Labour shortages have long been a challenge for the meat processing sector. Not only does this create problems for meat processing businesses themselves, but it also makes it harder for farmers to access much-needed processing capacity for their livestock when animals are ready for market.
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The COVID-19 pandemic intensified the skilled worker shortage, while driving an increase in consumer demand for custom meat processing and shoppers looking to buy their meat and poultry locally.
It’s particularly tough for smaller meat processing businesses in Eastern and Northern Ontario, where the livestock population is lower and distances between farms and processing facilities are longer than in other parts of the province.
I grew up on a beef farm in Eastern Ontario and my first job was in a butcher shop. I also represent a lot of livestock farmers in my role as a board director with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, so I understand the need for processing capacity and the key role local meat processors play in our local food system.
As farmers, we appreciate when consumers genuinely care about where their food comes from and are interested in supporting local food production. Meat and poultry products are key components of our local food system, and we have to make sure we maintain the infrastructure needed to support livestock farming from the farm to the fork.
The local labour and processing capacity shortage didn’t happen overnight and the OFA, representing farmers, and Meat and Poultry Ontario, representing meat processors, have been raising awareness of this issue for a long time. There is no single solution to the problem, but some new initiatives are underway that will start to make a difference.
Last year, Meat and Poultry Ontario and AgSights launched Processor Links, an online tool that provides alternatives by making it easier to connect farmers looking for processing space with processors who can accommodate last minute needs or are accepting future bookings.
This past spring, the two organizations announced an expansion of their digital dashboard, thanks to funding from the federal and provincial governments, to add more functionality to the online tool and make it more user-friendly for farmers and processors who use the system.
Processor Links offers users a summary of current booking lead times at participating meat processors, contact information for provincially licensed facilities, and what species they’re able to process as well as which businesses have the capacity to accommodate last-minute bookings. Ultimately, an automated booking system will decrease logistics workloads for processors, simplify allocation of meat inspection resources and make it easier for farmers to find and make appointments.
Another big step forward this year was the spring launch of the new Centre for Meat Innovation and Technology by Meat and Poultry Ontario. It is designed to bring more training, innovation and research to the meat processing sector by helping businesses find and adopt new technologies and make it easier for workers to learn and advance their skills.
The centre is the only Canadian meat technology hub that encompasses skills development, training and best practices backed by world class research and education. The goal is to remove barriers and address challenges in the sector that hinder growth and profitability so that both meat processors and farmers can take advantage of the business opportunities that exist from farm to fork.
Lack of labour and processing capacity is a long-term sustainability issue for the food and agriculture sectors. Finding lasting solutions that balance the need for food safety and security with economic viability will require collaboration between many different stakeholders, and these two initiatives are examples of collaboration in action.
– Jennifer Doelman is director of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.