As the old adage goes, timing is everything. In 2019, Cloverbelt Country Meats Cooperative, located just west of Dryden, Ontario, upgraded its abattoir, thanks in part to a FedNor investment of $150,000. The funding assisted with an expansion to the plant’s working area, improvements to its drainage, lighting and heating systems and the purchase of new equipment for slaughter, processing, value-added production, storage and packaging.
The not-for-profit facility in Oxdrift provides an essential service to local farmers, First Nations, communities, hunters and tourist outfitters alike to process their beef, bison, pork, poultry, lamb and elk, as well as moose and deer when in season. Built in the late 1970s, the plant was faced with steep repair bills to meet current Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) regulations.
Renovations completed in December 2019 gave the facility a new lease on life and enabled it to take advantage of production efficiencies to meet increased demand, fueled by a growing consumer desire to support local businesses in the wake of COVID-19.
“We are finding that people want to know where their food is coming from and they’re willing to come out to the plant’s store to purchase their product,” observed Roger Griffiths, President of the Cloverbelt Country Meats Cooperative Board. “While some big grocery chains have set limits on the quantity of meat that customers can buy, the co-op is willing and able to accommodate large orders. I think we may be seeing a return to the days when people buy a side of beef or pork to keep in the freezer.”
Cloverbelt Country Meats Cooperative is now attracting a number of livestock producers from Thunder Bay where there is no facility to butcher poultry. It is also accommodating any beef or pork overflow as the need arises. In addition, the co-op is processing a growing number of animals from Kenora. Griffiths said the growth in business is occurring without a membership drive or advertising.
In years past, the co-op experienced seasonal lulls in business, typically in the spring and summer. However, this year business has skyrocketed. Midway through 2020, Griffiths said they had already tripled a normal year’s output. He credits some of the co-op’s new equipment, made possible with FedNor funding, with helping the facility to increase its capacity.
Among some of the purchases was a new tumbler. The device is designed to evenly distribute a marinade for added moisture retention in a cut of meat. It not only meets current OMAFRA standards but can do the job in a quarter of the time its predecessor did. Griffiths said the staff thought it was Christmas when the new equipment arrived.
“We had a smoker but it didn’t have the required level of sophistication to be efficient and it tended to dry out products,” shared Griffiths. “Our new computerized model is much easier to use so now we can ensure that the moisture level in a ham, for example, is the same every time. It records temperatures reached and for how long, which is an important safety measure for customers. In addition, the equipment has food traceability capabilities that would expedite food recall, if the need ever arose.”
With its big new energy-efficient freezers and coolers, Cloverbelt is better equipped to segregate and handle more wild game in the hunting season. Dedicated coolers for poultry prevent any cross contamination. The additional freezer space in the slower season will be used to process and stock pile product in preparation for a sale.
The building upgrades that saw the staff kitchen moved to the main floor, improved overall lighting to eliminate shadows, and upgraded interior surfaces making it easier to clean and disinfect have made the plant more comfortable and safer for its five full-time, four part-time and approximately seven casual employees. Griffiths is confident that the in-floor propane heat that replaced electric heaters will result in cost savings.
In short, the co-op’s capacity continues to increase. On the hog side alone, it has more than doubled its slaughter capacity thanks to new equipment. To keep up with demand, the co-op is seeking a second butcher.
“The co-op’s foray into the farmers’ markets this year, is also bringing in more business,” added Griffiths. “We’re helping with regional food security. As for producers, we’re encouraging more production, which in turn, will result in increased revenue. They’re seeing the opportunity to market more local product.”
These upgrades to the abattoir are stabilizing and helping to expand the agri-food sector in Northwestern Ontario. The project is an example of the types of initiatives funded by FedNor that support the federal Prosperity and Growth Strategy for Northern Ontario. Learn more about PGSNO.