Passmore Pluckers processes poultry from across the West Kootenay.

Passmore Pluckers processes poultry from across the West Kootenay.

Slocan Valley poultry abattoir essential, expert says

Slocan Valley abattoir is trying to find a buyer.

A Slocan Valley abattoir is for sale and a local agricultural consultant says it’s important that it find a buyer.

Abra Brynne says Passmore Pluckers is vital to the food security of the West Kootenay because it is the region’s only large-scale licenced meat processing facility.

“To lose Passmore Pluckers would be devastating for anyone producing poultry for market,” she says. “They would just have to shut down.”

The company’s owners, Judi Morton (pictured below left, photo submitted) ) and Alex Berland, are retiring and they’ve listed the provincially licenced business for local sale at $80,000. Last year they processed 11 tons of meat valued at $120,000 for 76 customers, some of which are larger producers, but mostly small farmers growing birds for their own families, friends, and neighbours.

Keeping the knowledge local

According to provincial government regulations, West Kootenay farmers may sell poultry to their neighbours, or to a retail store, if they have it processed in a licenced abattoir. Passmore Pluckers is the only one in the West Kootenay. Further afield, the nearest ones are in Creston and Grand Forks.

To Morton and Berland, it is more than just a business, and they hope potential buyers feel the same way.

“We want this knowledge sustained in the area,” says Berland.

He says local knowledge of how to raise and process meat contributes to local economic resilience, meaning that West Kootenay residents don’t have to rely on outside sources for meat.

He explains that along with the operation and the licence comes their three-inch-thick manual of operating procedures that covers everything from evisceration, defeathering, sanitation, and dealing with waste, to water quality, packaging, labeling, and pest control.

Humane and respectful treatment

“The people working in small scale abattoirs like Passmore Pluckers are very different from in a large one,” says Brynne, “where you have someone who is doing one little cut, one small activity all day. They don’t know how to handle an animal humanely and respectfully from a corral through the kill floor and into the cooler and into a bag. That is an advanced skill. Some see it as a craft, as a trade, just like an electrician or a plumber, but there are few training opportunities Canada.”

Passmore Pluckers is certified organic. If a farmer grows organic birds and wants to sell them as such, those birds have to be processed organically.

“We are a certified organic processing plant and this is not common across the province,” says Berland. “It is about the chemicals being used in the plants, and the cleansers, so you are not exposing the birds to toxic chemicals.”

Demand exceeds supply

Brynne (pictured at left, photo submitted) says demand in West Kootenay for locally grown meat, organic or not, far outstrips the supply, but starting a local abattoir is a challenge because of the monopoly control of meat processing across North America by a handful of big companies.

“It is vital for an abattoir to have a low debt load in order to function,” she says, “because from the processor down to the livestock operator, the meat industry is operating on razor-thin profit margins so if a small abattoir is to cover the true cost of production it makes the meat prohibitively expensive.

“People don’t appreciate how incredibly labour intensive it is to break down a chicken carcass,” she says. “Breaking it down into those thighs and wings and legs that everybody loves is really finicky work, it takes a lot of time, it adds a lot of wage costs. But that is the way people want to eat their chicken. They don’t want to buy a whole chicken.”

Local economic benefits

Berland says Passmore Pluckers and its customers have direct and indirect benefits to the local economy in addition to helping out farm supply and feed stores.

“We hire a half dozen people on kill days [two days each week],” he says. “And for our customers, raising and selling poultry fits in with people’s lives. You can have a job and raise birds too. It is a highly valued product that you can manage on these rocky farms we have here. And it adds fertility to the soil.”

‘They look at the guts’

In 2004 the provincial government banned the sale of meat by farmers to their neighbours (“farm gate sales”) without first processing it through a licensed abattoir.

The province wanted to harmonize its meat processing regulations with other provinces and the federal government, but the change had unexpected results: a reduction in the number of slaughtering services in BC from 300 to about 13, according to Brynne.

The government responded by making some money available to help with abattoir start-up, but that subsidy has since been discontinued. Currently, Brynne estimates, there are about 50 licensed abattoirs in the province.

The change moved responsibility from the federal food inspection agency to the provincial ministry of agriculture, and Brynne says that was a good idea because government oversight is now both more rigorous and more respectful.

“It is a night-and-day difference. It has gone from command-and-control to something that is more collaborative. I applaud the government for the inspection model they came up with.”

The Passmore Pluckers abattoir unit ready for operation (photo submitted)

Berland agrees. He says the provincial government has also been supportive with funding for equipment upgrades. And whenever they are slaughtering birds, a provincial inspector is there.

“We are not allowed to operate if there is no inspector. They are present, they look at the guts because that is where you see evidence of disease. They look at the heart liver and lungs. At the big processor plants, they don’t have time to look at every bird.”

Not in my backyard

In 2007, a local group that including Brynne attempted to start a co-op abattoir but could not find a piece of land without a not-in-my-backyard backlash from neighbours, even though proponents assured people modern abattoirs do not smell or produce visible waste.

“The NIMBY approach cannot work if we are going to have resilient local food systems,” says Brynne. “We need to find places to have these operations. The small-scale abattoirs really do see themselves as a vital link in our regional meat value chain. Without slaughterhouses, the link is broken.”

Brynne thinks vegetarians need to think about this too.

“Whether people eat meat or not, having animals on the ground is vital because we need the most resilient ecosystems and food systems possible as we head into ever increasing climate chaos as well as all the other chaos happening globally.

“The long supply chains we are accustomed to in our food systems are becoming so very vulnerable and the situation in California and all the forest fires around us underline this. Protein is essential for all of us and not all of us can source it all from plants.”