Rainy River Meats up for sale as abattoir faces financial struggles

By Louis Bergeron
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
lbergeron@fortfrances.com

The Rainy River district regional abattoir is hoping to stave off a permanent closure by selling off its processing facility, Rainy River Meats. At their recent Annual General Meeting, the abattoir’s board of directors set a deadline of July 31 to sell the meat shop.

“If at that time, there are no takers, they’ll probably close it,” said Kim Jo Bliss, a longtime board member.

The abattoir and Rainy River Meats are being run by a board of volunteers, which they feel may have led to inefficiencies.

“A volunteer board should not be running a business, that’s open 250 days of the year,” she said. “The truth is, a business like that takes passion and ownership and all of us who are volunteers, have a farm and a job and a family, and sit on other boards, so we just don’t have time. So, the business is not being run to its full potential, and it’s hurting. It’s costing us money right now.”

That’s not to say the store is destined to struggle; Bliss feels it holds plenty of potential for an entrepreneurial new owner – especially with the current landscape. At this point, the only other meat producer, Sunrise Meats, is restricting the number of animals it processes, as the owner looks to retire and transition out.  

“Maybe there’s somebody out there who would take it on and be passionate and would run it. I do think there’s potential for it, because we’ve seen the potential before,” said Bliss.

Right now, the Abattoir is struggling with a shortage of animals to process. Profitability relies on volume, but cattle producers are seeing increased prices for live animal sales.

“Cattle people are less likely to use the abattoir when prices are higher. You can sell cattle live, like at the sales barn, or wherever, and there’s a lot less hassle and it costs you less money for the most part,” said Bliss.

The board also feels the drought of 2021 is playing a role in the reduced volumes. At that time, a shortage of pasture and hay forced many producers to dramatically cull their herds. Since then, many have focussed on rebuilding their genetics, resulting in fewer animals sent to market.

“So, there’s maybe just not the cattle around, so we’re seeing a lower flow,” said Bliss

But that will inevitably change down the road.

“When live cattle prices drop, which they will – the beef business is a cycle, and it won’t stay strong forever. That’s just how it is. There are things like diseases and issues out there lurking that will cause this market to crash – when that happens, the abattoir still needs to be there,” said Bliss.  “That’s when we’ll really NEED the abattoir, because there might be a chance that you can make a little money on an animal if you can sell it locally.”

Abattoir board president James Gibson noted that there is always a need for a local abattoir. Regulations on meat production in Ontario would tightly constrict how local cattle could be processed, putting a damper on the local farm-to-table meat pack industry.

The lack of an abattoir would also limit the many farms making a living by selling local meat to restaurants and retail outlets.

“Losing the abattoir would shut them down, too,” said Gibson.

The loss would also prevent animals who are injured from being utilized as food. An animal with an injured foot, for example, can’t be legally transported long distances. A farmer’s only option would be to kill and bury those animals on the farm, he said.

Farmers wouldn’t even be able to consume meat from their own farms, unless they killed and butchered their own, Gibson added. Under Ontario meat regulations, meat packers can’t accept animals that aren’t slaughtered by a licenced operator or provided by a federally licenced source. Furthermore, under those regulations, that farm-butchered meat not only can’t be sold, but it also can’t ever leave the farm or be served to anyone outside the farmer’s immediate family.

“There’s lots of reasons why our abattoir is important,” he said.

The board is hopeful that a new owner will step forward, said Bliss. With production slowing at Sunrise Meats, in preparation of the owner’s retirement, and Rainy River Meats up for sale, she is hopeful that an enterprising person could move in and build up the sector.

“Perhaps as the new person comes along, they would be interested in taking more meat because they would have the facilities that they could,” she said, adding that there’s often government help, for someone with the cash to match the available grants. Unfortunately, the board just doesn’t even have the means to apply.

“The abattoir is important to our entire district, not just the farmers,” said Bliss. “It’s a piece of infrastructure that a lot of places in Ontario would love to have. And I feel like nobody really wants us to close, but how do you keep it going when you have no money?”

The Rainy River District Regional Abattoir has run into a financial crunch, resulting in a decision to sell Rainy River Meats. – Submitted