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Editorial: The missing link

Canada’s sheep and goat producers had better not be counting on me to earn a living.

Don’t get me wrong, they produce excellent products, but neither of these protein sources has ever been a big part of my diet. I can’t remember the last time I had a lamb chop. A few years ago now, for sure. I’m sure I have consumed goat, but I’m just as certain I’ve never bought it at a grocery store. My last vague recollection of eating it was as part of a curry dish at an Indian restaurant a few years back.

A lot of us would say the same thing. Statistics from the federal Agriculture Department show that in 2015, the average Canadian consumed just over a kilogram of lamb. Goat consumption didn’t even make the chart. By way of comparison, in the same year we consumed nearly 32 kg of chicken per capita, just over 24 kg of beef and just under 23 kg of pork.

The situation is even more dire for this industry in the U.S., where according to figures from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) just 0.4 kg per capita was consumed in 2015. The same year the EU pegged consumption throughout it’s 28 member states at 1.8 kg per capita. In the western world, the highest consumers are New Zealand, at 4.4 kg per person and Australia at 7.4 kg a person.

That’s not to say there’s not plenty of consumption, and therefore market opportunity, for these producers around the globe. Plenty of people put these products on their plate regularly and top consumers include Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, according to the OECD.

But consumption numbers don’t tell the whole story. While I’m not eating anywhere close to a kilogram per year, someone else in Canada is making up for it. New Canadians from some of the countries that include lamb and goat as part of their traditional diets consume far more. It’s enough of an impact that it can be seen in the national consumption patterns and demand routinely exceeds the available supply. Hence we have imports.

In the early 1980s, lamb consumption was hovering about a third lower per capita, only breaking the one-kg ceiling in 2001. That coincides with the same time immigration numbers from lamb- and goat-consuming regions of the world began to grow.

Our own sheep and goat market reports frequently note the presence or absence of holiday season demand from these communities. Producers anticipate a nice spike in demand — and prices — right before each of their major holidays.

Meeting that demand requires consistent production, but in order for that to occur, there needs to be a way for that production to reach consumers.

The crucial link is processing. Earlier this winter, that link for sheep producers took a body blow.

On Jan. 25, the Canadian Lamb Producers Co-operative issued a statement confirming that it had filed for bankruptcy protection. First proposed in 2010, the co-op was four years in the making, aiming to wrestle back the close to two-thirds markets share of Canadian consumption that New Zealand and Australian lamb producers held. One goal was to create a branded product under the LAM banner. In 2014, it bought its first lambs, and by the end of 2016 it was seeking bankruptcy protection.

These sort of ups and downs are nothing new for niche protein producers. Processing capacity has always been their conundrum. If they want to legally get the product into the hands of consumers, they need federally inspected processing capacity. If they want that capacity, they need sufficient production and market volume to support it, but that’s tough to build when you’ve got no way of making it happen.

Bison producers are all too familiar with this exasperating catch-22. They have a great, healthy, tasty product with an interesting story to tell. They too struggled with slaughter and processing capacity in the early days. Their answer was to band together on both sides of the border to form the North American Bison Co-operative. They set up a plant in New Rockford, North Dakota, to process an estimated 5,000 animals a year. They’re also familiar with the financial ups and downs, with their organization seeking bankruptcy protection in 2004 following similar trials.

For the sheep producers, this is a heartening tale. The bison industry survived, and the plant continues to operate today. If that plant ultimately thrived through its growing pains, theirs can too.

We’re hoping the sheep and goat sector is learning from any mistakes it made and regrouping for a future play. For the agriculture industry, it underlines a challenge. Mechanisms are needed to meet changing market demand.

Otherwise, we simply hand the opportunity to feed our new fellow citizens to farmers elsewhere.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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