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18.03.2015 • WHAT’S AT STEAK: CONVENTIONAL BEEF PRODUCTION, AND SOME ALTERNATIVES

Cow-calf farm, Gatineau

 

Every day, all across la belle province, hundreds of brand new baby cows are born –about half a million a year in total. They all enter the world wobbly, spindly legged and doe eyed, but are destined for a range of different experiences.

About 150,000 of them are born on cow-calf operations. These are farms that resemble the average person’s idea of a farm: wood-edged fields, rickety barns, men in checked padded over shirts tending to lengths of electric wire fence and repairing clunky farm machines. Calves spend their first six to ten months here with their mothers grazing on grass. After six to ten months, having grown to a size of 500 to 800 lbs, most of these calves, now called feeder cattle, are sold to feedlots where they spend the rest of their lives being finished, or to put it less politely, fattened for slaughter. Feeder cattle are fattened until they graduate to the status of fed cattle and are then slaughtered at 16 to 20 months, their growth accelerated by rich feed, mostly corn, and by growth-promoting antibiotics and sometimes hormones as well.

A small proportion of the calves born each year stay on their birth-farms and continue their lives on grass, or part time in a stable and part time on pasture, and are not transferred to intensive feeding but rather finished more gently and naturally. They eat grass in the summer and hay or silage in the winter, and are usually given grain with a lower protein mass than corn, such as oats, barley, or peas, as a supplement. It is frequently, though not necessarily, the case that farmers who decide to raise their animals in this way also avoid growth-promoting antibiotics and hormones. These calves therefore take a longer time to reach physical maturity, first slowly building muscle, and only after muscle development is completed, the inter-muscular fat so desired by beef consumers. These cows are usually slaughtered at 22 to 26 months.

Some farmers let their cattle eat nothing but pasture in summer and hay in winter. These animals’ growth is intimately connected to the cycles of nutrient development and depletion in grasses. Their prime grazing period is in late summer, when the sugar content in the plants they eat peaks. These cows take longer to grow, and are usually slaughtered later than their grain-eating peers—some as old as 30 months—and yield lean and grassy tasting beef.

Of course there are many points along the line that stretches between the extreme opposite poles of the concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) and the pastured-beef farm. Farmers make choices about how to operate within the beef industry and where to situate their practice along the continuum. For example, some small farms have miniature in-house feedlot facilities, and finish their cows at home but in an environment that mimics the conditions of the feedlot.

The remaining 350,000 baby cows that are born in Quebec each year are born into the dairy industry. Dairy cows have to be perpetually pregnant in order to continually produce milk. They consequently produce many babies. Every year some dairy cows are retired from duty and some new baby cows are groomed to replace them, but many more are born than are needed for this purpose, and moreover, fifty percent of those born are male. Most of these babies, called bob calves in the industry, colonize Québec’s prolific veal industry, which produces both milk-fed veal (powdered-milk-fed, not mother’s milk, that’s kept for human consumption) and grain-fed veal. Because of its huge dairy industry, Quebec is responsible for 84% of Canada’s veal production.

In addition to the half million babies born each year, many cows also retire from usefulness each year, about 85,000 in all. These also make up a significant proportion of Quebec’s beef industry. This group includes mothers in cow-calf operations no longer deemed productive, or whose offspring are less successful than they once were; sick or wounded cows and bulls that require too much care, or who are wild, or depressed, too much trouble to be kept around; and dairy cows no longer as prolific as they once were. These animals are called cull-cattle, or more facetiously, burger-cows—too old to yield meat tender enough for anything but, the flesh of these animals is destined to be ground meat mostly for the fast food industry, and the price per pound they fetch on the market is accordingly significantly lower than that of young steers fresh from the lot.

Most calves coming of age on cow-calf farms are sold to feedlots via the auction house. The auction house, also known as the sale-barn, facilitates the transfer of cows from farmers to larger operators: feedlot operators, slaughterhouses that process and sell meat, meat distributors that sell meat processed by other companies, or multinational meat packing companies, like Cargill and XL Foods, that do everything along the chain of meat production, from growing the animal-feed to slaughtering steers and marketing meat globally.

In the past most feeder calves came to Quebec feedlots from ranches in Western Canada, where beef rearing is much bigger business. By buying from the West, feedlot owners streamlined the process – instead of buying from multiple smaller Quebec cow-calf producers they would get the whole lot in one go, ensuring more uniformity in size and breeding, thus improving the likelihood that the entire lot will reach slaughter weight at the same time, give or take a few late bloomers. Another advantage of buying from the West was that all the calves hailing from there were mandatorily vaccinated, whereas Quebec calves were not. Mandatory vaccination makes a feedlot operator’s life simpler. Today, all calves sold at any of Quebec’s five auction houses must be vaccinated and have the papers to prove it. This, combined with the prohibitive cost of transporting cattle from across our great land has made Quebec-raised calves a more appealing option. Feedlot owners are buying more calves from Quebec today than they did before, though less in general. Feedlots are not operating at capacity because their owners can’t afford to fill them with Western cattle, and there are not enough calves in Quebec to replace them. Quebec is only responsible for 5% of Canada’s beef production.

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There are five sale-barns operating in Quebec, and many more in the rest of Canada. While regulation relating to meat passing between provinces is very stringent, live animals from one province can be sold at auction in another without undue complication. This winter I accompanied 15 Quebecois cows to auction at Leo’s Livestock Exchange in Greely, Ontario, 20 minutes south of Ottawa. My guide was Neilon Donovan Jr., a beef farmer from Poltimore, Quebec, population 400. Poltimore is in that grey zone between Quebec and Ontario. One day spent in a cattle truck picking up animals for auction had us criss-crossing provincial borders multiple times. Donovan and his wife Tammy both hail from beef farming roots, so it’s no surprise that they operate a beef farm, though they also do lots of other things to supplement their income. Tammy works for the government in Ottawa. She also raises purebred riding horses, and purebred Australian Cattle dogs.  Donovan drives cattle from nearby farms to auction, and from the auction to feedlots. He also sits through the auction process, representing the interests of the farmers whose cattle are in his charge.

Leo’s Livestock is located on Salesbarn Road. It was recently renamed Ottawa Livestock Exchange, in the interest—I suspect—of sounding a little less wild-west and a little more official. Everybody still just calls it the sales barn. It has been around for 30 years, and is the largest sales barn in Ontario. The owner Stephen Spratt is one of three auctioneers who lead the proceedings in three sales-rings inside the sprawling structure. Monday and Thursday are auction days here. Any time of day leading up to the noon auction-start-time on either of these days, livestock transport vehicles of all shapes and sizes are parked rear-facing at the loading bay, spilling animals into the first holding room in a expansive maze of similar spaces. This auction house handles sales of feeder and cull cattle, as well as pigs, sheep and goats on another day. The inside of the place looks like a dust-bowl era film set, exposed wood beams as far as the eye can see, shafts of sunlight through the cracks between the beams crisscrossing the darkness, dust from continuous hoof traffic hanging in the air creating a cinematic haze, the feeling of an old-timey photograph right before your eyes. With unexpected efficiency each animal is promptly registered on an archaic computer and numbered as they pass through this first space, then walked through some length of the maze to another area where their ear tags are scanned, calling up any relevant information about them from the Canada Food Inspection Agency’s livestock identification and traceability database. From there it’s on to a waiting space, usually with the same animals with whom they arrived, though bulls are separated from female cows, and the little ones separated from the big. There are men everywhere: the men who brought the animals, the men who work there, the buyers. Many of them hold walking sticks useful for all manner of things, including poking the cows in the ribs to keep them moving along, usually gently, though sometimes unnecessarily.

Ottawa Livestock ExchangeOttawa Livestock Exchange

The sales ring is a small wood-chip floored pit, with an automated metal cage on one side and a pulley-operated exit gate on the other. The auctioneer’s podium is at the back of the pit, facing a few rows of bleachers where buyers and sellers sit. The first row is reserved for the big buyers from Cargill, or Champlain Beef. They sit in chairs. Behind and above them seated on the steps are the sellers, and people like Donovan  who are there to handle the sale on behalf of other farmers. The guys smoke and throw cigarette butts and gum wrappers into the ring. There Ottawa Livestock Exchangeseems to be an unwritten rule that here is a place where they can behave like teenagers whose parents are out of town, or grown men whose wives aren’t around.

Thursdays are reserved for selling feeder-cattle, bob-calves and cull-cattle. The feeder-cattle and bob-calves are often sold in lots of three, while the elderly ones pass through one by one. The auctioneer’s incantation fills each animal’s moment in the ring with a sense of anticipation; his eyes shift around the room, connecting discreetly with the buyers’, while the sellers quietly ‘push’ from the rear, artificially increasing the price—an accepted cheat, like bluffing in poker. It all happens incredibly quickly, the auctioneer’s chant a language the ear becomes accustomed to after a few rounds. There is a handler in the ring with the animals, poking them with his cane to keep them moving around in circles so the buyers can observe whatever it is their keen eye is trained to see – girth versus length, the sheen of the coat — the details that make an animal worth 65 cent a pound rather than 70 in the case of cull-cattle, much more in the case of feeder cattle. Fifteen seconds and then he pulls a rope and out the cow goes, into a lot marked with the number of the buyer that won this round. In the feeder-cattle ring the spritely young calves energetically run around, no need for poking. Where the older cows look reluctant, almost embarrassed, these little ones seem pleased to put on a show.

The animals seem to be treated relatively well. There is certainly impatience for their cowish behaviour, the nervous backwards walking, their silly attempts to fit three wide through a passage barely wide enough for one, their general reticence to move exactly as they are told to. Cows have such a particular way of behaving, and the learned irritation the workers feel is palpable. The constant poking seems to be typical, but animal welfare criteria are relative, the stick gentler than the electric baton that is customary in so many other places where cattle is handled. There are representatives from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency dotted throughout, here to monitor the operation, to make sure no one is mistreated. It’s hard to say how much they see; mostly they stand around chatting in twos or threes, a familiar picture of civil service. Occasionally you notice an old dairy-cow in the ring, her skin draped like a wet t-shirt over pointy haunches, scraped raw to reveal brilliant red beneath. Donovan says it usually happens in transport because of inexperienced drivers with no common sense. Cattle trailers have dividers used to make smaller areas, so that if the vehicle happens to stop abruptly the cow doesn’t go flying across the trailer. Some drivers don’t use them, or they don’t separate animals that are liable to scrap. The one day I spent with Donovan driving cattle around, I realized that you very quickly forget that there are sentient beings in your load. They’re behind you, unseen and—for the most part—unheard. You’re in a temperature-controlled cab, hurtling down open country roads, blasting music, drinking coffee, laughing at the CB radio, pulling a trailer full of live animals around. Sensitivity training seems a must.

The bidding continues until all the animals have passed through, sometimes up to 900 in a day. About 90,000 animals are sold at Leo’s Livestock every year. At the end of the day the men line up at the office, cheques are written, commissions are taken, farmers go home a few thousand dollars richer, buyers go home with trailer loads of animals to turn into profit. Even for a farmer like Donovan who is committed to raising his cows on his own farm and to selling directly to clients that understand and appreciate the efforts he makes, the convenience of selling an animal at auction is unsurpassable. A retired bull from Donovan’s own farm that came to auction with us on this day, weighing in at 1782 pounds, fetched 65 cents a pound. That’s $1158.30, minus $11 in commission and the cost of gas, for an animal that was becoming a drain on resources at the farm. It’s an old-fashioned system, extremely simple and direct, and it works. But it’s also a poignant illustration of the commodification of beef.

In the commodity market all pounds of beef are equal and interchangeable, or fungible. Every animal that enters the auction becomes a part of this system and is stripped of its provenance and individuality. Inside the sale ring, weight, corporal dimensions and health are the only pertinent qualities. Conversely, the beef we buy from Donovan and other like-minded beef producers is not commodity beef. Donovan’s beef’s intrinsic value is affected by factors beyond its “beefness”: the care he takes raising the animals; the reduced impact its rearing has on the environment compared to more industrial operations; the wholesome food the animal ate; the meaningfulness of this kind of practice to the future of farming. All these factors differentiate and brand this beef. A pound of this beef is not interchangeable with a pound of beef purchased from JBS or Cargill via a supermarket because of the perceived value added to it in the process of its production.

Donovan usually leaves the auction with a trailer full of feeder cattle that he drives to one of the feedlots in Mirabel, Quebec. Mirabel is a municipality in Quebec that is home to many of the province’s feedlots, sprawling enclosures teeming with cows in various stages of finishing. Quebec’s feedlots are like humble hamlets to the feedlot megacities that populate the Canadian West and parts of the US. The largest of our feedlots markets about 10,000 cows a year at the best of times. That is not to say that the animals are given any more space, a better diet, less drugs or more love, only that it’s business on a slightly more graspable scale.

Corn is the most crucial part of the beef finishing business. It is the precursor to the kind of beef most consumers want: fatty marbled uniform dull beef. The conversion ratio of corn to beef is approximately 6 to 1, which is to say that 6 pounds of corn yield one pound of beef. Since the principle expense in beef finishing is corn it makes perfect sense that most Quebecois feedlot owners are first grain farmers. Having a green thumb with corn is great motivation to enter the beef business. Corn in the beef business can be understood as dilute stuff that hasn’t reached its full beefy potential yet.

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When feeder cattle in feedlots reach slaughter weight, or graduate to the status of fed cattle, usually at 16 to 20 months, they once again are loaded into the trailer, travelling most often to Ontario or Pennsylvania, where the multinationals Cargill and JBS, now their owners, process them in their enormous abattoirs. It’s a long journey to an inauspicious end. But again, in the name of streamlining, this is how it’s done. No single abattoir in Quebec has the capacity to slaughter so many animals so quickly, and there is no single buyer that will take such a great number of animals off a feedlot owner’s hands.

Farmers that raise beef on a smaller scale have to find local abattoirs in which to slaughter their animals. Slaughterhouses in Quebec are a perennial problem for small producers, being few, far between, and difficult to work with. Donovan’s animals are slaughtered at Abattoir de la Petite Nation in St-André Avellin, Quebec, a federal abattoir that does lots of business with buyers in the European Union. Their main business is slaughtering retired leisure horses brought up from the US where horse slaughter is not permitted. Most of the buyers for horsemeat are in Europe, primarily Belgium and Switzerland, and consequently the abattoir has to meet the higher animal welfare requirements of the EU. It’s one of the bigger abattoirs in the province, with a capacity of about 500 animals a day.

The abattoir is polished and modern. It is laid out as a series of areas that lead one into the other, starting with the animal holding area and raceway that lead to the kill-room. These areas were designed based on the principles of Temple Grandin, an American animal scientist who famously reformed slaughterhouse design in North America and Europe. Grandin layouts are designed to respond to the ways in which cows (and horses) behave and react. For example, most animals prefer to follow a lead animal or to move in groups, and get stressed and agitated if made to stand in line for too long. Narrowing paths respond well to these tendencies because they very gradually decrease the size of the group, isolating the animal only at the end of the journey, and maintain the feeling that it is following another; curved raceways work well because they take advantage of the animal’s curious nature and willingness to follow the animal ahead; gentle curves encourage animals forward and make it less likely that they will reverse through the raceway, while curves that bend tightly may be perceived as a dead-end and have the opposite effect.

From the raceway the animals are brought one by one into a small enclosure where they are shot at short-range with a shotgun in the forehead. This particular abattoir opts for the shotgun rather than the stunbolt pistol for reasons of animal welfare, claiming that the proportion of unsuccessful instant kills is lower with the former. They collapse to the ground and then roll down through a trap door into the next room, landing with a loud thump. This room is for bleeding, skinning and dehoofing. It looks like an outrageously gaudy movie set, a deafening, damp, blood red opera. Everything happens quickly and looks deceptively easy – blood gushes like waterfalls, hoofs are clipped like toenails, skins are peeled off so effortlessly it looks like removing a sweater. The employees are skilled and the room is designed to eliminate any unnecessary movement. It is equipped with hydraulic platforms that lower and rise to facilitate working on the large carcasses, the epitome of efficiency. The next space, the evisceration room, is equipped with the same hydraulic platforms. The sound of power tools fills the room. At the first station the carcass is slit open at the belly, and then moves station by station through the evisceration process, every organ carefully removed and checked. There are a couple of people always watching: an employee of the abattoir overseeing the process and a government employee who both oversees and checks certain organs for tell-tale signs of disease. This Canadian Food Inspection Agency representative is a full time employee of the abattoir, and his salary is paid half by the business and half by the federal government. He is not allowed to fraternize with the regular employees and even has his own office and bathroom. From here the finished carcasses are rinsed against contamination with lactic acid, and then rolled into spacious gleaming refrigeration rooms.

Abattoir de la Petite Nation is a state of the art abattoir, and happens to be managed by nice people, and so Donovan’s experience is usually less trying than some, though as a small producer that brings little benefit to the abattoir he is still at their whim. For example, this week, following a period during which La Petite Nation steadily slaughtered a couple of Donovan’s steers every month, they informed him that they will not be slaughtering any more of his beef for the moment. They did not offer a reason or say when the moment would end. Uncertainty regarding slaughter is a typical experience for small producers. Slaughtering a couple of animals for a small producer is of little value to big abattoirs: the return is minimal, but the paperwork and the logistics remain equal. It’s the opposite of streamlining. If the producer is lucky enough to be close to a small provincial or federal abattoir he is likely to experience it changing ownership, changing rules, changing slaughter days, and closing its doors during the course of his career. Such is the fate of small abattoirs in Quebec, and across Canada. All this makes developing a small sustainable beef business very difficult. Convincing the run of the mill meat counter to buy from a producer that can’t guarantee a delivery day, or even that the animal in question will be slaughtered as planned, is impossible. So small producers struggle to grow beyond farm gate sales and farmers markets, and the average urban consumer has limited opportunity to buy this type of product.

If a small beef producer is lucky enough to not have encountered any of these problems, if the nearest abattoir is a medium sized established enterprise that is agreeable to deal with and respects the small producer as much as the large, the question of animal welfare rears its head. Farmers for whom animal welfare is a priority try to operate within the mainstream system as best they can: they drive their own animals to ensure the conditions of transport. They rise early and bring the animals to the abattoir the morning of, just shortly before slaughter time, rather than leaving them in a stressful environment overnight. But for all their efforts, there is still a contradiction between the conditions of their rearing, and the way these animals end their lives. There needs to be an alternative path for farmers like these, a way to temper the harshness of slaughter and to make the process as thoughtful and humane as the rest of their animal-rearing approach.

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As animal welfare in the meat industry has become a more popular issue, limits have been set on how long animals can be transported without food or water, and abattoirs across the developed world have added Grandin-designed holding areas and raceways to their abattoirs. These changes and additions improve the animal’s experience by reducing stress levels and discomfort from extreme to less extreme. They are created to blunt the harshness of the conventional system and to quiet the public conscience. But they are barely symbolic gestures.

Donovan claims that cows know from the moment they are loaded on to a trailer that something bad is happening. Maybe his high level of empathy with cattle causes him to anthropomorphize the plaintive look in their huge wet eyes. Maybe they are physically uncomfortable but emotionally entirely naïve to their fate. Who really knows. Regardless, it is our responsibility as consumers of meat to do so as respectfully and carefully as we can.

One alternative approach to slaughter – currently practiced in several American states and one Canadian territory – is on-farm slaughter, though it is still a nascent concept that is regarded with suspicion by regulating agencies and farmers both. Green Pasture Meats in New Haven, Vermont, is a meat processor that operates its own mobile abattoir. The mobile abattoir consists of a 20-foot trailer pulled by a truck that travels to farms to slaughter livestock, and then transports chilled carcasses back to its headquarters, a butcher shop that processes the carcass into various cuts, and sells them to the public. It’s a very tidy system. Green Pasture Meats seeks out farmers that raise their animals with respect for both animal and environment, and builds long-term production contracts with them. Green Pasture then takes care of slaughter, processing, and sales. They keep more Vermont cows in Vermont, satisfying the public’s deeply ingrained desire for direct from the farm, local products.

Green Pasture Meats, Vermont

The trailer is divided into two rooms, a dirty room and a clean room. Skinning and evisceration take place in the dirty room, and once the carcass is clean it is moved into the clean refrigeration room. The killing itself takes place outdoors on the farm. The animals are rounded up into the barn the night before. In the morning they are moved into a holding pen or trailer connected to a cage called a squeeze chute, and are then brought one at a time into the chute and shot in the forehead with a shotgun. The animal is then hoisted up by one hoof with a forklift, its throat slit, and bled into a large bucket. The same forklift then brings the animal to the trailer, where it is unloaded, and the skinning and evisceration take place.

Like in Quebec abattoirs, a government employee must oversee slaughter. Ross, a Vermont Agency of Agriculture employee, is the government representative usually present at Green Pasture slaughters. He’s a pleasant dad-ish type, bearded and kindly. He spends part of his week working at a permanent state-inspected poultry-abattoir and the rest of it traveling to bucolic farms across this part of Northern Vermont. His day is spent in the trailer overseeing three boys barely in their twenties clad in sweatshirts with cutoff sleeves and water resistant overalls manoeuvre awkwardly around 1200lb carcasses in the small enclosed space of the trailer. The equipment is precisely organized to fit in the limited area, electric saws on accordion arms swinging monstrously in the narrow space. Every move is calculated to allow for the necessary range of motion. Ross stands on one end of the trailer talking the boys through the process. He seems a teacher as much as an inspector. The relationship here is outside of the bounds of the formality I saw at Abattoir de la Petite Nation, the natural surroundings dictating the mood. It takes almost an hour for the animal to be skinned and gutted, but when it is finally rolled on its hook into the clean end of the trailer it looks exactly as it would in any permanent hi-tech establishment. The boys slaughter five cows and three pigs on this particular Friday. The pigs are asleep in their pen as they wait their turn, bodies peacefully wrapped around one another.

Serge Grenier, a butcher shop owner in the Abitibi-Temiscamingue region of Quebec, pioneered a version of this idea in 2005, the first and only to be allowed by the Quebec Ministry of Agriculture and executed in the province. Abitibi’s only permanent abattoir had closed several years prior, and farmers were sending beef to be slaughtered in Ontario or in southern Quebec, a very long way away, at great financial and animal welfare costs. Grenier bought a large semi-trailer truck and fitted it with all the equipment necessary to bleed, skin, eviscerate and refrigerate carcasses, at a cost of $500 000. The Quebec ministry of agriculture and the Federal government both contributed to the startup costs of the project. He then set up three docking stations across the region, each fitted with a kill area and a clean water supply, where the truck could take up temporary residence and complete the infrastructure needed for slaughter. Unlike the Green Pasture model, this unit would not service individual farms. Quebec’s regulations for water safety and disposal of bio-matter make it all but impossible to secure a permit to slaughter on the farm. However, with the docking-station model, each station could be made to conform to regulations. The more docking stations, the better the concept works: the docking stations are inexpensive to build, and the trailer that carries all the expensive equipment required for slaughter is shared between them. This way the need for permanent abattoirs in multiple sparsely populated areas is eliminated, cutting down the costs that would be incurred running a permanent facility that would certainly never operate at capacity. With this model, each station operates one day a week, or every two weeks, as needed, and the costs of operation are spread out across many more users. Farmers would travel a much shorter distance from their farms to the nearest docking station than they ever did before. After slaughter the carcasses would be taken in the refrigerated part of the truck to Grenier’s shop in Val-d’Or to be further processed and sold.

A 2005 article about the project described it as a template that would undoubtedly be duplicated in years to come in other regions of Quebec that suffer from abattoir shortages. But within three years the business went bankrupt. Like with many other abattoirs, the main reason for its failure was that it never operated at capacity, meaning that the initial investment and costs of operation could not be met. Dates at given docking stations would be cancelled when not enough farmers booked appointments, which eventually caused beef producers to lose faith in the operation. They would opt for the safety and reliability of the old system they knew, and the budding new system consequently failed. There was also not enough local demand for the beef now that it was staying in the region. Where before Abitibi beef would be shipped to Ontario and other more populous parts of Quebec to be slaughtered and marketed, now it was up to the producers themselves to market it locally. Unlike in Vermont, the average rural Quebec consumer was still new to the idea of paying more for better quality, local, meat. The marketing push was not forthcoming, and the mobile abattoir ceased to operate in Abitibi.

Other provinces have tried to operate mobile abattoirs and failed, in large part because the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s regulations, as well as those written by each province’s food-safety regulating bodies, are inflexible to the point of throttling innovation. Rather then creating new regulations to accommodate the pioneering idea of on-farm slaughter, our agencies force operators attempting to launch new projects to comply with regulations created for a completely different type of enterprise.

Green Pasture Meats, VermontToday, Canada’s only mobile abattoir resides just outside of Whitehorse, in the Yukon, and is operated by Tom Rudge under the moniker Tum Tum’s Black Gilt Meats. The Yukon’s mobile abattoir started operating in 2006. As far as I can tell, the Yukon’s requirements for on-farm slaughter are more moderate than those in other parts of Canada. The abattoir serves an area that has not had a permanent abattoir in years, and where farmers had to slaughter their animals themselves before this service-provider existed. Now Rudge drives out to farms within 100km of Whitehorse and provides the service on the farm. The territorial government paid for the initial purchase of the trailer, and to this day continues to partially subsidize the operation: the government essentially pays for the labour provided by Rudge and his colleagues, and for the government vet, while the fee the farmers pay to have the animals slaughtered pays to keep the truck operating. Farmers are responsible for killing and bleeding the animals themselves, and for bringing them into the truck. Once inside, Rudge and his crew, under the inspection of the government employed veterinarian, skin and eviscerate the animal, load the carcass into the cooler, and bring it to a cut and wrap facility in town. Farmers that use the service have to get their farms certified for water safety and for the right to compost animal waste on their land. The resulting meat is government inspected and consequently fit for commercial sale. Ironically, most of the meat that is produced locally is sold at the farm gate, which doesn’t actually necessitate government inspection. But if any of these farmers ever want to sell at farmer’s markets the inspection is mandatory, and when smaller shops interested in marketing meat from small local farms start popping up in Whitehorse in the near future, it will be useful as well. Currently, the three big-box stores (Walmart, Loblaws and the like) that sell the lion’s share of the meat in the territory import boxed meat from the huge meatpackers in Alberta, and are characteristically disinterested in the complications and intricacies associated with working with small local producers. There is a stark dichotomy at play here: the meat available to consumers is either industrially produced commodity meat, or pastured meat from small mixed farms that sell to their neighbours from their front door. Rudge knows that in its present manifestation the mobile abattoir would not survive as a business without the government support, but with a connected cut and wrap facility in the image of the Vermont model, maybe it could. And maybe it is not unreasonable to expect local governments to support this type of innovation in agriculture.

 

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Most of the half million cows born in Quebec each year are thrust into a food system that treats them as a commoditized uniform product, pound upon pound of unfeeling inconsequential sameness. It is easiest to operate inside this system. It is a well-oiled machine, and after less than a century of existence, feels inevitable to many farmers.

For farmers already working in sustainable, environmentally responsible ways, the lack of existing infrastructure to help them bring their product to the mainstream urban markets is debilitating. For more mainstream farmers contemplating a change in practice, there is little incentive or encouragement. Support for projects like Grenier’s is crucial. Governments have propped up industrial agriculture since its inception, but its success is rarely measured accounting for this support, nor for the hidden and deferred costs and consequences associated with it.

Much ink is spent discrediting the viability of sustainable small-scale agriculture. Can we imagine it replacing industrial agriculture on a global scale? If we continue to consume meat in the quantities that we do – and as a global population we are consuming more and more of it all the time – then small-scale agriculture is a doomed proposition. But if an initiative to educate the world about the importance of decreasing the amount of meat in their diets is coupled with an initiative to help small-scale producers build and operate a functional supply chain, then we would have something to work towards.

 

14.10.2014 • LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, CHRISTMAS DINNER

For Thanks Giving, I managed to get my hands on ten turkeys for the shop. That’s right, ten. Ten lucky people got to celebrate last night with healthy turkeys raised outdoors on lush summer pasture. Probably a few more managed to find similarly raised turkeys elsewhere, but not many.

My theory is that most Québec farmers are, well, Québecois, and do not give a shit about thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is, as far as I can tell, a waspy Anglo holiday. It’s true! So when I frantically started searching for turkeys a month and a half ago, I quickly learned that every farmer that was raising turkeys was raising them for Christmas. I got in there early for Christmas, doing my research and reserving in advance.

These are going to be our Christmas turkeys:

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They are cultivated wild turkeys. They are presently residing at Ferme au Pied Levé in the Eastern Townships. They live in big wire cages called turkey tractors that get dragged around on the pasture so they have fresh grasses to eat alongside the grain they receive, and plenty of space, but the coyotes don’t eat them.  A few manage to get out pretty regularly, but they come back, and there are two donkeys that play babysitter hanging around and making sure they’re safe. They will be slaughtered at 5 months of age, just in time for Christmas. They aren’t going to be as large as the breed of turkey we are used to seeing in the market, and taste a little stronger. Interestingly, because they’re wild, they are exempt from the supply management system’s restriction on the number of turkeys a farmer can raise without purchasing quota (if you don’t know what supply management is you can read an earlier post I wrote about it on this blog.) That seems like an odd loophole that more farmers should take advantage of.

That’s it, just an update. À bientôt.

 

28.08.2014 • QUÉBEC BEEF: THE LONG HARD JOURNEY FROM FARM TO PLATE


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IMG_0537Animal welfare in farming is a topical issue. The evils of factory-farming have been the subject of several much-publicized documentaries and books in recent years, most famously Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and Robert Kenner’s Food Inc. But the slaughter process, the way that the animal spends its final day, is conspicuously omitted from the collective consciousness. Naturally. It’s uncomfortable and awkward to talk about respect and kindness and in the same breath about the inhumane and mechanical nature of slaughter. In my role as butcher-shop owner I always inquire about the abattoirs used by the farms we work with, curious about the distance the animals travel, the size of the operation and where it falls within the spectrum of abattoirs.

In Québec, abattoirs can be classified Federal, Provincial, or B.  B abattoirs are only permitted to slaughter animals for the farmer’s personal use, for farm gate sales, and for sale at the abattoir’s own shop. If the animal is to enter the commercial world beyond it must be slaughtered at a provincially or federally certified abattoir. Federal and provincial abattoirs are heavily regulated and supervised. They are also few and spread out. So the abattoir closest to the farm is not necessarily an option. It is not unusual for a farmer to have to travel three hours to the nearest one, animals in tow. It’s the luck of the draw really. And over the last few generation the number of abattoirs in Canada and in Québec has declined dramatically, many and smaller giving way to fewer and bigger as in every other part of the agricultural industry.

We recently visited an abattoir in an effort to complete the picture in our own minds. Boucherie Abattoir Tarte et Noiseux in Marieville, Québec is a B abattoir. Stepping into Martin Noiseux’s abattoir feels like stepping into the past. It’s a super modest three-room affair built in the 1950’s. The rooms are connected: one is an antechamber where animals are held once they are taken out of the transport in which they arrived from the farm, a small windowless room, the floor covered in straw. The next room is the room in which everything happens, hung with every manner of hook, the ceiling occupied with an aging rail and wheel system that facilitates moving the hanging carcasses from one part of the room to another, and ultimately into the third room, a large refrigerator in which the carcasses chill and then rest post slaughter.

Tarte et Noiseux is not in any way representative of the kind of place most farm animals go to die. It is an evocative symbol however of the way in which agriculture has evolved in the last generation, a reminder of what we have lost. And soon it too will be gone: by next July 1st, all B abattoirs in Québec must comply to a new set of regulations that aim to standardize abattoirs across the province, or close down. There were 50 B abattoirs in operation in Québec in 2013. Those that choose to undergo the transition (rather than ceasing to operate) will become abattoirs de proximité, or, if they undergo a more rigorous certification process, provincial or even federal abattoirs. Abattoirs de proximité will still operate under the same limitations as B abattoirs, selling meat only through their own shop or to the owner of the animal. This process of standardization means that all so called B abattoirs must upgrade their facilities, trading in old-fashioned methods for new more efficient methods and machines, and consequently risk losing the human touch that made watching a slaughter take place here a pretty bearable experience. Martin is turning his B abattoir into a provincially licensed abattoir, and to be honest, he seems pretty excited about the transition. Not about the 1.5 million dollar cost, or about the fact that the government that is requiring this costly transition is only willing to subsidize up to $200 000 of it, but about the prospect of having a more modern operation and a captive clientele made up of all the small farm-owners in his region that at the moment have to travel a couple of hours to the nearest provincially certified abattoir. He is well placed to succeed, which has made his business plan easier to write, and loans simpler to secure. He is now waiting on a final permit from the Québec environmental agency, which is looking into waste removal issues at this abattoir: the location is not part of a public sewage network and has to use its own septic system to convert the waste that goes gown the drain, mostly blood and other internal fluids, into solids to be disposed of in a landfill, and fluids inert enough that they are considered safe to drink and end up in the Rivière Richelieu.

The period between the animal leaving the farm and the moment it is either stunned unconscious, or killed with a stunbolt pistol, is a crucial time in terms of animal welfare. The killing process is instantaneous. Whatever imagined cruelty is part of the instant of death itself (when it is executed correctly) evades me. There are other slaughter traditions, like halal and kosher, in which the animal is bled to death without first being stunned or killed. That is unconscionably cruel. But the standard practice in North America is the former. All brain function stops in a split second.

I recently begun to read a book called Every Twelve Seconds by Timothy Parichat in which he describes the industrial-slaughter process. The book’s title derives from the fact that in the type of gigantic industrial slaughterhouse he describes a cow is slaughtered every 12 seconds, for a total of 2500 a day. This represents the absolute opposite end of the gamut of slaughter to that which takes place at Tarte et Noiseux, which, even once it completes the transformation it is on the verge of undergoing, will never operate at the scale that these enormous machines do, and will slaughter a maximum of 20 cows a day. The mechanized process Parichat describes is harrowing: cows shoved from crowded waiting area into constrictively narrow dark tunnels, nose to tail, to then be hoisted into the air, head held in place as a stunbolt gun is lowered to their foreheads and the trigger released, the aim sometimes sloppy, the hole too large, grey matter and blood leaking out. The process at Tarte et Noiseux is a little different.

Before opening the door between the holding room and the kill-floor, Martin’s employee placed a metal gate that roughly defined the space the cow would occupy once it passed from one room to the next. When the door was opened the cow wondered in. It looked curious, a little confused, contemplating the room, sniffing the floor and walls. But no panic. You can see panic in an animal. It looks a lot like panic in humans. He pet her head, coaxed her towards him gently. When she was standing still before him he put the stun bolt pistol to her forehead and released. She collapsed to the ground in a split instant. The process that follows matters little to the animal: the bleeding, the skinning and evisceration, the hanging and chilling. But in industrial abattoirs human welfare is as much an issue as animal welfare, workers performing these tasks at absurd speeds, over and over, 2500 times a day.

In Canada, 95% of all beef is slaughtered by Cargill (a privately owned American multinational corporation involved in every facet of commodity agriculture and industry, with an abattoir and processing plant located in Guelph, Ontario) and JBS (a subsidiary of JBS South America, the largest food-processing company in the world, located in Brooks, Alberta). A JBS branch in Pennsylvania is responsible for a significant proportion of Canadian beef slaughter as well.

Québec’s beef industry is made up of two sectors, beef raised for meat (bouvillons d’élévage), about 200 000 heads per year, and retired dairy cows (vaches de reforme). As a leader in dairy farming, Quebec farms produce a significant number of retired dairy cows, about 100 000 per year.

Quebec doesn’t have any mega-abattoirs. Our largest, Viandes Giroux in East Angus, Quebec, can slaughter 600 cows a week, compared with JBS’ 4700 a day in Alberta, 2000 in Pennsylvania, and Cargill Ontario’s 1400 a day. Until 2012 an abattoir called Colbex-Levinoff, with a 1000 head a day capacity, slaughtered 90% of Quebec’s retired dairy cows, but since its bankruptcy that year most of these animals have to be shipped out of province. Efforts to open a cooperative abattoir in the same location financed and run by local beef producers are underway, but the project has not been completed.

Not having any mega-abattoirs in our back yard is a point of pride for smaller-is-better advocates like me, but it is also the limiting factor to the province’s ability to have any sovereignty in its beef production and consumption. Only 27% of the cattle raised in Québec stays in Québec. The rest is distributed as follows: 14% is slaughtered locally and then exported; 30-40% is sent to be slaughtered in Ontario (at Cargill); and 30-40% is sent to be slaughtered in the US (at the JBS in Pennsylvania).

But there is more to it than just abattoir shortage. Québec is a huge province, its farms many and spread out. Some farmers in remote parts of the province, like Abitibi-Témiscamingue, find it makes more sense financially and for the sake of their animals to send them to a closer abattoir across the provincial boarder in Ontario, rather than to a further away one in Québec. But if this Ontario abattoir happens to be provincially rather than federally certified, those animals can’t then re-enter Québec and be consumed locally.

According to Viandes Giroux the problem is even more complex. While it is true that we don’t have nearly enough abattoirs to slaughter our beef, the ones that are here, like Giroux, claim that they are not slaughtering at capacity due to fierce competition from giant processors like Cargill and JBS. These processors can afford to pay slightly more for cattle at auction thanks to their extremely reduced processing costs, thus pushing small abattoirs out of the market.1

The result of shipping so much of our beef to be slaughtered elsewhere is that the beef we ultimately consume comes from elsewhere too: 85% from other Canadian provinces, and 6% from other countries, mostly Mexico and Uruguay. Just 9% of the beef consumed in Quebec is raised here. To put it simply, we are raising cattle, shipping it away for processing, and then importing already processed meat from other provinces and countries to make up the gap between what we can slaughter and what we consume. This phenomenon has been coined redundant trade, and it characterizes much of the North American food system. It’s fueled by convenient economical relationships and systems now deeply ingrained. But sending beef to be slaughtered outside Québec creates an economic loss for local producers, for the Québec economy, has a negative environmental impact due to the huge distances travelled, and is hard on animals that have to travel inordinately long distances in brutal conditions. So what then?

The motivation for the compulsory shift in certification that all B abattoirs are undergoing currently, the one Martin at Tarte et Noiseux is on the verge of, is to ensure that all abattoirs follow the same hygiene regulations, submit to the same health inspections and use up-to-date equipment and practices, ensuring a clean and safe food supply. However, the process of upgrading some B abattoirs into certified and regulated provincial abattoirs also means that more local abattoirs will be able to participate in Québec’s commercial beef market, making an impact on the province’s ability to keep its beef in its markets. These new abattoirs will be larger than Tarte et Noiseux is now, but nowhere near the size of Cargill, JBS and their ilk.

And there is another upside to this process: it is a golden opportunity to address animal welfare issues in slaughter. Canadian regulation and enforcement of this part of agriculture is in the dark ages, decades behind Europe’s (where, for example, animals can be held in transport for a maximum of 8 hours without food or drink, versus Canada’s 52 hour maximum). It would be a massive advancement for Québec if fifty newly minted local abattoirs committed to restructuring with animal welfare as a guiding idea.

Abattoir Laroche, a medium sized slaughterhouse in Asbestos, Québec, was built in 2010 with animal welfare improvement as a guiding principle. Granted, much of its owner’s motivation probably came from a desire to meet the requirements of the European Union for meat importation, which include much more rigorous animal welfare standards than are followed in mainstream Canadian processing. But whatever the motivation, the result has been an investment in abattoir-design that takes into account the animal’s habits and instincts and the ways in which these affect its experience.2 Laroche has addressed elements like lighting, sound, the form of the pathways the animals have to travel on their way from the waiting area to the kill floor and the way and amount that employees are allowed to use tools like the electric baton to control animals. It’s a start.

And really, only a start, because the biggest problem, the ugliest part of this picture, is the issue of transporting animals to abattoirs. A 2010 paper on the state of animal welfare in Canadian farming written by the World Society for the Protection of Animals, a non-profit international organization focused on animal welfare in every realm of their interaction with humans 3, describes Canada’s many shortcomings in handling and regulating the transport of animals to slaughter. The report is long but the summary is as follows: cattle travels for up to 52 hours without food or water (that’s within Canada, once a truck crosses the border into the US the clock goes back to zero), in painfully confined settings, in extreme heat or cold, with strange cabin-mates, sometimes in questionable health, handled by callous drivers who are permitted to inflict pain at their discretion to expedite their work. The WAP is not an extremist animal-rights organization, and their approach is not propagandist or sensationalistic. The report is well researched and the information is disheartening. In addition to the issue of animal welfare, the way animals are handled leads to a massive financial loss to the industry due to animals dying on the road (more so in the chicken industry in which about 2.5 million chickens a year die in transport), and owing to meat rendered unusable or greatly devalued due to the physiological effects of stress on the animal.4

July 1st 2015 is the deadline for all B abattoirs to in Quebec to re-certify. Just under a year from now. There is an opportunity to be seized here; this is a particular moment in time when the Quebec beef industry can decisively leave the path it has been following for last 50 years and address pressing issues like redundant trade, unacceptable animal welfare standards and inefficient energy use in agriculture. Things that made sense at a time when growing bigger seemed empowering and progressive have now been shown to have countless downsides, hidden costs and long lasting negative impacts. Returning to an agricultural system dominated by small diversified farms and mom-and-pop abattoirs may not be a viable solution for the monster that is our food system, but there are ways to be modern and progressive, and at the same time respect rural communities, the animals they raise and the people they employ.

 

1 http://www.lapresse.ca/le-soleil/affaires/agro-alimentaire/201401/17/01-4729952-abattage-des-bovins-de-reforme-viandes-giroux-veut-en-faire-davantage.php

2 http://utiliterre.ca/equipements/le-bien-etre-animal-dans-lelevage-bovin/

3 http://www.worldanimalprotection.ca/ati/CurbtheCrueltyReport.pdf

4 When an animal is stressed its system draws on its glycogen reserves. At slaughter, the animal’s muscles attempt to maintain regular function even once the heart has ceased pumping and the brain has died. To do so they draw energy from glycogen. The process of breaking down glycogen has as a byproduct the production of lactic acid. The correct amount of lactic acid in the muscle, the normal amount, produces meat with the desirable ph and consequently, the desirable colour and texture. When there is not enough glycogen to be converted to lactic acid in the muscle – because it has been used up in a stress response before slaughter – the ph of the meat is too high. The resulting meat becomes very dark and sticky to the touch and retains more water than normal muscle does, and is consequently classified as ‘dark cut beef’ – a devalued product that brings less money to the producer and the processor.

24.07.2014 • LA QUÊTE DU POULET IDÉAL : UNE PETITE INTRODUCTION AU SYSTÈME DE GESTION DE L’OFFRE DU CANADA

My amazing and generous friend Catherine Leroux is a super talented author (http://www.editionsalto.com/auteur.php?no_auteur=8) and translator. She translated this piece for me and you.

•              •             •

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Soutenir des agriculteurs qui privilégient des pratiques durables et qui traitent leurs animaux avec compassion est au cœur de notre philosophie. Il n’est pas trop difficile de trouver des éleveurs de bovins et de moutons qui travaillent en ce sens. La campagne québécoise est parsemée de petites fermes où des troupeaux paissent librement. Il suffit de s’informer et de repérer les bonnes personnes. Par contre, il est plus rare de rencontrer des producteurs de porc qui fonctionnent de cette manière; les méthodes industrielles d’élevage porcin sont tellement enracinées au Québec que même les petits producteurs tendent à garder leurs cochons dans des bâtiments fermés avec des grilles en guise de plancher, offrant aux animaux un espace très restreint et un air nauséabond. Nous avons eu la chance de découvrir Les Viandes Rheintal très tôt (nous y reviendrons plus tard). Enfin, pour ce qui est du poulet, le défi est de taille. Voici pourquoi :

Les éleveurs de volaille canadiens sont soumis au système de Gestion de l’offre du Canada. Ce système a été créé dans les années 60 et avait alors pour but de protéger les fermiers en régulant la quantité de volaille, d’œufs et de produits laitiers produits au Canada. Il permettait aussi de veiller à ce que l’offre n’excède pas la demande, maintenant ainsi une stabilité au niveau des tarifs et garantissant aux éleveurs un prix équitable et prévisible pour leur marchandise. Pour générer ces biens au Canada, les agriculteurs doivent donc faire l’achat (ou hériter) du droit de produire une partie du quota total.

Les quotas de volaille sont mesurés par mètre carré. Aujourd’hui, un mètre carré de volaille vaut environ 1000 $. Cette unité permet à un fermier de produire une certaine quantité de volaille par année. Un mètre carré a son équivalent en poids de poulet vivant. Ainsi, le nombre d’unités de quota que possède un fermier multiplié par le poids au mètre carré donne le nombre de poulets qu’un fermier est autorisé à produire sur une période de 40 semaines. Il existe des exemptions pour les personnes qui élèvent de très petites quantités de poulet et d’œufs lorsque ces quantités sont trop modestes pour la commercialisation (ces agriculteurs ont le droit d’élever jusqu’à 100 poulets ou poules pondeuses par année sans avoir à se procurer de quota). Il n’y a pas d’exemption pour les produits laitiers.

Afin de protéger le marché intérieur canadien, le système limite également le commerce international de ces biens. Des droits de douane élevés et des limites de quantités sont imposés sur tous ces produits lorsqu’ils sont importés au Canada.*

À l’époque où le système a été mis sur pied, il était important d’assurer un contrôle de l’offre. Cela protégeait les éleveurs des aléas des marchés et du pouvoir de l’industrie de la transformation, des distributeurs et des détaillants. Mais avec le temps, le système conçu pour aider les fermiers de même que l’organisation syndicale (l’Union des producteurs agricoles ou l’UPA) créée pour le gérer sont devenus fermés et restrictifs. Favorisant les grands producteurs conventionnels, les règles du système et de l’UPA marginalisent les élevages à petite échelle ainsi que les fermiers qui souhaitent opérer à l’extérieur du système alimentaire agro-industriel.

Les quotas coûtent cher. Un nouveau fermier qui commence à produire à petite échelle a peu de chance de se voir octroyer les fonds nécessaires à la construction de son entreprise, et donc de pouvoir se procurer un quota – les institutions financières ne prêtent pas de grosses sommes à des petites nouvelles entreprises. Les banques misent plutôt sur l’innovation, ce qui, en agriculture, est synonyme de technologies visant à accroître la productivité. Les exploitations alternatives offrent un rendement moindre et des marges de profit plus étroites, ce qui ne plaît guère aux banques. Ainsi, tous les quotas disponibles finissent entre les mains des grandes fermes industrielles, leur permettant de produire une proportion encore plus importante du quota total. De nos jours, au Québec, les élevages de volaille sont 65 % moins nombreux qu’en 1961 (800 aujourd’hui contre 2236 à l’époque), et ces exploitations produisent au moins deux fois plus de poulet. Les gros joueurs règnent sur la basse-cour.

De toute manière, dans ce domaine, la moindre fraction de quota appartient déjà à des producteurs de volaille, ce qui signifie que même si un nouvel éleveur avait de l’argent à investir, il n’aurait pas le droit de se lancer en affaires. L’UPA soutient que la demande est comblée – une affirmation étrange compte tenu du fait que, en tant que détaillants, nous avons eu un mal fou à trouver du poulet conforme à nos standards en matière de bien-être animal. Cela indiquerait plutôt qu’il existe une demande pour une offre accrue, à tout le moins dans le secteur de marché qui nous occupe. Mais l’UPA (tout comme son subsidiaire, Les Éleveurs de Volailles du Québec, le syndicat qui gère l’industrie du poulet au Québec) n’est nullement intéressée par les marchés alternatifs ni par les désirs d’une nouvelle frange de consommateurs qui exigent une viande produite à échelle plus humaine. Ils offrent un soutien de façade aux nouvelles sous-catégories de poulet (sans antibiotiques, végétal, biologique) qui demeurent toutes produites de manière industrielle, et rencontrent tout juste les standards de base de ces appellations.

Avant d’ouvrir notre boucherie, nous avons questionné tous les fermiers que nous connaissions sur les possibilités de se procurer du poulet. Nous avons cherché des pistes partout, en vain. Enfin, l’ami d’un ami, un gars de la campagne qui s’intéressait aux réalités de l’agriculture, a accepté d’élever 100 bêtes pour nous. Il nous a permis de traverser l’été mais lorsque le froid est arrivé, les réserves ont diminué. Les petites fermes opérant sans quota ne peuvent se permettre de construire des abris pour l’hiver, aussi élèvent-ils leurs oiseaux à l’extérieur, seulement pendant l’été. Nous avons donc rassemblé des poulets surgelés provenant de toutes les petites fermes que nous avons pu trouver, et cela nous a aidés à traverser deux autres mois (note : un poulet qui a été congelé immédiatement après l’abattage et dégelé patiemment avant d’être suspendu pour être séché est impossible à distinguer d’un poulet frais. Je vous le promets.) Ces réserves se sont ensuite taries. Après de nombreux coups de téléphones et moments de frustrations, quelqu’un nous a parlé de la Ferme le Crépuscule.

La Ferme le Crépuscule constitue une anomalie dans l’univers québécois de la volaille. L’élevage est la deuxième carrière de Jean-Pierre Clavet. Il est passionné par son métier, parce qu’il l’a choisi. Il a eu la chance d’entrer en scène alors que des des quotas étaient disponibles, et l’intelligence d’en acheter une bonne quantité.

Aujourd’hui, Jean-Pierre a le droit de produire 22 000 kilos de poulets vivants par période de 40 semaines. Il possède deux grands poulaillers où des poussins d’un jour commencent leur existence. En hiver, les oiseaux demeurent dans ces bâtiments et l’été, ils se promènent librement à l’extérieur. Si vous avez déjà vu et senti l’odeur d’un poulailler conventionnel, vous apprécierez les photos qui suivent, et le fait que les installations de Jean-Pierre ne sentent presque rien.

Les éleveurs traditionnels vivent dans la peur que leurs poulaillers soient contaminés, car leurs bêtes sont maladives et vulnérables en raison de la surpopulation et du manque d’hygiène. Ils ne laisseraient jamais qui que ce soit visiter leurs poulaillers de crainte d’y entraîner des infections. Jean-Pierre, lui, nous a permis de passer du temps auprès de ses oiseaux. Ils sont robustes, et ils n’ont pas besoin d’antibiotiques pour rester en santé. Leur nourriture – un mélange de maïs, de soya, de graines de tournesol, de lin et de canola — est certifiée biologique, ce qui est encore plus impressionnant si on regarde ce que mangent les poulets industriels, qui sont pour la plupart alimentés avec des produits animaux et d’innombrables ingrédients dégoûtants qui servent à supplémenter une nourriture bon marché.

Les poussins nouveau-nés de Jean-Pierre proviennent d’une poussinière appelée le Couvoir Ramsay, située à Saint-Félix-de-Valois. Ils sont élevés jusqu’à 7 à 12 semaines, puis abattus par groupes. Le premier groupe, celui des poulets de 7 semaines, produit de petites carcasses de 1,5 kilo, et les autres pèsent jusqu’à 3 kilos, dans le cas des poulets de 12 semaines.

Un éleveur comme Jean-Pierre est unique en son genre : sa production est assez importante pour approvisionner des magasins comme le nôtre tout en assurant une excellente qualité et le respect de standards de bien-être animal. Il est actuellement en recherche de financement pour construire un Centre agroalimentaire sur sa ferme, qui lui permettrait d’agrandir sa cabane à sucre existante et de bâtir un abattoir afin que ses oiseaux puissent être tués sur place plutôt qu’à des kilomètres de la ferme, ce qui engendre des coûts (essence, abattage, temps) et du stress pour les poulets (nous reviendrons sur ce sujet bientôt). Nous espérons qu’il atteindra son but!

* Il est intéressant de noter que les deux groupes qui s’opposent à la façon dont la gestion de l’offre affecte l’agriculture canadienne sont les petits fermiers et les représentants de grandes entreprises favorables au libre-échange. Ces dernières déplorent le fait que le système empêche le Canada de participer pleinement au commerce international de produits agricoles. Curieux tandem…

 

21.06.2014 • This is what pastured lamb looks like

IMG_1200IMG_1207This is what they do most of the time: heads down, mowing the grass. From a distance, the patch they’re grazing looks several shades lighter, like velvet brushed the other way. Every couple of days the lengths of electrical-fence wire surrounding it are spooled up and then unspooled again around a different stretch of land, and the lambs move over. Then the cattle come to the razed patch to finish off the job, to eat the grasses too reedy for the sheep. Then it’s left alone, to recover. Sheep on pasture look so lovely.

Sometimes I feel self conscious about the joy I get out of farms like this, like I’m a spoiled city girl looking for an impossible rural fantasy, like my expectations are unreasonable. But farms like this exist, and operate within the system: they feed people, employ people, pay taxes and union dues, don’t destroy the land or mistreat their animals, all at once.

Jackie Lamb knows a lot about lambs (her name really is Jackie Lamb, and her father’s name is David Lamb, I swear). Ferme Lamont is in Godmanchester, Québec. Jackie takes care of 100 ewes, a couple of rams, and at any given time about 50 lambs between zero and eight months old. They’re Dorsets, a British breed that is hardy, and, unlike some other breeds, isn’t seasonal in its birthing cycle and will get knocked up any time of year. Most sheep breeds are naturally seasonal breeders. To overcome this production obstacle many farmers in Québec use a technique known as photoperiod, which artificially controls the length of day with indoor lights to trick ewes into estrus. This means that the flock has to live indoors year-round, without access to pasture or natural daylight. Jackie’s sheep are out on pasture all day in the summer, and sleep in a big open-ended tent at night. In the winter they live in a big old barn and eat hay and silage cut on the farm in the summer.

The land the farm sits on is certified organic. The crops raised here are organic, and the animals, unless they get sick and are treated with medication more than once in their lifetime are organic as well. Lambs have fragile constitutions, and those that are treated more than once fall off the organic train and are usually sold at auction rather than directly to customers like us that pay the price for organic lamb. (Part of the reason that lambs have to be moved to new grass so frequently is that they are vulnerable to an intestinal worm that they can get when they eat around their own feces. It’s not all bucolic and romantic).

IMG_1231Farmers keep elaborate logs with information about every animal in the flock: birthdate, weight, ailments. They have to know who’s dad and who’s mom is who and rams have to regularly be brought from outside the flock to avoid inbreeding. When a lamb is born its mother licks it head to toe to invigorate it, coaxing it from that world and into this one, and then fills it with her milk’s crucial nutrients. Sometimes ewes have more babies than they are emotionally ready to care for and will neglect them, or just reject them for unknown reasons. Then Jackie has to clean the baby lamb, hoping it will respond to her as it would to its mother’s care, and bottle-feeds it until it is ready to eat grass. These babies are usually sicklier, more prone to the various ailments sheep are prone to. New moms and babies are kept away from the rest of the flock for a short period, until the baby learns its mother’s voice and can find her by sound in the flock.

The lambs are slaughtered between the ages of 5 and 8 months, at about 100lbs. In Québec, all lambs over 80lbs have to be sold through the Fédération des producteurs d’agneaux et moutons du Québec (FPMAQ). The federation is a union representing sheep producers in Québec, and is an arm of the Union de Producteurs Agricole (UPA), the only legally-sanctioned representative of Québec agricultural producers.  It has done important work putting Québec lamb on the map at a time when people associated good lamb with New-Zealand and Australia. It helps its members market their product, regulates lamb prices and administers the sale of all Québec lamb over 80lbs. In the case of producers like Ferme Lamont who sell directly to their customers the federation administers paperwork and collects fees related to the producer’s right to sell the lamb, rather than having any direct involvement in the sale of the animals. Producers like these could ostensibly sell their product without going through the federation, but forgoing membership in the union results in exclusion from important government subsidies available to sheep farmers.

IMG_1215Lamb production in Québec can be loosely divided into two types, intensive and extensive. In intensive sheep farming the animals are kept inside barns year-round in a controlled environment where handling them is simpler, predators are absent and diets are more precise than out in the real world, the risk of diseases is decreased, and farmers can focus on increasing mating and consequently increasing profitability. Extensive farming favours the use of pasture and reduces production costs related to producing or purchasing animal feed and infrastructure maintenance, but it often encounters problems with predators like coyotes. Jackie’s flock has a full-time babysitter and predator-deterrent, a llama that spends its days among the flock. To the untrained eye she looks like a huge goat, a friendly giant, hardly out of place.

Extensive farming is considered to be less efficient than intensive production, but in fact grass-based meat production can be sustainable and productive. Ruminant livestock that is allowed to live on pasture grazes lands that are not suited to crop production for human consumption, converting the sun’s energy, captured in grass, into high-quality human nutriment.

Supporters of plant-based diets (for humans) argue that raising animals for meat is an inefficient use of land and that a much greater volume of food could be produced if the crops grown to feed livestock were end-products unto themselves rather than being fed to animals that ultimately yield a much smaller quantity of food. (This is called a feed conversion ratio – the measure of an animal’s efficiency in converting feed into increases in the mass of the desired output. For dairy cows, for example, the output is milk, for animals raised for meat, the output is the weight-mass gained by the animal). They’re right.  But when the animals in question graze on non-arable land, the equation changes. These animals turn something we can’t eat into something we can.

Few animals are raised this way compared to the whole of contemporary agricultural production. But if the whole industrial system suddenly shifted to a  grazing system, the impact on the environment would be almost as disastrous as the impact of the current industrial system. Large-scale pastured-cattle industries, like Brazil’s, contribute to the demise of the environment through the creation of greenhouse gazes caused by massive deforestation and methane creation. Huge swathes of the American  West have been devastated by the cattle industry, since it’s in this part of the country that American cattle destined for the feedlot spends its first few months grazing (cattle is not born in the feedlot, it is ranched for the first few months of its life and then “finished” at the feedlot). While animal welfare standards are unarguably higher in the pasture practice, and the resulting meat healthier to humans , it is not sustainable to raise the sheer quantity of animals that we raise for meat, pastured or otherwise.

Less meat produced the right way is a work in progress, a process of sensitizing the public to the realities of meat production and compelling our leaders to support a a system where what meat is produced is produced sensibly. But that’s a subject for another time. Ferme Lamont’s methods are sensible in the context of Montérégie’s plentiful pasture and farmland (the Montérégie region is home to 24% of Québec’s farms) . Rotational grazing at this small scale is a beautiful thing. Grazing two or more species that have slightly different food preferences keeps the pasture diverse and healthy, the land being restored as the animals move on. A city girl’s rural fantasy, sure.

Un reportage sur la ferme du journal La Source:

Ferme Lamont: éleveurs d’agneaux

Ferme Lamont

13.06.2014 • The search for good chicken – a crash course on the Canadian Supply Management system

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Supporting farmers that work in sustainable ways and raise animals with compassion is at the heart of our philosophy.  Finding cattle and sheep farmers working in this way is not too difficult. The Quebec countryside is dotted with small farms with herds of grazing cattle and sheep. It’s a question of asking around and finding the right people. Finding pork producers that work in this way is harder; the industrial method of raising swine is so ingrained in Québec that even small producers tend to raise their pigs in closed houses on metal grate flooring with minimal space and putrid air. We were lucky enough to have found Les Viandes Rheintal early on (more on them later). But chicken is really, really hard. This is why:

Canadian poultry producers have to operate within the Canadian Supply Management system. This system was created starting in the 1960s to protect farmers by regulating the quantity of poultry, eggs and dairy produced in Canada and ensuring that supply does not exceed demand, thus maintaining price stability and guaranteeing that a fair and consistent price is paid to farmers for their product.  Farmers have to purchase (or inherit) the right to produce some part of the total allowed production quota in order to produce these commodities in Canada.

Quota for poultry is measured by the square meter. Today a square meter of poultry production is worth about $1000. This $1000 unit allows a farmer to produce a certain amount of poultry per year. A square meter has an equivalent in live chicken weight, and so the number of quota units a farmer owns, multiplied by the weight per square meter is the amount of chickens a farmer may produce in a 40-week period. There are exemptions for those producing very small quantities of poultry and eggs, quantities that are too small to even be marketed  (they are allowed to raise up to100 chickens or laying hens per year without purchasing quota). There are no exemptions for dairy.

The system also limits international trade in these commodities in order to protect markets inside Canada. High tariffs and quantity limitations are imposed on any of these commodities being brought into Canada from abroad.*

At the time of its conception supply management made sense. It protected farmers from the whims of the market and the power of processors, distributors and retailers of their products.  But over time the system conceived to protect them and the union that was created to manage it (the Union de Producteurs Agricoles, UPA, in Québec), have become exclusive and restrictive. Favouring large mainstream producers, the rules of the system and the UPA marginalize small-scale producers trying to operate outside the industrial food system.

Quota is expensive. New farmers starting to produce on a small scale are not likely candidates for the kind of funding needed to build their new business and purchase quota – banks don’t lend large sums of money to small new businesses.  In agriculture, banks want to gamble on innovation, which in agriculture today is equated with technology for increased production. Alternative small-scale farming has low yields and tight margins. Banks don’t like that. So whatever quota is available ends up in the hands of large industrial farms, permitting them to produce an even larger share of the allowable total quota. In Québec today there are 65% less poultry farms than there were in 1961 (800 today, 2236 then), producing at least twice the quantity of poultry. Big producers rule the roost.

And anyway, in the chicken business, every last bit of quota is already in the hands of chicken producers, meaning that even if a new farmer finds the money to invest, the right to produce poultry is not even available to him. The UPA insists that demand has been met- curious, since as meat retailers, we have found it difficult to find poultry that meets the animal welfare standards we uphold, suggesting a demand exists for more production in at least this segment of the market. But the UPA (and its subsidiary, Les Éleveurs de Volailles du Québec, the union that manages poultry business in QC) aren’t particularly interested in alternative markets or the yens of a new demographic of consumers that seek products produced on a more human scale. They pay lip service in the form of new subcategories of chicken (antibiotic free, vegetal, organic), all of which are still produced industrially and meet only the minimum requirements for these qualifications.

Before opening the shop we talked to every farmer we knew about chickens. We looked for leads everywhere, and nothing. Finally, a friend of a friend, a country boy curious about the realities of farming, agreed to raise 100 chickens for us. He got us through most of the summer but when it got cold out the supply dried up. Small farms without quota don’t build winter shelter for chickens, they only raise them outdoors in summer. So we proceeded to round up frozen summer chickens from every small farmer we could find, and that got us through a couple more months (note: chicken that is frozen immediately after slaughter and then defrosted patiently and hung to dry is indistinguishable from fresh chicken, I promise). Then that supply dried up. More phone calls, more frustration. Then someone mentioned Ferme le Crepuscule.

Ferme le Crepuscule is an anomaly in the world of Québec chicken.  Jean-Pierre Clavet is a second career farmer, a farmer that is passionate about what he does because he chose it. And he was lucky enough to arrive on the scene at a time when there was quota available, and to be smart enough to purchase a significant amount of it.

Today Jean-Pierre has the right to produce 22 000 kg of live chicken every 40 week period. He has two large chicken houses where the one-day-old chicks begin their lives. In winter they stay in these houses permanently and in summer they go outside and roam free. If you’ve ever seen and smelled a conventional chicken house you will appreciate the following pictures, and the fact that Jean-Pierre’s houses are almost odorless. Conventional chicken producers live in fear of contamination of their chicken houses because their chickens are sickly and vulnerable due to overcrowding and general lack of sanitation, and would never let someone visiting the farm into the houses lest they bring in some unwanted contagion. Jean-Pierre let us hang out with his chickens. They’re healthy. And they don’t need antibiotics to stay healthy. The feed they get is all certified organic, a mix of corn, soya, sunflower seed, flax and canola, which is all the more impressive when you look into what industrial chickens eat and discover that most of the chickens out there eat animal products and countless other disgusting things that are used to bulk out cheap feed. The newly hatched chicks come from a small hatchery called Couvoir Ramsay in St-Félix-de-Valois. They are raised for 7-12 weeks, and are slaughtered in batches; the first batch, at 7 weeks old producing the smaller carcasses, weighing about 1.5kg, all the way up to 3 kg at 12 weeks.

A producer like Jean-Pierre is one of a kind – a farmer whose production is sufficiently large to supply a shop like ours, and others as well, while maintaining the animal welfare standards and the quality that he does. He is now in the process of seeking funding to build a Centre Agroalimentaire on his farm, which will extend his existing cabane à sucre, and will include an abattoir so that all his animals can be slaughtered on site instead of being carted to some faraway abattoir at a high cost (gas, slaughter, time) and stress for the animals (More on abattoirs later). We hope he succeeds.

 

* Interestingly, the two groups that oppose the way that supply management affects agriculture in Canada are small farmers on the one hand, and on the other hand, big-business international trade advocates that take issue with the fact that supply management prevents Canada from being a full participant in the international trade of agricultural commodities. An unlikely pair.

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Pinotte the horse keeping the laying hens warm

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Inside the chicken house

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Jean-Pierre and Marc

11.06.2014 • Bonjour. On aimerais se présenter.

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Nous sommes la Boucherie Lawrence. Aujourd’hui c’est notre premier anniversaire. Ceci veut dire que ça fait un an qu’il y a un lien non fonctionel sur notre site web, un cercle noir affichant le mot Blog et la promesse, bientôt.

On a decidé d’avoir un blog parcequ’on voulait avoir une manière de partager avec vous nos motivations, nos inspirations, des petits trucs interessants et des grandes idées accablantes. Aujourd’hui on commence.

Voici un video et un article en introduction:

boucherie-lawrence

Montreal Gazette – Boucherie Lawrence

 

 

À beintôt pour vrai!