Building a Community Abattoir

A case study from Salt Spring Island

In 2004, the BC government announced impending changes to the meat inspection regulations which would require slaughterhouses to be licensed when meat is sold for human consumption. With no licensed facility on Salt Spring Island, farmers would have to transport live animals off island and then make a second trip to retrieve the meat. It meant additional hassle and additional cost. What could be done?

The Salt Spring Island Farmers’ Institute, in cooperation with other agricultural organizations in the Southern Gulf Islands, commissioned a study to look at the options for livestock processing. The report (Gulf Islands Livestock Processing Feasibility Study 2005) indicated that a small abattoir serving the islands was not commercially viable if an owner-operator had to pay off capital debt.

A solution was proposed in the Salt Spring Island Area Farm Plan of 2008, which recommended establishing community facilities, including an abattoir, to support the expansion of agriculture and revitalize small-scale farming on the island. A second study showed that by 2008, sheep and poultry numbers had declined to roughly half of 2004 levels.  This knowledge galvanized the community into action, and they came together to make it happen.

A small facility was designed to meet all government regulations and handle all types of livestock. At that time provincial abattoirs processed either poultry or red meat and no one was attempting to do both. A site had to be found that met the requirements of an abattoir (power, potable water supply, accessibility, and convenience for the users).  With no appropriately zoned land on the island, 12 site possibilities were whittled down to one, land was leased, and the rezoning process started. And we still had to figure out how to pay for the construction!

The idea of a mobile abattoir was originally considered, one able to move from island to island, but the cost of installing docking stations at each location and the challenges of coordinating tide heights and ferry schedules proved too complicated. We now have an abattoir in several moveable parts (since we are on leased land) – but we hope we will never have to move! There are livestock pens, an attached bleed/skin area and a trailer, custom-built on Vancouver Island, containing the evisceration room and a drip cooler. An attached portable building houses the hanging cooler and the cut and wrap area. A third section contains the blast freezer, a wash-up area and the meat inspector’s office. While on-farm slaughter might be ideal for the animals, the journey is short – it’s a small island.

Originally budgeted at $350,000, the need to meet building seismic codes in case of earthquakes significantly increased costs. Fundraising commenced in September 2010 with a $150,000 grant from the BC Meat Transition Assistance Program; another $300,000 was added from grassroots fundraising efforts. The abattoir opened with a Class B license for poultry (slaughter only) in time for Thanksgiving 2012. A Class A license (permitting slaughter and cut and wrap meat products) was obtained in 2013 for poultry and lambs. By 2016 improvements had been made and additional equipment purchased, adding beef and hogs to the license. All of this was made possible by farm-to-table dinners, auctions, generous donations, grants and hours of volunteer time.

Operations are managed by the Salt Spring Abattoir Society, a not-for-profit organization. Margins are small, costs increase every year, and we struggle with cash flow and the ability to pay our part-time staff a living wage. Since the business is seasonal it is hard to keep trained staff, especially when there is no affordable housing on the island. This year our plans are to add an Eco-drum composter to dispose of the inedible waste and to build an addition, since we are short of space in the busy fall season. The BC Meat Inspection and the BC Association of Abattoirs are supportive of our efforts and want us to succeed.

People sometimes laugh when we share the numbers – 5500 birds a year, 20 cattle, 60 pigs and 500 lambs; larger abattoirs can process these in a day. But the abattoir serves its purpose here on Salt Spring, ensures high levels of animal welfare and food safety, while responding to the increasing demand for locally raised and processed meat. And most importantly, its value is recognized by the community.

In an ideal world we would have owned the land and built a real building. It would be set up as a farmers’ or workers’ coop and everyone would be making enough money to allow for paying staff a wage which recognizes the skills involved. We would have kept up our organic certification, even when only a couple of producers had certified livestock. Although the challenges of such an enterprise are ongoing, don’t let them tell you it can’t be done. We are happy to share our experiences with anyone wanting to increase slaughter capacity in Eastern Ontario. Contact

– Anne Macey, President, Salt Spring Abattoir Society, and a past president of COG Ottawa

An Update on Meat Processing Facilities in Ontario

The number of abattoirs in Ontario has fallen almost by half since 1995. This shortage is stalling the growth of local food production and regional food distribution. The National Farmers Union – Ontario (NFU-O) has focused on the abattoir capacity issue for nearly 2 years.  We sent a survey to all 110 provincially and federally licenced abattoirs in Ontario. The top three challenges mentioned by respondents were: the lack of skilled staff, regulatory burden (including required paperwork) and relations with inspectors. 

NFU-O brought these issues to the Minister of Agriculture along with some clear and achievable solutions.  We also reached out to groups of farmers, and livestock and farm organizations interested in the issue. As the result of our work, the Minister’s office has formed a working group comprised of several stakeholders (including NFU-O), to discuss solutions.  The end goal for NFU-O is for livestock farmers in all of Ontario to have access to nearby abattoirs that provide high quality service.

In May 2021, a partnership of two large animal farm owners and Ottawa Valley Meats (an Ottawa meat distribution company) purchased the Henderson Meats facility in Chesterville. They are in the process of expanding production capacity there. There is also word of a farmer in South Frontenac who wants to open a new facility and is looking for other farmer investors. This farmer involvement in abattoir ownership is worth watching, as it could be a model for adding capacity in underserved areas.

– Hilary Moore, chair of the ad hoc NFU-O abattoir committee

Building a Community Abattoir