Small town meat processor defies the odds

Small town meat processor defies the odds
by Bonnie Warnyca - 2, 2009

When Shane and Doris Oram returned home to Tugaske, Saskatchewan in 1995, a village with, give or take, 150 residents, they were unsure about how they would be able to make a living. "Shane grew up on a local purebred Charolais and grain farm before moving away to work," says Doris. But there was this 1918 Eaton's catalogue home built by his grandfather that always seemed to beckon us to return. Initially I worked as a vet tech and commuted to Outlook but when the grocery store came up for sale, we decided to try our hand at retail hoping to be able to stay and work here at home."

And they were able to keep the little grocery open until the local population dwindled to less than 100 by 2006. But, by then, the couple had already purchased a meat processing plant in nearby Eyebrow back in 1999, and moved its contents to the back of the store. That first year, they custom processed roughly 60,000 lbs of meat including beef, pork, lamb, elk and bison. "While our grocery business shrank, the custom processing grew," Oram tells us. "We were lucky enough to hire the fellow that sold us the business and he trained us while on the job. Since then, we've put two employees through the meat cutting course. This past year, we processed close to 500,000 lbs of meat."

Another door opens
With the growing success of their custom meat processing business, the couple decided that the only way to expand was to build an abattoir. But local livestock producers, already selling meat from their farmgates, wanted a facility that was domestically inspected which meant they could then sell their meat to retail outlets and restaurants across the province. "We began building the multi species facility almost three years ago with the help of close to 50 investors and it's due to open this month," offers Oram. "The plant can handle 20 head per day and one day's production will provide a week's worth of work in our processing plant which averages 2,000 lbs of product in a day."

Although the business is called West Bridgeford Meats Ltd. there is no brand identification. "We're not selling a branded product except with our pet food," explains Oram. "We custom kill and custom process, and our producers market their own products. The West Bridgeford Meats brand is something we plan to develop in the future. For our producers, we make 22 flavors of sausage, five deli meats and close to 50 value-added other products. There's minimum poundage for some of the sausage flavors. We cut the meat according to individual customer requirements."

West Bridgeford Meats Ltd. now employs nine people including the owners and with the addition of the plant, there is optimism that number will grow. All the meat is SRM free when it leaves the plant and Oram has had calls from other processors, and producers wanting to have their animals processed and inspected to sell by the side or have the meat processed elsewhere. On the processing side, there are already bookings for May and June as well as in the fall. There are presently 375 head of livestock on a waiting list; mostly cattle.

"We are a custom operation," stresses Oram, "but are contracted to give priority service to our investors. By that I mean our investors get demand service. Another part of our service is that if one of our producers can't fill a particular request or order, we will try to pair that customer with another producer that can. A consumer may want a specific cut or side of meat, raised a certain way, and I will try to match them up with someone that can supply it. We have a tracking code which allows the consumer to know where their meat is raised and under what conditions. I purchase cull animals for my pet food line and the pet food packages also have a 4-digit tracking code."

Pawsitively Bridgeford
Adding a pet food line was a natural for Oram, who raises and shows Jack Russell Terriers. While experimenting with dog food recipes to stop one of her females from losing hair, she went from mixing the ingredients on her kitchen table to producing 2200 lbs of pet food per month to supply her growing network of distributors in the west. "With some help from a couple of veterinarians, I was able to come up with a balanced ration based on raw meat, fresh vegetables and fruit" she says. "The beef is hormone-free and there are no fillers in any of it. There are five flavors in our Pawsitively Bridgeford line including beef, bison, chicken, elk and sheep. We sell the dog food in quarter pound patties and how much is fed depends on the age, weight and animal activity. Dogs eat 2% of their body weight between the ages of `18 months and 7 years with an average activity level. Then the owner would adjust the feeding according to their pet's metabolism and activity level. If it is a puppy then you feed more and if it is a senior, then you feed less.

There are a few other diversification opportunities waiting in the wings for this couple. Shane designed an incinerator for the slaughter plant that is unique in that they are able to utilize the meat byproducts to heat their building. They already sell bones for dogs, but are researching the requirements for producing both bone meal and blood meal.

With less than 100 people living in this village, this couple has found a way to help to keep it on the map. They looked around to see what service was required, and took a risk. The success of their processing business leads one to wonder just how the new "locavore" (buying locally) philosophy is playing out in rural Saskatchewan. We will talk to a couple of Bridgeford's producers to find out how much of their meat is marketed from the farmgate and try to get a handle on "locavore" activity.