If chat starts to lag at a get-together with strangers, Chad and Erika Maarhuis know just how to get a conversation started: they casually mention their day jobs. First, there’s a few seconds of silence. Then the questions start.
“Isn’t that gross?” (Nope).
“What’s it like?” (It’s a job, but one we care incredibly passionately about).
The Maarhuises run Magnum Meats, one of B.C.’s few small-scale, provincially inspected abattoirs and meat cutting shops. Theirs is a thriving, growing, almost overwhelmingly busy business in Rock Creek, B.C., a tiny town in B.C.’s southern interior.
Both because Magnum Meats is known for top-notch product and because few abattoirs exist, small- and mid-sized producers drive long distances and book literally months in advance to get their livestock processed at Magnum’s facilities.
“People’s mindset is that it’s a dirty industry, that it’s all blood and guts and gore. It’s not like that at all. Everything is so, so clean,” says Erika.
It’s also not the huge scale operation many assume all slaughterhouses are. On a big day, Magnum Meats’ slaughter facility can process 10 cows, 30 lambs, or 15 hogs.
They know it isn’t a business that most in their demographic would choose for themselves. It’s been anything but an easy road. And Erika certainly didn’t start off if this direction (“This was Chad’s dream. Not mine at all,” she says).
Still, catch them on a good day and they’ll both vehemently tell you that, despite the long hours, the regulations, the mental and physical demands, the stress, and the near-constant struggle for employees and space, they (usually) wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
In 2004, Chad — newly married, unemployed and not sure of his next steps — decided to apply for a job few of his peers might take: working at a huge abattoir in Chilliwack, B.C. He quickly realized he had a future in the meat cutting business: he liked the physicality and precision of the work and, having once been out of work, he liked knowing meat cutting would make him always employable.
The plant’s lead hand, with whom he quickly became good friends, committed to teaching him the business. But given the size of the plant, Chad realized it would take him literally years to learn it all. To fast-track to a real career in meat cutting, he needed to go back to school.
Fresh out of Thomson Rivers University’s meat cutting program a year later, Chad spent a few months learning the ropes of retail sales in a butcher shop in Abbotsford, B.C. Then, an offer — which seemed randomly convenient at the time but which has since proven pivotal — came from left field.
Erika’s parents had vacationed in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it rural town in B.C.’s southern interior. A family friend in that town was in the process of semi-retiring from the meat cutting business, and mentioned to Erika’s parents that he’d be willing to take Chad on for some work experience. The volunteer gig turned into a job. Two years later, the job turned into an offer to sell Chad and Erika the business.
“We had nothing to lose so we figured we might as well just give it a go,” says Erika.
Helped along by a $2,000 scholarship from SaveOn Foods because Chad was the top student in TRU’s meat cutting class, the Maarhuises became the proud — and, in hindsight, very naïve — owners of Magnum Meats.
They started with no staff. The previous owner, Jim, helped out on weekends and when the couple was impossibly busy. Still, they were running hard seven days a week.
“Chad was putting in 70 to 80 hours a week; I was doing 50 hours a week and we’d have baby Montana in the shop beside us. We’d give her baths in the big sink in the shop at 10 at night because that’s what had to happen,” says Erika.
And then, from seemingly one moment to the next, everything got thrown in the air.
Chad and Erika’s entry into the business coincided with a very rocky period in B.C.’s abattoir and meat cutting history. Back a handful of years before, the provincial government had begun to bring in new regulations around meat handling in response to Canada’s 2003 bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) outbreak.
In 2009, meanwhile, Ottawa tasked the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) with conducting inspections on all abattoirs across the province. CFIA demanded heavily bureaucratic federal standards that would prove an impossibility for most of B.C.’s many small abattoirs. As well, CFIA put an end to meat shops cutting farm-slaughtered animals.
Within a year of the CFIA take-over, abattoirs across B.C. began to shut down, and the province’s many small meat shops, left with no meat to cut, were forced to follow suit. From a total of between 200 and 300 plants spread across the province, suddenly only a couple of dozen remained.
“It was a do-or-die situation. We had just taken over the cut and wrap shop. Now suddenly we were facing a rule in B.C. that you had to use an inspected abattoir facility. We had hired people who were depending on us. We had to make it work,” says Chad.
Though the Maarhuises had planned that they’d eventually consider investing in a slaughter plant, “eventually” suddenly became “right now.”
Conveniently, a slaughter facility existed barely two blocks down the road. Even better, the owner was willing to sell. Incredibly inconveniently, however, the owner had, in a fit of huge frustration and stress over the new CFIA regulations, just relinquished his kill license.
“He could have transferred the license to us and we could have just kept the plant right on going. But, he gave it up — he just snapped and gave it up — and because of that, we had to start from scratch,” says Chad.
Qualifying for a new license meant meeting a tortuously long set of new standards rather than being grandfathered under an existing license. Even at the time, the couple realized that was bad, although they didn’t realize how bad.
“We assumed that, if he’d been allowed to slaughter for four years with an inspector, the facility might require some upgrades but it couldn’t be that big a deal,” says Erika. “We thought it would be so easy. We had all these ranchers waiting on us. Agriculture in our area was really starting to thrive. We assumed that by fall we’d be licensed and ready to go.”
They assumed wrong.
CFIA outlined its list of demands. “CFIA didn’t want us to be successful,” says Chad. “They knew the province was taking over inspection as of January 1 (the next year) and, because we were looking for licensing the summer before that, they didn’t want to go through the hassle. They just wanted us to go away. It blew our minds how negative it was for us to start up again.”
Months of hair pulling, hand wringing and wallet stretching later, licensing still floated just out of reach.
“We had so much support from ranchers behind us: that was only reason we stayed in. They needed us to stay in,” says Chad.
They encouraged their customers to phone their MLAs, the Regional District, the B.C. agriculture minister, even Premier Christie Clark. Irate ranchers, frustrated by a costly new regulatory burden and now facing the potential of losing their only cut and wrap option, started making calls.
“The support we had behind us, it was incredible. Everyone was calling politicians like crazy,” says Chad. “One of our ranchers told the politicians: if a license doesn’t come through by (Rock Creek’s late September) Fall Fair, we’re going to call every newscaster, kill everything illegally, document it all, and show just how impossible this corner is we’ve been backed into.”
No one knows if it was that threat that finally caught the attention of someone with political power. What the Maarhuises do know is that, bright and early the next Sunday morning, B.C.’s minister of agriculture called them personally.
“He said: ‘There’s quite a ruckus going on out there, I hear. What can I do to help?’ It was such a relief to know we’d finally been heard,” says Chad.
Miraculously, the rocky path ahead smoothed. The Maarhuises still had to battle their way through a mountain of paperwork, but finally they had direction and an assurance of light at the end of the very long licensing tunnel.
Just before Fall Fair, they were cleared for their first test kill. The ag minister sent a representative to make sure the process ran smoothly; CFIA’s regional lead and the head of B.C.’s Centre for Disease Control joined the party too.
And that was that: after months of intense stress, the Maarhuises were finally and officially in the slaughter business.
Agriculture is full of “If only I’d known!” moments. The Maarhuises’ is this: less than four months after their first test kill, the province took over slaughter inspection from the CFIA. While appropriately strict in terms of food safety, the province’s attitude towards inspection was one of support and teamwork right from the get-go.
“If the province had done the inspections from the beginning instead of CFIA doing them, most of the plants that shut down would still be running. They came in with a way more common-sense approach. The end result is still food safety, but they are way more helpful. It was night and day,” says Erika.
While having little competition is usually a good thing, the regulatory difficulties that cropped up during the CFIA-inspection years mean the Maarhuises have worrisomely little competition. Equally worrying, however, is the B.C. government’s proposed fix to the lack of slaughter capacity currently available in the province.
“Right now, the B.C. government wants to support anyone who wants to do this sort of thing. The government really wants to feed local. So, now they have to backtrack because so much has been shut down due to the impossible regulations that CFIA put in place while they handled the inspections,” says Chad. “The worry now with the new government is that it seems they might be spearheading a move to go backwards in food safety.”
Specifically, the government is considering allowing an increased number of Class D and E slaughter licenses. These licenses would allow farmers who live more than 200 kms from an inspected slaughter facility to kill on-farm and then legally sell uninspected meat.
The Maarhuises worry that, if any food safety issue arises, the Class D and E facilities (usually small farms who have a vested interest in selling the animals they’ve raised and now killed), have no inspector on-site.
“We’ve had animals condemned by an inspector who goes through the organs, the cheek meat, the lymph nodes, etc., to see if it’s fit for human consumption. If something were to happen, if something got through that shouldn’t, it could put a black flag on all of us. And that’s not just domestically: it could be an issue with borders and export too. Traceability and inspection came in because of wanting to keep our borders open. If we can’t sustain those things, keeping our borders open becomes a concern too,” says Erika.
While the Maarhuises acknowledge capacity is an issue in regions with no slaughterhouses, they point out capacity is also a serious issue for them, in spite of their facilities.
“You always hear about slaughter capacity. That’s not at all the issue for us. We can kill at least eight times what we do. Our issue is we can’t cut any more than we do right now: we don’t have the freezer space, the infrastructure, the people. What we can kill in two days is more than we cut in a week,” says Chad.
“We’re constantly being pushed to grow. When you can’t meet farmers’ needs, it feels like you’re letting people down. We have to say no, though, because though we can kill for a farmer, we just don’t have the capacity to do enough cutting,” says Erika.
Though their dream from the get-go was to build a bigger, better cut and wrap shop, the decision to buy the abattoir means that project will have to stay on the back burner for at least a few years more.
Scaling up is something they’re trying to do — they invested in a huge quick-chill drip cooler this summer — but cooler and work space, as well as manpower will continue to be the biggest stumbling blocks, especially because they operate in a very small town. They’re doing their best to tackle that challenge in creative ways: first by taking on lower-return work (i.e. poultry) that allows them to keep staff on more of the year, and second by hiring long-term staff rather than best-fit staff.
“The industry has to change its assumptions,” says Chad. “Sure, it would be beneficial sometimes to have some big, strong young men. But we find that a lot of those guys think the grass is always greener. They’re always looking for something else.”
The Maarhuises also invest in creating an enjoyable workplace.
“I could hammer on production, production, production, but I’ve found over the years that having a happy, steady crew that shows up is better than having to constantly hire and retrain,” Chad says.
The Maarhuises realize a big part of scaling up depends on maintaining reasonable government policies and gaining access to working capital. They give huge credit to the Abattoir Association, of which Chad is now a director, both for giving the industry a united voice and for supporting grant opportunities to individual operators.
They also hope a new focus on value-add will bring in more dollars, says Erika.
“We’re starting to transition. Up ’til now, we’ve tried to match retail customers with ranchers selling product. Now we’re taking it upon ourselves to be a bit more of the middleman. We’ve always avoided selling meat because we didn’t make any money, and because we had to focus on where we were putting our time. But there are so many people who want ‘clean’ meat now, though not necessarily certified organic. They want to know how their meat was raised, they want to know how it was processed. Our customers trust us. So, we’re seeing there’s potential to upsell a bit.”
They hope to build a new cut shop up at the slaughter farm in the near future. If they can manage that, they’ll be able to cure meat on-site instead of shipping it an hour and a half to a facility in Kelowna. And, the bigger facility will let Chad finally make smoked and cured, ready-to-eat sausage, something he’s passionate about and would love to have the space to do.
The Maarhuises are doing their best (though not always successfully) of making one other change to their business:
“We’ve come to realize that you still need a bit of a life. Our kids have four-day-a-week school so we try, when we can and because it’s the slower season, to take them skiing on Fridays through the winter. We’re not great at balance but we’re trying,” says Erika.
“We have a good life. It’s crazy most of the time, I’m the first to admit it, but it’s a good life. We get to live where we live. We love our community. We have the freedom to be in charge of what we do,” says Chad.
“When I’m cutting, I’m envisioning that I’m feeding one family with the meat I’m cutting. That’s a very intimate, connected feeling, and it makes me really proud of the product I’m offering. This is what I want to be doing.”