Saturday, January 14, 2012

Beef Starts Here

This NDP government has been quick to support and protect jobs in the pulp mills, suggesting that good paying jobs in rural areas are scarce and valuable. I think that the government could go a long way to creating more valuable rural jobs if they could convince Sobey's and the Superstore to sell Nova Scotia beef in their meat coolers.

I have never thought of the the big food chain stores as friends of the farmers. I have heard too many stories over the years of predatory pricing, demands for concessions, unreasonable conditions and general contempt to ever think of the chains as any better than Walmart. When they could be creating partnerships with local producers they are instead adopting the industrial model of having one national supplier for all of their stores. I know of several capable and competent farmers supplying the chain stores directly in their regions and suddenly being told that "we're going to be getting all of that product out of Ontario". I know farmers who were offered the price for Number Two produce out of Quebec for their local Number One field crops. "Take it or leave it." Another grower of root crops was told he would have to ship to the regional warehouse a province away if he wanted to continue to sell to the stores. No more deliveries at the back door, and no more recovering the heavy waxed cardboard boxes, which represent a substantial loss.

To be sure, dealing with perishable goods is very different from dealing with boxed breakfast cereal. But competent produce managers come to know the habits and patterns of their customers and can manage the inventory in ways that can keep losses to a minimum. Being partners with local suppliers is one easy way to do that. One of the chains has had a promotion recently advertising that they are now partners with local farmers, but I don't see much local produce on the shelves. And I don't see much local beef in the cooler.

We are in a very interesting position here in Nova Scotia. We have many farmers raising beef, we have a CFIA-inspected abattoir on PEI that is supported by the government of Nova Scotia, we have many consumers buying beef, and we have most of our beef farmers having to sell their live cattle to dealers in Quebec because there is no market here.

Most meat retailers, including the small shops, want these things: safe, inspected meat; boxed beef, meaning that they can order the cuts they want without having to buy a whole or half carcass; good quality beef that their customers will purchase.

There is no reason why Nova Scotia beef producers cannot be providing this meat. We have the plant, we have good quality beef, and we should be able to assemble an organisation that could supply boxed beef to the major chain foodstores.

A friend tells me that Nova Scotians raise beef because we have farmland. If one wants to keep the land under cultivation, the easiest thing to grow is beef cattle. Not that it is easy, but it may be the easiest crop among many. If selling beef became local again, the flow of cash into rural areas might be significant. At the very least we would be substituting our own production for imported beef, and import substitution is always a good thing.

This is not a simple matter, but it is certainly possible. Some of the larger and more entrepreneurial farmers would want to establish feedlots of sorts, where animals are bought in and finished to slaughter weight, and before they do that they would want to be sure of being able to move the animals to the abattoir when the time was right. Some beef producers' association would need to encourage the formation of a "box beef" plant  where carcasses are cut and stored, where orders are assembled and shipped, and where unsold product can be moved on to other value-added processors like hamburger patty and pepperoni makers. A lot of this can be done in the private sector, probably by the Nova Scotia-inspected abattoirs that already exist. All this is achievable.

And it may be a very good time to be in the beef business, as it appears that the American cattle herd is smaller now than it has been since 1952, due to a combination of droughts, high feed costs and competition for land uses. American export markets have recovered from the mad-cow bans, and prices are rising. For a long time the price of Nova Scotia beef was set in Omaha and it was always low. This makes a nice change.

Wouldn't it be nice if the Premier would take up the cause of farmers? Mill workers and shipyard workers seem to get all of the Premier's attention these days, but all of those workers have to eat. Would it hurt the Premier to have a little chat with the chain foodstore owners? Stand up for the little guy? Help out the farmers?

Unfortunately, our Premier is not that kind of guy.

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