For many North Cariboo residents, choosing locally grown turkeys is the ideal, however for producers, finding accessible, affordable slaughter facilities for their birds, within a reasonable geographic area may prove to be a challenge.
Wilma and Keith Watkin began their poultry slaughter operation in 2001 out of necessity. It had became clear that processing their own birds in a kitchen sink operation wasn’t going to cut it anymore. “We couldn’t find anyone to slaughter our chickens,” Wilma said. “They were primarily for ourselves but we hoped to sell enough to cover the cost of our chickens.”
At the time, there were only a few areas of the province requiring plants to be inspected, but both Wilma and Keith were, even without inspectors, committed to the best possible levels of cleanliness and food safety.
“We visited several operations in order to determine equipment and flow of operation, although we already knew the basics of poultry processing,” Wilma said.
“We relied on a local veteran chicken expert. He was a great mentor.” And slowly, by word of mouth, other poultry producers found out and the Watkins were in business. “Those first couple of years it was basically just slaughtering for personal use,” she said. Both Wilma and Keith were still working and had limited time to devote to the operation, but the demand kept growing.
A few years later, the winds of change were blowing in the province and they realized regulations were coming in that any meat sold in B.C. would have to be inspected and processed in a licensed plant.
“We knew being licensed would require a major upgrade of our plant as well as having inspectors present for all slaughter,” Wilma said.
“We had two choices: shut our doors or apply for a license and upgrade. We decided to to go for it and were given a transitional license. This allowed us to continue operating until we met all the requirements for obtaining a licence as an inspected facility.”
For Walk’In Acres, the big kicker was the lack of weekend inspections (union issue with the federally employed inspectors.)
By now Keith had retired but Wilma was still working as a high school teacher and could only assist in the plant on weekends and stat holidays during the school year. In March 2007, before they made the final push to upgrade, Wilma sent a letter to the then Ministry of Healthy Living (the B.C. ministry responsible for meat inspection at the time) asking for a definitive answer on the limited inspection services.
“Having no response, we went ahead with the upgrades and finally received word at the end of May – no weekend inspections,” she said.
By now Walk’In Acres was processing about 6,000 chickens and 500 turkeys a season for customers from as far away as 100 Mile House and Prince George. Since weekend inspection was not an option, they chose to continue requesting extensions to their transitional license in order to be able to offer slaughter services to their customers.
However, by 2010, Wilma received a letter stating they could no longer function with a transitional Class C licence and they would have to open their 2011 season as an inspected facility. Without weekend inspection this would have reduced slaughter services to only July and August when Wilma wasn’t working. This situation was definitely not acceptable to either Keith and Wilma or their customers, so a letter-writing campaign was initiated and local MLA Bob Simpson intervened. As a result of these efforts, Walk’In Acres was granted another extension of their Class C transitonal license.
“I decided to retire, which freed up time to work with the inspection time frame,” Wilma said.
Now the industry faces another challenge with the federal Canadian Food Inspection Agency planning to pull out of provincial plant inspections as of December 31, 2013 and is downloading those responsibilities to the province. All provincially-licensed slaughter facilities are concerned over whether the province will then download the cost of inspection, of which the majority is currently borne by the federal government, to the facilities. These increased costs would then be passed onto the producers and ultimately to the consumer.
Meat inspection regulations and administration have recently moved to the Ministry of Agriculture, while the licensing has remained under the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. The provincial government has yet to decide what the plans are for inspection services and the funding levels after CFIA pulls out.
“If the provincial government, at the time of CFIA withdrawal, chooses to download any of the costs of inspections onto plants, we will see both the producers and plants disappear because the profit margins just won’t be there. My mantra has always been producers need easily accessible and affordable slaughter for their animals in order to continue to supply locally produced meat to consumers,” Wilma said.
“It takes time to build a business and we have accomplished that,” she said. In 2012, Walk’In Acres processed about 9,000 chickens and about 1,000 turkeys.
But for the Watkins, who are entering their seniors years, they’re no longer prepared to operate the plant. “If local producers do not have access to an affordable slaughter facility within a reasonable geographic area, consumers will have very limited options for purchasing locally grown turkeys and chickens. There’s a great opportunity for someone to walk into an established business,” Wilma said.
“We’re prepared to provide training and will ensure new owners meet all the necessary requirements to operate. The demand is there and this business will continue to grow.”
Anyone interested in discussing business with Wilma and Keith can call 250-747-2757 and have a chat.