Raising cattle and processing beef that adheres to the highest standards for food safety, animal care, environmental stewardship, and bio-security is a prerequisite for a new not-for-profit beef co-op here in Northwestern Ontario.
The recently-launched “North West Beef” program is a collective of beef farmers from Wawa to Kenora who raise their animals naturally under the Verified Beef Production Plus (VBP+) program to ensure they all produce a consistent product.
“That involves a third-party auditor that comes in to ensure we're actually doing what we say we're doing in the program,” North West Beef board member Delton Martin explained.
“Everything is documented on our farms so it can be verified that we are who we say we are,” he stressed.
District residents looking to purchase North West Beef can pre-order online at www.northwest-beef.com/purchase and then pick it up from Rainy River Meats in Emo after it is processed.
Martin said the first order likely will be ready around April and North West Beef co-op members are eager to send it out.
“Those of us that are in it are really wanting to see it go forward," he enthused. ”We believe we have good product here and want to share it.
“To give [people] the same opportunity to eat something that's grown right here.”
Currently there are eight VBP+ verified cattle farmers who produce beef for the program, including local producers such as Delton and Judith Martin, north of Barwick, and Kim Jo Bliss in Emo.
Martin is hoping to increase the number of producers for the program as it gains steam.
“Right now we like what we got and we're going to make sure this program really works before expanding too much more,” he noted.
Four farmers presently are waiting to be audited by VBP+ before they can join the beef co-op and likely will be cleared in March.
Martin hopes the program will become a popular way for people in the northwest to acquire their beef and would like to see the area of membership grow.
“We're working [with producers] from Dryden to Thunder Bay to Rainy River, with plans of hopefully going up into Sioux Lookout, Red Lake, and so on” he remarked.
“We're still young yet so hopefully in a year we'll know where we stand.”
Right now, the beef will be solely for customers ordering online. But North West Beef co-op members have discussed selling their product in other capacities, as well.
“We would love to get a place where we sell it in stores and it's recognizable around this part of the province,” Martin enthused.
An interesting feature of the program is the grass-fed beef option.
“It probably won't be available at all times because there's not a whole bunch of people finishing in the district strictly on grass, but there is a small component of that,” said Bliss.
Depending on the demand for grass-fed animals, more producers of “North West Beef” may start finishing their animals on grass to meet it.
“That might sway the direction of the co-op," Martin conceded. "If there's lots of demand for it, I'm sure there will be more of us heading in that direction.”
Bliss said the regional beef co-op is meant to provide cattle farmers with another way to market their finished animals.
“We're always looking to increase our markets and increase our animal flow, so this is just another option for us,” she reasoned.
“I think it's exciting for a lot of local producers.”
With many young people coming back to the farm, the more ways they can sell their animals, the better, Bliss added.
“Not that I'm discounting the old producers but these young guys are trying to make a living off the farm, so having another market available is very helpful for them,” she stressed.
An interesting aspect of the program for customers is if they want beef specifically from one of the co-op's producers, they can specify that as long as they are okay with a longer waiting period.
One of the key benefits of purchasing meat through the co-op is consumers know where their beef is coming from. It also helps keep local dollars in the community.
“It helps keep the abattoirs open," Martin stressed. ”It just keeps the local wheels turning.
“And there's a good chance that you might just know the person where the beef came from too,” he remarked.
Bliss agrees, adding it's much more environmentally-friendly if “your food isn't travelling up and down the highways burning fuel.”
As well, the animals are raised in wide open spaces and close to the consumers' homes.
“There's not a large feed lot," Bliss noted. ”These animals are raised pretty naturally and you're going to really see a difference in taste.
But she also stressed it's important for consumers to know that “just because it's local does not mean it is going to be cheaper because we're not mass producing anything.”
“None of us have large-scale [operations] and the cost to produce beef and meat is incredibly expensive,” she remarked.
But Bliss believes the benefits of purchasing North West Beef outweigh any negatives and those who are hesitant don't have to fill their freezer.
They simply can buy a sample and see what they think.
“We're just excited to see this thing going forward," Martin enthused. ”It's an awesome opportunity.
“We're going to do our best to keep things interactive with our customers and we'll probably be at various events,” he added.
“We want to make a presence in the community so people can see us and talk to us and know us personally.”