By Amanda Brodhagen
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for locally-produced meat has grown significantly. However farmers raising the meat, especially those in the beef sector, have faced their own set of challenges trying to get their beef processed. Even prior to the pandemic, beef processing capacity in Eastern Canada, especially in Ontario and Quebec, was and still is experiencing a backlog.
To make matters worse, the already fragile food supply chain took another hit with outbreaks in packing plants. The need for workers to maintain social distancing has made it hard for many farmers to get their beef processed, especially for custom-cut-and-wrap orders from the farm gate to the consumer. Locally within our readership, as reported in last month’s The Rural Voice – the fire and subsequent closing of Green’s Meat Market in Wingham left many beef farmers in Huron County and area without a place to get their beef processed.
Despite these processing challenges, Grey County beef farmers like Julie and Ethan Higginson in Meaford, are showing resiliency during these uncertain times. The young farm couple own and operate a 65-cow herd of Angus and Simmental-cross cattle and farm around 500 acres of rented land that includes pasture, hay and soybeans and say that they’ve experienced an increased demand for their beef since the pandemic started.
“We had a goal for how many animals we wanted to butcher for 2020 and we have already reached it,” said Julie Higginson. “One of the challenges we have been experiencing is our butcher is all booked up for the year.”
The Higginson family is thankful they already had animals booked for each month of the year prior to the pandemic, but with a year like this one, they wish they could process more cattle.
Beef Farmers of Ontario, along with other non-supply managed commodity groups have been lobbying both the federal and provincial governments to come up with an aid package to help farmers survive the volatility and losses that they’ve been experiencing due by COVID-19. The Ontario Government announced recently that they’re topping up the additional $50 million to the province’s voluntary risk management program (RMP), sooner than expected, originally set for the 2021 RMP year for a total commitment of $150 million per year. While this investment, which was one of Premier Doug Ford’s election promises, is welcomed by the sector, beef farmers say that more needs to be done to address some of the bigger issues like processing capacity challenges that the industry has been dealing with for the last couple of years, but up until now that has fallen on deaf ears of government.
“We believe if the government put more focus on supporting small and large abattoirs that could increase kill capacity, that the industry would be in a better position to meet the demand for local meat,” said Higginson. When there’s a variety of both small and large processers, the meat industry is more robust and able to withstand the challenges like with what COVID-19 has created.
This is only the Higginson’s second summer selling freezer beef and navigating the marketing in a good year is hard enough let alone during a wild-card year that we’ve been experiencing. Each year, the Higginsons keep back as many calves as they think they can market. When their calves reach 800 lbs., they finish them on a corn-based diet until they reach about 1300+ lbs.
For their marketing program they sell individual cuts, beef boxes and bulk orders including, quarters and sides of beef. “We have noticed a lot more bulk orders than usual during this pandemic,” said Higginson. “We also supply beef to local storefronts as well as ground beef and stewing beef for businesses offering pre-made meals.”
Storefronts include, Goldsmith’s Orchard Market, Grandma Lambe’s, Giffen’s Country Market, Ravenna Country Market, The Farmer’s Pantry, and Tesoro Mercato. The Higginsons also supply Northern Pet Nutrition Treat & Food Co. liver for their dehydrated dog treats.
“The presentation of our product is important to us and we are very pleased with what our butcher does,” explained Higginson. Their breeding program consists of Angus for their marbling characteristics and Simmental cattle for bigger-framed animals.
Since COVID-19, the Higginsons have made the decision to stop all farm pickups and have switched to no-contact deliveries. “We trust people to e-transfer us post-delivery and we have had no issues,” said Higginson.
The farm couple has also been working diligently towards building their online beef shop on their website as a more efficient way to manage beef orders.
“As of right now, roughly half or more of our beef supply is sold through local storefronts. Many people also message us on social media or email to make a private order,” said Higginson.
Their customer base is comprised of mostly from Meaford and surrounding communities. “Our local customer group has definitely grown during COVID-19 with people recognizing the importance of supporting local as well as people wanting to stock up to make less trips to the stores and the fear of little supply at grocery stores,” said Higginson.
The pandemic has helped this couple starting out in the beef industry grow their freezer beef business and they’re hopeful that they can retain as many customers as possible once the pandemic is over.
Higginson’s advice for young people starting out in the beef business: “Don’t be afraid to take reasonable risks. There is nothing wrong with failure. If you haven’t experienced it, you’re not pushing yourself to your full potential.”
Passionate about seeing other young producers succeed, the Higginsons, along with some of their farming friends, have started a young producers’ group, organizing farm tours as a way to connect with people their age and share ideas.
“The most encouraging thing about being a young producer is the support of the beef farming community. It’s heartwarming to witness the effort other people make to share their knowledge and experiences in this industry,” said Higginson.
You can follow the Higginson’s farm adventures on Instagram and Facebook at @higginsonfarms. ◊