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Putting the brand on northwest beef farming

Farmers put value chain in place to build consumer market for beef products
The Local Food and Farm Co-ops and the Beef Farmers of Ontario are teaming up to promote the purchase of northwestern Ontario-raised beef. (Beef Farmers of Ontario photo)

Beef farmers in northwestern Ontario are out to gain ground through a regional branding campaign to help strengthen the area’s local food movement.

Investing in vital infrastructure like abattoirs is a key cornerstone in a new marketing effort to build a regional beef brand in northwestern Ontario involving the Local Food and Farm Co-ops and the Beef Farmers of Ontario.

Prior to the June provincial election, Cloverbelt Country Meats Co-operative received $826,140 in government funding to acquire new animal processing equipment to overhaul and expand the Oxdrift abattoir, just west of Dryden.

“The whole building is just being gutted and refinished,” said Jen Springett, the northwest coordinator of the Local Food and Farm Co-ops.

The once-privately owned abattoir was in danger of closing until a group of local farmers purchased it last year and formed the co-operative.

The provincially-inspected facility processes beef, pork, poultry, and wild game from local hunters and area First Nations.

The upgrades should help with animal flow through the building, improve worker and animal welfare, boost freezer capacity, and provide some retail space.

Most importantly, the funding will upgrade an antiquated heating system that was costing as much as $4,500 a month during the winter.

Members are looking to secure the remaining financing – they are $250,000 short – before renovations can begin.

Boosting beef production in the northwest was one suggestion to emerge from the Northern Trade Route Project, an ongoing three-year research effort launched by food cooperatives across Ontario designed to dive into the details of increasing the trade of local food across the province, particularly Northern Ontario.

The project doesn’t officially wrap up until 2019, but beef farming was identified as carrying the most potential and benefit to the region.

Springett said the consumer demand for local beef is certainly there.

“All evidence appears to say so and our market research said there was pretty enthusiastic and positive response about it.

“This is something that resonates with people and they want to have increased confidence when they’re purchasing a product like that.”

Springett said there’s interest in local beef from the remote communities, restaurants, and public institutions like hospitals.

But to meet that demand, pursue new markets, and create an affordable transportation system, they need higher volumes, better efficiencies, and uniform standards on meat products from farmers working together.

“The intent is to be able to consolidate their efforts and make sure that we’re able to produce a consistent quality product,” said Springett.

It means building a strong value chain by preserving infrastructure assets, improving overall access to local food, and keeping cattle off the highways.

There’s talk of establishing a district feed lots for cow-calf operators to send their animals for custom finishing without having to take that burden on themselves, and, thus increase that flow through the abattoir.

That would certainly satisfy the customers of the Dryden-based Cloverbelt Local Food Co-op – not affiliated with the Oxdrift abattoir – where Springett is also the president of the successful online farmers market.

Since its establishment in 2013 as a local food movement, the award-winning not-for-profit has assembled a roster of 140 farm producers catering to more than 1,600 member customers and expanded its distribution network with depots in Sioux Lookout, Kenora, Ignace, Upsala, Red Lake, Atikokan, Fort Frances and Emo.

Within the last year, Cloverbelt Local Food Co-op has great strides in formulating a regional food charter.

Their regional coordinators fanned out and held district meetings across the northwest to garner support behind creating a policy backing local food.

The intent behind the charter is not so much increasing awareness, said Springett, but provide a vision and a framework about what the local food system should look like and what projects they should be pursuing.

“The charter is sort of the first step before moving toward the regional food strategy.”

A draft version of the charter is being circulated among various regional stakeholders for input.

For example, should an abattoir approach a town council seeking tax relief, a hospital or school board re-examine their procurement policy to consider sourcing local food, the charter would serve as a document showing that supporting local agriculture is a regional economic priority.

“It’s something to back their approach and keep everyone on the same page, remembering that local food was identified as something important to northwestern Ontario,” said Springett.