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The cattle are lowing; the money’s not flowing

Right here at home, where some of the finest beef animals are raised, we’re running contrary to a global trend that shows the cattle industry is riding a wave.

In most other countries, things are looking up for beef, despite growing interest in alternative protein sources from plants and insects. Overall meat consumption has doubled in 50 years and continues to grow, with poultry leading the way. Likewise, beef ‘s market share is climbing almost everywhere.

But if you are good at production, you must also be good at other aspects, like processing. And that’s where we’re falling way, way down.               

The Beef Farmers of Ontario say collective losses in Ontario and Quebec alone this year will top $150 million. Cattle feeders in the two provinces are losing more than $2.5 million a week.

The organization’s president, Joe Hill of Fergus, says the problems are mainly connected to prolonged, depressed markets, trade disruptions, market access challenges and – this is the big one – insufficient processing capacity.

The problem is compounded by the fact that one of the largest beef and veal processing plants serving eastern Ontario had production suspended by federal authorities because of regulatory violations, sending producers scrambling.

Independent Senator Rob Black, also of Fergus, weighed in on the problem last week when he raised the cattle issue in the Senate, framed around the processing plant’s suspension.

“We have a surplus of cattle and not enough processing capacity,” he informed his colleagues, adding that he wanted to know what the government planned to do about it, short term and long term.

By Saturday night, the video of his question – along with government representative Senator Peter Harder’s assurance that he’d find out and report back – had close to 4,500 views.  People care.

What’s frustrating beef producers is that decision makers at the federal level in particular may be listening and even acknowledging that there’s a problem, but nothing is happening. And no one in a position of authority can claim ignorance about the problem. Beef farmers raised it repeatedly with federal candidates on the campaign trail this fall. Unfortunately, no one has done anything about it.

So with the election over, ministers appointed (and in the case of the federal agriculture and food minister, reappointed), beef farmers here and in Quebec have issued a new appeal for help.

Like Black, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture has taken up the cause. Federation director Jackie-Kelly Pemberton says the entire value chain is feeling the financial effects of these industry disruptions, not to mention the stress on farmers, businesses and their families.

“[The federation] recognizes beef farmers have no immediate recourse to address these challenges,” she says. “Many of these issues and uncertainties are out of the control of farmers. That’s why [the federation] has joined the call asking for immediate government action to aid in the resolution of the mounting threats facing Ontario farmers.”

It’s an issue for the province to address, as well as the feds. As Pemberton points out, with processors exiting the sector in recent years there are too few players to place bids on cattle to ensure a competitive, healthy marketplace.

As a result, marketing options are reduced for Ontario farmers, squeezing financial margins even tighter.

This scenario runs contrary to the provincial government’s “open for business” position. Shuttered processors do not contribute to a positive business environment.

So as we sit down for our holiday feasts, let’s spare a thought for those who produce the food on our table, like our beef farmers, and try to develop an appreciation for the struggles they face. We know they’re under a lot of stress; understanding them and their challenges is a big part of supporting them and the services they provide.

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