Renewed interest in purchasing locally produced food is just the beginning of possible opportunities for the Canadian beef industry, one young producer believes.
Amanda Brodhagen sees the potential for a number of positive changes for the Canadian beef industry and the public’s connection to food production arising from our current challenges.
“I hope that that hyper-local awareness continues and that this is the only the beginning of supporting not only the primary producers but the whole food industry,” said Brodhagen, who farms with her family at their commercial cow-calf operation at Stratford, Ontario.
“I look at some of our small grocery stories in our rural communities — they’ve never been busier,” she said. “We see the grocery stores trying to carry as much Canadian and Ontario and local produce as much as possible and labeling it as such with the Canadian flag. I hope that continues.”
In addition to using this opportunity to promote local food and build trust with consumers who are more interested in where their food comes from, Brodhagen would like to see other positive changes within the beef industry.
Greater appreciation for different stages of the supply chain
Due to the pandemic, there has been greater awareness about those who keep our society running but may not always receive the same appreciation as other sectors. The trucking industry in general has been in the spotlight for this reason, with more people sharing their gratitude for its vital role.
“Even just looking at the cattle sector alone, it’s very under appreciated and also has faced a great deal of challenges from a labour perspective of getting truckers,” Brodhagen noted. “There’s a great awareness of the importance that they bring and that we could not function and have food in the grocery stores and many other things without them.”
She added that this is certainly the case for the workers who kept grocery stores running during quarantines.
“These were people making minimum wage. Now people are giving them more thanks and awareness,” she said. “I hope that we as a society and a culture don’t forget this and that we continue to hold appreciation for those people and for the things that we have.”
Shifts within the processing sector
Though limited processing capacity had plagued Ontario’s beef industry for some time, the COVID-19 crisis amplified this issue, creating a huge backlog of cattle to be slaughtered. As several large facilities across Canada and the United States experienced partial and full shutdowns, Ontario’s dairy industry also felt the strain of the crisis, with many producers forced to decrease their quota and sell more cull cows into this market.
Brodhagen anticipates these challenges will lead to more discussion on how Canadian agriculture can “look at our whole food supply chain from a more holistic point of view.” She referenced a recent Forbes article written by renowned livestock handling expert Temple Grandin on the fragile nature of modern meat supply chains.
In this article, Grandin discussed how smaller, independent packers across North America gave way to the current system, which was overwhelmed at the height of the pandemic. While large plants are cost efficient yet prone to disruption, small facilities are more expensive but less fragile.
To strengthen our supply chain, Brodhagen stated, more smaller abattoirs are needed.
“We’re very proud of our standards when it comes to food processing. But at the same time we need to make life easier,” she said, noting that Ontario’s provincially inspected facilities can’t sell meat inter-provincially.
“We have abattoirs in northern Ontario that it would make more sense for them to sell products in Quebec or Manitoba.”
Canadian agriculture coming together as one industry
With Canadian agriculture being a rather fragmented industry, Brodhagen hopes this situation will prompt different commodity sectors to work together. During a young farmer exchange in the U.K., she learned about the model of its agriculture lobby, the National Farmers Union, in which each commodity has a committee within this one organization. While this model may not be the best fit for the Canadian agriculture industry, she sees the potential for more cooperation.
“There’s a value of collaboration, and even just looking within the protein sectors alone, we need to find the common ground instead of worrying about how everyone’s different,” she said.
“It is a challenge, especially when you get into discussions about business risk management because everyone’s production cycle is different. So there’s a lot of work to be done, but there’s lots of good things that can come of this as well.”
This is the second in a two-part series. For more, see Challenging times bring opportunities to connect with customers.