By Hetty Stuart
Tom Smith, owner of Atwood Resources Inc. (formerly Atwood Pet Food) is passionate about two aspects of his work: keeping the environment clean by recycling, and keeping it clean by providing a service that keeps our precious water table free of contaminants.
His business turns dead stock into valuable commodities, and in the process, combats climate change. An important and vital industry, Atwood Resources not only works to sustain the economy, but also employs local people with quality jobs and benefits. He gives back to the community and environment in countless ways.
In 1966, Tom’s Granddad, Garnet Smith, bought a business – a small company that converted dead stock into food for the mink farmers. Demand for the pet food industry began to grow, and thus, Atwood Pet Food was created. Approximately seven tractor trailer loads would be shipped to U.S. markets, weekly.
Tom’s father, David Smith had taken over management of the company in 1986. Then in 2003, disaster struck with the discovery of BSE – or mad cow disease – in Canada. The Smiths were forced to abandon the pet food market immediately, and restructure with a focus on renewable markets.
“When mad cow disease hit, we shut the door of our facility for four days; all the products we had could go nowhere. Because all bovines have SRM (Specified Risk Material) in them, the rendered product from cooking down the bovines could not go back to feed, as per Canadian government regulation. We made the decision at that point to either get out, or to change, and we chose to move forward with rendering, volume reduction, and building on more capacity. Rendering was the best solution, the number one volume reduction method. Plus, it gave us the biggest bang for our buck.”
Render, from the French verb “rendre”, means to give back: it is the work of processing the dead stock, the spoiled meat, contaminated animals, and the carcasses from abattoirs; and safely creating new products in order that very little waste returns to the landfill sites.
“Rendering is one of the oldest methods of recycling,” Tom stated emphatically. “It’s been around for hundreds of years. All “dead stockers” are a different type of people, we’re just recyclers, wherever you could add value to a dead animal.”
Recycling these otherwise wasted byproducts helps to minimize the environmental impact of animal husbandry; and of course it also saves precious landfill space. Very little of the product coming in goes to waste. Once the volume of the dead stock is reduced by the cookers in the plant, the byproducts are water, oil, and ash. “First, water is reclaimed during the rendering process, and it gets cleaned to meet all regulatory safety standards to be restored back to town.
Secondly, the meat product (which initially was sold as pet food) is now rendered into industrial use for biodiesel. Incidentally, the heat that is generated by the 10 cookers supplements the natural gas to do the heating process in a gasification process, both for the Atwood facility, and for another company in Quebec.
Thirdly, Atwood has a Permit for Destruction, set out by CFIA, to produce ash that is no longer any risk to animal health. This raw ash is supplied to manufacturers who blend it with other products for their particular land application. This final act of volume reduction perpetuates the agricultural “circle of life”.
Disaster struck in two consecutive years with fire – in 2014, the main building was completely destroyed. During the rebuild, another fire started on the new roof, causing a further delay of a few months before work could continue. But the new facility is a state of the art plant. The day of the interview, a couple of trailer loads of spoiled meat - about 200 tonnes, was being processed. A tour of this plant was offered, but it required waterproof boots and a strong stomach so it did not happen!
Of the 1.5 million pounds of dead stock that arrives weekly, there is an amazing variety of animals that get processed in this plant. Every month, they receive six tonnes of skunks from the GTA, roadkill, zoo animals (such as elephants and giraffes, snakes and lizards), shrimp from inland shrimp farms and fish from a University of Guelph research farm.
Spoiled meat finds its way to Atwood to be recycled through volume reduction. “We examined many types of technologies to reduce our waste, even visiting Denmark to check out their procedures, but nothing compares to rendering. This is our prime volume reduction, removing 98 per cent of the mad cow disease risk itself, because we cook the meat at 280 degrees, just enough to boil the water off. We will reduce the water by 60 per cent. We are the best solution for SRM, for taking care of contamination and preventing poisons from entering the feed chain,” explained Tom.
“But,” admits Tom, “My largest client is the farmer, who is also my biggest competitor. I keep my removal fees as cost-effective as I can, so the farmer will allow us to remove the dead stock off the farms.” He went on to explain that there are farmers who follow the regulations to dispose of dead stock responsibly, but there are many farmers who do not. The farmer has a few options to dispose of their dead stock. They can bury it in a manure pile (not legal), composting (many regulations about distance to water tables) or use incinerators. Farmers can also use high hoes to dig their own holes, create pits with sand and sawdust or manure lagoons.
“Farmers are very resilient,” Tom explained. “They will find ways to dispose of their dead stock, right, wrong or ugly, and through most of the efforts, they find out that I am still the most cost-effective. To compost a cow will take approximately18 months, adding manure and other products to help it along. That’s a lot of work invested in that cow to keep turning it every few days. I know of a few farmers who have three or four piles of dead stock, rotting in the bush, and the well-fed coyotes become a problem in the neighbourhood.”
Tom’s biggest concern is that cows are large animals. Whatever drugs were in them could eventually reach the water table. “They need to be disposed of properly, otherwise, a disaster will strike, in the magnitude of the e.coli outbreak as happened in Walkerton in 2000. There was manure in a well, causing people to become sick. A dead cow also contains manure. If it gets thrown in the bush where the water table is at six feet deep, the groundwater will be affected.”
Tom says, “the cheaper I can make it for the farmer for picking up their dead stock, the better chance that safety will be assured. I know I will never get 100 per cent of all dead stock: in Ontario, approximately 60 per cent of all large animals are picked up, the rest are being dealt with on the farms.”
In Tom’s opinion, small animals are the worst. “I used to pick up 8,000 calves every month in our area. We added a $10 charge to the cost, and our figure dropped to 1,200. That is 6,000 calves monthly that end up on the manure pile, mostly, and in a couple weeks, it is supposedly ‘gone’ - broken down into the manure that we spread on our land – diseases, medications, and all – used as fertilizer to grow our crops. We need to educate the farmer about contaminating their dirt.”
Tom is in a working group with OFA, trying to assist with dead stock management in Ontario, being a solution to this potentially deadly problem. “If you’re not doing it correctly, you’re hurting someone down the road,” maintains Tom. “Beef farmers and cow/calf farmers who are experiencing tough times, are watching every dollar being spent on their farms; but if they throw dead calves on the manure pile, are they saving money? Saving that $50 at the moment could cost you much more in the long run. The risk is too high: if you make one person sick down the road, it is not worth it.”
What plans are brewing for the future for Tom’s growing company? He works with the University of Guelph to try to find a solution to work with hides. In the past, he sold about 700 hides weekly, but the leather industry has suffered in the past decades. “If you sit in one spot, you’ll get pushed out, so you have to keep moving,” he concludes.
Another idea that he thinks about is pressing the bone meal into chips that can be used for outdoor furnaces for heating. While other countries have regulations in place to allow these chips to be manufactured, Canadian regulations do not allow it. There is always the fear of BSE happening, with the chance of a cow consuming a chip.
“But, my biggest challenge is to get enough volume from the farmers to keep the cost down for them. My goal is to keep it as cost-effective as possible for the farmers, to convince them that this is a valuable service.”
As Tom struggles to keep the cost of pickup low for the farmers, as well as educating them about his service, he also effectively manages his business of 35 employees and keeps abreast of all government regulations and requirements. His greatest accomplishment is keeping our environment clean, and maintaining a safe place for the future generation. After all, he has three children – two daughters and a son – who are interested and involved in a small scale with the business. The fourth generation will be involved soon! ◊