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.
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 seems 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.
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.
Today, 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.