Local lamb thriving on BC islands
Story & photos by Barbara Johnstone Grimmer, P.Ag.
The BC sheep industry is relatively small and very diverse, with an average flock size of 30–40 ewes and a total of 55,000 head. There are no federally inspected plants that kill lambs in BC.
According to Statistics Canada (2011), 26% of BC sheep are located on Vancouver Island and the southern Gulf Islands (between the mainland and Vancouver Island). Sheep production is spread throughout the islands with 14,000–15,000 sheep on nearly 500 farms. The Gulf Islands are unique in that large predators are either absent or rare, with only flying predators such as eagles and ravens to worry about. Vancouver Island has cougars and bears, but no coyotes. Livestock is transported on and off the islands by ferry or, for those islands without ferry service, by barge. The mild coastal climate allows sheep to remain outdoors most of the year.
Up until a few years ago, most lamb was processed on the farm and sold to the community and visitors to the islands. Direct marketing increased following the BSE border closure in 2003, enhanced by the demand for local food. In 2004, the BC government changed its meat regulations to require licensing of all facilities slaughtering livestock and the inspection of all meat in the province. After a rocky period of farmer protests and consultations, the regulations became law in 2007. All over the province, local abattoirs shut down. Required plant upgrades were costly for many operators, especially in isolated rural areas where direct sales of uninspected meat had previously been allowed. With no inspection on the small islands, animals had to be transported off the islands for slaughter. Off-island abattoirs were often over-booked, creating long waits.
Sheep numbers fell across BC by 33%. Island numbers fell even farther. A 2010 study of livestock on Salt Spring Island determined that, although sheep comprised 90% of livestock raised on the island, sheep numbers had fallen by 44% in just five years.
Implementation of the new regulations was delayed initially because few plants upgraded to the new standards; most of them closed down. The government scrambled for solutions and offered funding to assist with upgrades, and slowly plants began to apply for funds. Some communities had to start from scratch.
One of the few plants licensed to process lamb before the regulatory changes is located on a farm in Metchosin, a half hour from the city of Victoria. The small plant services southern Vancouver Island and the southern Gulf Islands, providing custom slaughter services and lamb for local butcher shops, grocery stores and restaurants. John and Lorraine Buchanan and their family started out as regular customers and suppliers of lamb to the plant, and over 30 years became one of the biggest sheep producers on Vancouver Island. They have since taken over operation of the plant to preserve access to the local market. The workers remained; without that smooth transition the business would not have survived.
John says the challenges have included training new workers in case someone leaves, finding people who are willing to slaughter, and finding work for them the rest of the week, such as making deliveries, as the plant only operates about one-and-a-half days a week and does not do cutting and wrapping. The plant can kill 60 lambs a week; this number is limited by how many can be cut and wrapped (about 35 per week) at three local butcher shops. The rest are wholesale carcass sales. John feels that they are succeeding in all of these areas. They are also succeeding with the buy-in of independent butchers and the many restaurants that really value having a good local supply of lamb.
Slaughter waste is taken to the local landfill, at an average cost of $5 per lamb, including trucking. John looked into composting, but his plant is just a bit too big to be exempt from composting regulations, and it can be difficult to make composting on a large scale economically viable.
The Buchanan family’s Parry Bay Sheep Farm is well known locally and in the larger sheep community. They are good farmers and good business people, and have expanded their 300+ ewe operation by leasing farmland and smaller pastures, while owning little land themselves. The ewes are on pasture for nine months, and grazed rotationally to optimize grass growth. They also grow some grain, including wheat for local bakeries.
John and Lorraine are generous with their time and knowledge, hosting field days for the Inter-Island Sheep Breeders Association, teaching new sheep producers the finer points of raising good lamb, and inviting the general public and school groups to visit at lambing time. At a BC Sheep Federation (BCSF) seminar last year, the Buchanans heard about the Premium BC Lamb Program being developed by the BC Association of Abattoirs (BCAA), in partnership with BCSF. They hosted a field day a few months later, which introduced the BC Meats Quality Information System (BCMQIS), a carcass scoring system for grading lamb. The Buchanans provided lambs, and producers were taught how to select for quality and finish. The next day the lambs were processed and the carcasses graded and compared to the live evaluations.
Producers who are members of the BC Abattoir Association can sign up for the Premium BC Lamb program and receive feedback on their lambs from participating abattoirs. The association is a unique organization that has developed the Premium BC Lamb brand, bringing together chefs, retailers, processors and lamb producers, working for a strong, effective value chain. The BCAA was formed in 2009 by the licensed BC meat industry, and has partnered with the BCSF to develop standards and ensure high-quality lamb production and a powerful marketing scheme for the industry.
Producers receive guidance and training on nutrition and selection of lambs, and abattoir operators are trained in the unique grading system.
The weight and grade of each lamb is recorded with its RFID tag number, and the results are available to the producers. Lambs grading high are stamped, and can be marketed using the Premium BC Lamb label. Boxes of lamb are identified with the RFID tag number, ensuring traceability.
Marketing materials for restaurants state ‘Proudly Serving BC Lamb’, using a distinctive logo that is on all materials used by producers, stores and restaurants. The production, selection and grading system has been introduced at workshops around the province and more are scheduled for this fall.
One of the early adopters of the BCMQIS grading system is also a director of the BC Association of Abattoirs. Jacques Campbell (with brother Tom and sister Nan) raises sheep and beef cattle and operates a small abattoir on beautiful Saturna Island, a 31-sq. km island with a population of 300. Jacques’ parents, Jim and Lorraine, started Campbell Farm in 1945. The Campbells currently run about 100 commercial ewes, with Cheviot, Charollais and Suffolk breeding, and ten cows. The ewes lamb in February under the trees, and the lambs are primarily grass-fed and finished.
Campbell Farm Abattoir, BC #32, was built in the 1950’s, designed with advice from the UBC Faculty of Agriculture, which both of Jacques’ parents attended in the 1940’s. There are two levels in the plant. A drop floor allows for beef to be hung. The walk-in cooler on the upper level has an overhead track to move carcasses. The change in meat regulations imposed only minimal upgrades on the plant, such as improved surfaces and a closed-in ceiling. Other items were added, such as a bolt gun and sanitizers for the knives. Wooden cutting boards had to go, but knives with wooden handles were allowed to wear out. Additional considerations, such as an office and bathroom for the inspector, were accommodated by facilities in an adjacent building.
Waste is under the jurisdiction of the BC Ministry of Environment, and the Campbells have a fenced and covered burial pit, with a separate pit for specified risk materials.
Slaughter is seasonal, from June to December, three days a week, with one day for slaughter and two for cutting and wrapping. The inspector comes on an early ferry from Victoria, arriving around 6:30 am. Work ends when he has to catch the ferry back around 10 am. About 15-20 lambs can be done in a day on this schedule.
Jacques says that when the changes to the regulations were announced, they were told there was no room for small slaughterhouses like hers, but that attitude has changed with the assistance of the BC Food Processors, whom the government enlisted to help with the transition. Jacques feels that the advantages of the license and the inspection process outweigh the expense and extra oversight, providing opportunity. They now have scheduled slaughter days, and the farm can sell their lamb in the local store and to local restaurants. They can also continue to supply lamb for the annual Saturna Island Lamb Barbeque held each Canada Day. The Argentine-style barbeque has been an annual community fundraiser since 1950, bringing tourists by boat and ferry from all over BC and the world.
Being inspected also means they can provide custom cutting and wrapping for islands that do not have an abattoir. Campbell Farm has a growing customer base of sheep and beef producers from neighbouring islands, who bring animals by truck on the ferries, or from smaller islands by barge.
Jacques was one of the first lamb abattoir operators trained on the BCQMIS system, which uses a tablet to photograph carcasses, which are then graded against a standard. She also has a Psion RFID reader, FarmWorks software and an electronic scale head to monitor her own flock’s progress. In 2010, Campbell Farm hosted a producer workshop to show how the abattoir works, and to demonstrate the benefits of RIFD.
One group of sheep producers who came to the field day had a specific purpose: to learn about small-scale abattoirs so they could build one for Salt Spring Island. They watched a lamb being processed, from start to finish. They saw how the sheep were handled, how the bolt gun quickly stunned the animal, how many people it took to process the lamb and how the facilities were laid out, as well as the role of the inspector. Two years later, the newest abattoir in the Gulf Islands is the community-owned and operated Salt Spring Abattoir.
Salt Spring is the largest Gulf Island, at 183 sq. km, and over 10,000 people. The abattoir was built because of the difficulty of transporting animals off-island for processing, and the decline in livestock and poultry on the island after the new meat regulations came into effect. Before it was built, there had been no slaughter service on Salt Spring for five years.
Sheep have been central to the character of many Gulf Islands since the first European settlers found the island more suited to grazing livestock than growing crops. The animal has become a mascot for Salt Spring, featured on souvenirs and signage, and Salt Spring lamb has been proudly served to the Queen on her visits to British Columbia. It is said that the lamb’s famous flavour comes from the salt air, the island grasses and the apples that fall in old orchards every fall. All of this contributed to the ‘Save Salt Spring Lamb’ campaign, which spurred development of the new abattoir.
A feasibility study determined that the only way an abattoir could be built to government standards would be through fundraising in the community, as the income from such a small plant would not pay to build it. An Agriculture Area Plan followed, which reinforced the idea that more infrastructure was needed on the island. The non-profit Salt Spring Island Agricultural Alliance was formed in 2008, and fundraised for the abattoir using crowd funding, farm dinners, chef’s dinners, restaurant fundraisers and musical events to bring the community together on the project. The original cost estimate was $500,000 for a permanent building (not including land) versus $300,000 for a simple mobile abattoir, a solution other communities had settled on.
It was decided to build a multi-species abattoir on site, to process lamb, goats, poultry and (eventually) pigs and beef, with moveable modular components (in case another site is chosen in the future) for cutting and wrapping, cooling and freezing, offal and hides, plus a custom-built slaughter trailer. It was estimated that the society would need $350,000 to build this customized style of abattoir, with $200,000 from fundraising and $150,000 from a government grant. But costs went up as local and provincial governments added requirements and plans were changed, resulting in a final cost of $470,000, with another $25,000 still being raised for upgrades for beef and pig slaughtering.
The Salt Spring Abattoir Society is the not-for-profit that was formed to manage the abattoir business. The business model is unique in that the abattoir is owned and run by the community. David Astill is the president of the society. The one thing that David would suggest to someone thinking of following their model would be to go with a permanent building rather than a mobile abattoir. Mobile abattoirs are expensive and tight on space, as well as hard to keep cool on hot days. The government’s requirements for docking stations are so high for a mobile abattoir in BC that it adds to the cost of construction and takes away the advantages of a mobile unit.
The abattoir owes its success to the organizational skills and knowledge base of the fundraisers and volunteers, the incredible support of the community, and the attention paid to the labour component. A central goal was to achieve sustainability through high animal welfare standards, and fair wages and working conditions. The plant has retained good employees, critical for success in any business but even more so for slaughter plants. David emphasized that it is important to hire employees who work well for the business, work well together and are flexible, and to appreciate them for the hard work they do. An added benefit of good working conditions for employees has been the positive contribution to animal welfare, product quality, and a good working relationship with the producers and the abattoir society.
Building a community business has led David to develop a value chain for the Salt Spring Abattoir and its stakeholders, working with retailers like Thrifty Foods who are considering taking Salt Spring lamb back to Vancouver Island Thrifty stores instead of sending trucks back empty after delivering groceries to Salt Spring. That is a big win, supported by the Premium BC Lamb brand, which ensures quality and provides branded marketing materials for retailers. National chain stores often do not accept provincially inspected meat as a matter of policy, given that provincially inspected meat cannot be sold across provincial or federal borders. Thrifty Foods is a Victoria-based brand that values local food and, although it was sold to the national Sobey’s retail chain in 2007, has retained a lot of its character.
The Salt Spring plant was designed to process 750 lambs per year at 20 per day. Last year the abattoir was able to process 25 lambs per day and did a total of 450 lambs. A local farmer composts slaughter waste from the plant, by mixing it with old hay in a feed mixer mounted on the PTO of his tractor. The mixture is turned for a half hour a few times a day and composting is complete in a week.
Now that the growing pains of the new plant have eased and its potential is being realized, the larger sheep producers on Salt Spring are starting to use it as well, and there is hope that as it becomes available to beef and pork producers livestock numbers will rebound and the viability of agriculture on Salt Spring Island will improve. The ‘Save Salt Spring Lamb’ campaign that started this project seems to have achieved its goals.
Barbara Johnstone Grimmer is a commercial sheep producer and professional agrologist who lives on Pender Island, BC.