right now.”

A provincial survey by her group found that 93% of respondents from the Kootenays said they worked off-farm to supplement their family income. Only one in nine farmers self-identified as full-time, though 41% said they wanted to be.

Smith says real progress to change those stats will come from small-scale producers working together cooperatively to build the capacity of the industry from the grassroots up. And that’s another reason for meeting in Creston on the 16th.

“We want to find out – what are the unique challenges there, what are the opportunities there? What is the market like, the producer like?” she says.

Not reinventing the wheel

Another SSMPA initiative is to form a network of processors called a ‘butcher hub.’ It would address area-specific needs, to reduce local bottlenecks that are stifling growth. In the Peace River country, there’s already a pilot project for a mobile slaughter unit. In this area, they’re looking at adding a cut-and-wrap butchering facility in Kootenay-Boundary.

“We want to form a network to bring all these regional facilities together so nobody has to reinvent the wheel, nobody has to do another feasibility study – there’s been a lot of studies,” she says. “We can get standard operating procedures; we can share recipes; we can do group buying; we can bring people together for networking opportunities and knowledge transfer – just to remove some of the barriers we’re currently facing when addressing meat processing capacity in some of these communities.”

Insurance has become another growing issue for farm meat producers. Smith says they’re developing a plan to have a common insurance program, and are seeking input from local farmers in an online survey that concludes on March 10. 

 For more info on the SSMPA and the insurance survey, visit www.smallscalemeat.ca

By John Boivin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 09, 2023

This item reprinted with permission from   Valley Voice   New Denver, British Columbia
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