At the onset of the pandemic, COVID-19 outbreaks at industrial farms and meat processing plants exposed weak links in Canada’s food supply chain.
Consumers stocked their freezers full of provisions, including meats, resulting in empty store shelves and higher costs for meat products. They also started looking for alternatives to industrial farms and sought out local, smaller producers.
For seasoned butcher Jamie Waldron, who found himself out of work at a high-end hospitality group, the time was right to pivot his career to catering to these new consumer trends.
“As bad as this pandemic has been, the local market has seen a surge in people looking for a closer connection to their food,” says Waldron, who operates J. Waldron Butchers in Hamilton, Ont. “Hence, the whole-animal meat share was born.”
How a nose-to-tail meat share works
Prior to the pandemic, Waldron was widely known in the food industry for his nose-to-tail butchery workshops and dining experiences.
When COVID-19 hit, he worked with local farmers to offer meat shares, a service that provides consumers with a bulk selection of cuts from the whole animal, while also supporting smaller producers. Local restaurants, closed due to the pandemic, provide him space to break down animals.
Before partnering with a farm, Waldron takes the time to visit each operation to ensure the producer has similar sensibilities, and the farm’s livestock is raised to his standards.
“That means animals raised on pasture, when possible, and fed a diet free of antibiotics and hormones,” he says. “Through the program, I’ve developed a nice, tight-knit family of farmers.”
After procuring meat to fill his orders, Waldron skillfully butchers and packages it for pickup from a central location.
People who subscribe to the share receive about nine-kilograms (20-pounds) of meat, such as pork, beef, or lamb.
“I have a die-hard clientele who want, and look forward to, that,” Waldron says. “When they get their share, it’s like meat Christmas.”
A cost-effective way to eat meat
While nose-to-tail eating is often viewed as a more sustainable way to consume meat, Waldron says it’s also more cost-effective.
Through Waldron’s meat share, consumers have access to quality meat at a lower cost per kilogram than butcher shops specializing in similar products.
“I use the whole animal approach because, for me, it keeps my costs down, which I’m then able to pass on to my customers,” he says.
Even so, Waldron says consumers who purchase a share need to be flexible and receptive to various cuts of meat.
“It’s not going to just be New York striploins and tenderloins,” Waldron explains.
“There’s going to be a bit of ground, some roasts, bones to make stock, and I’m always available to coach people on how to cook with new ingredients.”
A mutually beneficial relationship
When Rob Knight, who operates Ayrsyde Farms in Ayr, Ont., first learned about Waldron’s meat share program, he went to see it in action at a pickup location.
“It’s a very unique business model – it blew me away,” Knight says. “People turned up on their bikes, put the meat in their backpack, and rode away.”
Knight’s distribution model includes retailing directly to consumers, as well as a wholesaling to restaurants and butchers.
For smaller producers like himself, Knight says the ability to sell the whole animal can streamline operations by saving him the time and money it takes to move individual products on the retail market.
“It’s more profitable to sell it retail, but it’s easier to sell the whole animal, like we do with Jamie,” Knight says.
Quality meat matters
Pointing to a growing backlog of independent meat processing space, Knight says he has also seen a greater demand for local meat products as a ripple effect of COVID-19.
“I think consumers are looking for quality, higher-welfare animals and ethical production,” Knight says.
While not certified organic, Ayrsyde Farms uses traditional, sustainable farming practices to raise livestock, he adds.
“We don’t use any sprays or fertilizers, other than what comes out of the cow,” says Knight. “Our fertilizer is four-legged fertilizer.”
To ensure a quality product, the farm’s Galloway breed of cattle are moved to fresh pasture every day where they graze on a natural diet of only grass.
“It takes a very small amount of cereal grain or corn to change the structure of the end product,” says Knight. “It’s a shortcut, really, and more economical for the producer, but it’s not the same product – it’s as simple as that.”
Knight attributes a shared philosophy on rearing livestock, coupled with Waldron’s sharpened butchery skills, to the pair’s successful farmer-butcher relationship.
“We try to support each other any way we can,” Knight says. “I think there’s a lot of people who are looking for this type of enterprise because quality matters.”
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.