The Columbia Valley’s cattle population has plummeted since strict meat regulations were introduced in B.C. after the 2004 “mad cow” scare, but the Windermere District Farmers’ Institute (WDFI) has a plan to buck the trend and reinvigorate the local cattle industry once again.
The organization’s proposal for a local abattoir, or slaughterhouse, is slowly gaining traction. With a potential operator lined up and a $10,000 Columbia Basin Trust grant for a business plan in hand, the Windermere Farmers’ Institute is currently waiting for final approval on its agricultural non-farm use permit before approaching the Regional District of East Kootenay to apply for rezoning.
“We’re (also) getting ahead on the design so that the plan can preliminarily be approved by the BC Centre for Disease Control,” said WDFI projects co-ordinator Hedi Trescher. “Hopefully by the end of January we are going to have a really good estimate of what it’s going to cost us and we will have the plan theoretically approved.”
Whereas local ranchers used to be able to slaughter their own cattle and sell it locally, the new regulations brought in after the “mad cow”, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), scare require that animals have to be slaughtered in a provincially inspected abattoir in order to be sold to the public.
“What it means now is our nearest abattoir is in Cranbrook so in order to get something slaughtered, the farmer would have to haul the animal down there, then go home, then when it is slaughtered and inspected, he has to go down and pick up the meat and everything adds to the cost,” said Trescher. “It just becomes impossible to do, particularly for ranchers in the Golden area.”
Cow-calf operations make up the bulk of the valley’s cattle industry. Cows give birth to calves in the spring, which are raised through the summer and sold to feed lots in Alberta in the fall. The cows are then bred again and the cycle repeats. A nearby abattoir will allow for the animals to be slaughtered locally and marketed locally as local, grass-fed or hormone-free beef, said Trescher.
“An individual farmer would then have the ability to find a niche market when he raises this animal,” she said.
The proposed location for the abattoir — to be called Columbia Valley Meats — is a piece of land owned by the WDFI accessible off Highway 93/95 adjacent to and north of Town & Country Feeds.
“Historically that area’s been used for rodeo and showing livestock,” said local rancher John Zehnder of Zehnder Farms. “It’s just going to be a pretty basic building; it’s going to blend in with what’s there.”
He stressed that there would be no smell and that the public won’t be able to see the animals as the facility will be enclosed. And the animals are rendered unconscious in an instant so they don’t have to suffer, he explained.
The scale of the operation is surprisingly small. Zehnder estimates that even in a busy period the abattoir might operate twice a week, slaughtering no more than five to six animals a day.
“I don’t think there’s much more demand for it than that; we’re thinking maybe 200 to 300 animals a year.”
While the abattoir is intended mainly for the cow-calf operations, Zehnder said the WDFI is hoping it will also encourage the return of the small livestock industry.
“I think there is also a demand in the restaurants for locally grown pork or lamb or goat so if we do have an abattoir it just makes it so much more convenient and more economical so we’re hoping some of those small scale livestock operations come back.”
The WDFI intends to obtain grants to build the abattoir then lease it out to an operator. So far there is a verbal agreement with the Konig Meat & Sausage Company, which operates the deli and butcher’s shop in downtown Invermere.
A business plan that details all the economic spin offs of having this particular facility available locally is being developed by Katie Wells of Wells Business Solutions to assist with the WDFI’s grant application process.
“Right now people who are in the value-added beef business can’t access product in order to do their value added services,” said Wells, “but now they could purchase a cow and do that work themselves, or restaurants for example will be able to either work with a local farmer or butcher.”
It could also open the door for certified organic livestock operations, said Zehnder.
“This just provides another marketing option and creates a bit more stability,” he said. “If you can get a portion of your sales going locally it just diversifies your income so you’re not stuck on that one market where you have to sell everything to the feed lots in Alberta.”
The WDFI is planning a public outreach campaign to find out if valley residents support having local beef available. Send your comments to Wells by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-800-291-1653 or 250-342-5991.