When Smithers was founded, almost 100 years ago, the valley was prime grazing ground for cattle. It didn’t take long for cattle ranchers to start producing local beef. Finished animals were sent to the local butcher and most people knew the farm and the family that produced their meat.
Nowadays, large commercial farms process 1,000 head of beef a day and are dismantling a Canadian tradition. The process has become so mechanized they’ve replaced skilled butchers with a production line of workers to process one animal. The art of butchering and the local butcher shop have fallen to the wayside.
The Northwest Premium Meat Co-op is changing all of that. Their vision of a locally sustainable abattoir has become a reality. By building a government inspected facility, NWPMC has opened the door to markets local farmers couldn’t have imagined. Local mining and logging camps, stores and restaurants are proud to serve and support locally grown and processed meat.
“We love the fact our meat is from right around the corner,” Christine Blair, co-owner of Two Sisters said.
“We can see the farm where the meat comes from at anytime. It’s local and it just tastes better. There’s no comparison.”
At a time when fuel prices are skyrocketing, and the possibility of contamination at huge commercial facilities is more prevalent than ever. NWPMC built a small facility to ensure consumers receive meat processing of the highest quality.
Local ranchers have produced some of the highest quality meat for generations and now have a local facility to process their finished beef, keeping full operations close to home.
“I think that’s what a lot of farmers haven’t seen yet, is that once you have your meat inspected it just opens up your market incredibly,” Manfred Wittwer, abattoir manager, said.
Wittwer, who owns and operates W Diamond Ranch said sales have grown exponentially in the past 10 years. Proving the need and want from consumers for local beef.
“The beef we process is still only about 3 – 4 per cent of the local market,” Wittwer said. “So to me this says we have a huge potential for growth. Even if we’re only at 15 per cent of what’s consumed locally, we would already be looking pretty good.”
The NWPMC is in a unique situation. The only other abattoir in the Highway 16 corridor is in Vanderhoof. Usually when ranchers are ready to process their finished beef they would have to ship them to lots in Vanderhoof, Edmonton or even Abbotsford. Here, local companies such as UTM appreciate the fact there is an organization dedicated to marketing local products for local consumers.
“Buying local is absolutely essential for us,” Kylar Hardy said. “We would rather support a local economy wherever we’re working, than bring in unknown product from outside.”
Despite the desire by many in the valley to eat locally grown, locally owned products, the NWPMC is still not seeing a comfortable return. In 2008 they had to shut the doors to their packaging facility and sold off the building last year. Currently the abattoir on Donaldson Road is only processing meat once a week. NWPMC chair, Paul Davidson, points out that the only way the meat co-op can survive is with more community support.
“What we need to see to keep this abattoir running is more animals through the abattoir,” Davidson said. “We need producers and consumers to take on this idea of local meat and local product and use this facility that we have, it’s a great facility but we need more animals through to make it pay.”
The abattoir is essential for local producers to sell their products to a wider market. With tightening of government food regulations, it’s becoming more and more difficult for ranchers to find buyers without a CIFA sanctioned facility to process their beef. By operating the abattoir producers now have the ability to reach mass markets. They even have plans to expand their processing license to include poultry, a growing interest among local farmers.
“The abattoir is very important for local farmers,” Fred Reitsma from the Smithers Sausage Factory, said.
“It provides them with an opportunity to market their beef and have it government inspected so they can increase their marketing base.”
Reitsma, who has more than 25 years selling and processing local meat in the valley, said this kind of operation is leading the way for a locally sustainable food system in the north.
“I think the Northwest Premium Meat abattoir is a very important part of sustainable agriculture in the Bulkley Valley,” Reitsma said. “It’s a great asset for local consumers so they can buy meat that was raised locally.”
NWPMC is asking all of its 200 members to attend the AGM on Friday to show their support and discuss the future of the co-op. The board of directors is heading into elections and are looking for some fresh faces to join the board.
However, the co-op still has some challenges to overcome in the near future. But with undeniable potential and a sound economic solution for most producers and consumers in the valley, the NWPMC is confident they will reach their goals.
“I hope what we see moving forward is renewed interest in the co-op,” Davidson said. “That we get more animals going through the abattoir, and show our lenders there’s community interest in this facility. It’s a win-win if we can keep it going.”
The Northwest Premium Meat Co-op AGM is slotted for Friday, May 25 at 7:30 in the Pioneer Place Activity Centre.
A producers showcase previewing local farmers and ranchers begins at 7 p.m.