Abbatoir rules shutting down local meat production

This letter from a livestock farmer on Vancouver Island takes me to task with a thoughtful description of how our laws, regulations and tax system make it extremely difficult to raise local meat.

Hi Peter,
I just finished reading your book, “The Urban Food Revolution” and enjoyed it very much.  It will definitely be on the “required reading” list for our farm apprentices.

I do think you missed the boat a bit on livestock farming, though, only referring to the feedlot big-ag system of raising livestock, not mentioning farms which practise no-till seeding, rotational grazing and so on.  Out of the thousand acres we rent near Metchosin on Vancouver Island (we own only two and a half acres) 80 is hayland suitable for pasturing before and after the hay is cut, and 40 is in grain.  The rest is grazable, but not cropable.  (Besides, nobody is beating down the door to grow food on the hay or grain land.

As I’m sure you have seen in the lower Fraser Valley, there are a lot of hay fields that haven’t been cut in a year or two and are reverting to bush.  There is a lot of land in BC suitable only for grazing, for example the bunch grass rangeland in the Interior, and bush pasture on the Island here where we can basically graze sheep all year and produce a lot of food via the sun and grass.

It’s a valuable resource and I think it should get some mention when talking about food revolutions.  One of the impediments to keeping cattle out of feedlots is the lack of local or mobile processing facilities in BC – many ranchers in the interior are forced to truck their animals to Alberta to be processed, and they are held there in feedlots until they are killed.

We are very lucky to be near an inspected plant but until we managed to get it up and running, we were trucking our sheep from Metchosin (near Victoria) to Duncan, then to Port Alberni and finally were faced with having to sell them at auction in Vancouver, which would have put us out of farming.

Fortunately we were able to convince the local (at that time uninspected) abattoir owner not to retire, and to upgrade to an inspected plant so we could continue getting our animals processed there.  We are still in a very vulnerable position, at the mercy of his decision to keep allowing us to use his plant – or not – and we worry that soon he may find that it’s just too much hassle to keep doing this.   Fortunately for us he also has sheep, so has a vested interest in continuing.

When it looked like he was going to go out of business, many local sheep producers got out of farming.  My husband and I hung in there because we had 400 ewes and the mutton price was terrible at the time, so we had to try to phase out gradually if we were going to quit.  We are now at 320 ewes, forced to cut back because we have lost some of our leases.  We produce 650-750 lambs a year.  Many of these lambs are growing next door to subdivisions and fairly urban areas.  People lease to us because they get farm tax status.

Many of the properties we use in Metchosin are waterfront and the owners’ taxes can be reduced from about $10,000.00/year to $1000.00/year or less.  Unfortunately, with the new tax rules, these land owners can probably meet the requirements by just taking a cut of hay off the fields, so the fences are starting to deteriorate and there is no longer an incentive for anybody to fence their land to earn enough money to qualify for the tax break.  This didn’t use to be the case.

If you find yourself in a position to make recommendations with regard to livestock raising in BC and you would like to see animals kept out of feedlots, I’m hoping you might consider bringing up the following points:

— more access to local processing is needed, to reduce fuel used and stress on the animals.  We are able to get our lambs processed in Metchosin, so we are luckier than most people.  However, we still need to take our chickens up to Cowichan Bay and our pigs up to Duncan.  This involves one trip up with the live animals and another trip a day or two later to pick up the processed animals.  Pigs don’t travel well, and neither do chickens, so there is a fair amount of stress on them.

We treat our animals well, and it is frustrating to have to take them elsewhere to be processed when the uninspected mobile or local abattoirs we used to use did an excellent job, were safe, and were much easier on the animals.  Because it is the Ministry of Health and the CFIA’s obligation to meet international guidelines for exporting meat, rather than for local consumption, abattoir owners are forced to build very expensive facilities when a simple small local one would be equally safe.

— allow farmers to compost their own animals’ slaughterhouse waste on their farms.  We are allowed to compost animals that have died of illness on our farm but not to do this with the waste from our healthy animals after they are slaughtered.  Instead it goes to the dump.

Before inspection rules and the cost of building a new chicken processing plant on Vancouver Island basically put all the Island chicken farmers out of business, we were able to spread chicken manure on our fields, and use less chemical.  For the last couple of years we have been able to get Alpine trucks to backhaul chicken manure from Chilliwack when they take their loads of drywall to a dump over there, but I don’t think that is going to continue.  (Nor should it!) So we are forced to use more and more chemical fertilizer when there is all that slaughterhouse waste just going to our dump.

— the amount of money landowners need to earn to qualify for farm taxes is way too low.  Many times they can qualify simply by having a custom hay cutter come and cut one crop of hay off their property, then sell the hay bales to a friend for whatever price adds up to what they need to earn to qualify.  The land is not fertilized or improved, just mined.  The yields go down year after year, but the owners don’t care if their motive is not to improve or steward the land, but simply to earn just enough to get their tax break.  We have taken over leases of many such properties after they have changed owners and it takes a great deal of fertilizer and/or proper grazing management to bring these places back into production.

I did really enjoy your book and hope you write something someday about intensive vs extensive animal production.  If you haven’t seen it already, you might be interested in this TED talk about the value of livestock grazing and just how much of the world can produce food only by grazing.

I’ve also just started reading a very interesting book about raising meat: “Meat: A Benign Extravagance”, by Simon Fairlie.

If you’d like info about our farm, we have a website and are on Facebook under “Parry Bay Sheep Farm.”
Thanks again for writing such a great book!
—-Lorraine Buchanan.

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About Urban Food Revolution

Peter Ladner is a former Vancouver city councilor, Metro Vancouver vice-chair and business owner who is currently a weekly columnist at Business in Vancouver newspaper and a regular contributor to crosscut.com, a Seattle-based online news service. He is the author of The Urban Food Revolution: Changing the Way we Feed Cities, published by New Society in November, 2011. For the past two years he has been a Fellow at the SFU Centre for Dialogue researching, teaching and organizing public events around the theme Planning Cities as if Food Matters. He was first elected to Vancouver City Council in 2002, was re-elected in 2005 and ran for mayor in 2008. He is a former member of the TransLink Board, and was vice chair of the Metro Vancouver Board. Peter has been the publisher, president and part owner of the Business in Vancouver Media Group, which he co-founded in 1989. He has a lifelong interest in growing food. As a city councilor, he worked with the Vancouver Food Policy Council in initiating the city’s program to add 2010 food-producing community garden plots by 2010. He is vice-chair of the The Natural Step Canada, part of an international organization that advances sustainability in communities and corporations. He has a B.A. from UBC and did graduate work at the UBC School of Community and Regional Planning. He and his wife Erica have four adult children.
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