Island couple step up to revive local abattoir

May 12, 2021

Jim & Catherine Gowans, Owners of Braun Custom Meat Processors

From Country Life in BC
Written by Kate Ayers
May 2021 (pg. 27) 

Business is booming as new owners advocate for increased training.

DUNCAN – Jim and Catherine Gowans saw a need in their community and stepped up to support livestock producers when their local abattoir closed a few years ago.

As producers of free-range pork, lamb, chicken and eggs at Omnivore Acres Farm in Central Saanich, they needed processing capacity to market their animals.

“We had 50 pigs that we needed to get processed with nowhere for them to go. It was then when we realized
how critical the space was,” Jim says.

So, the Gowans bought Braun Custom Meat Processors after the former owners retired, and opened the business in January 2018. The Duncan abattoir was in danger of shutting down permanently, and the Gowans didn’t want to see that happen.

“I didn’t know anything about the abattoir business at the time, but I am very lucky to have met some key people over the years. They made commitments and so did weto try to get it reopened,” says Jim. “But we couldn’t find any outside investors so we decided to buy it. It’s almost like a community endowment to provide a service in a business that is growing not shrinking.”

Since the purchase, the Gowans have renovated and expanded the provincially inspected Class A abattoir to offer more services to the community.

“We developed a plant that been retooled and licensed for more species than it was before,” Jim says.

With the added infrastructure in place, the abattoir team can cut, wrap and freeze products on site. These added efficiencies were welcomed upon the onset of the pandemic and onslaught of other abattoir closures.

“We’ve been completely overrun with work since the start of COVID-19 and as plants have closed. It has become very, very busy,” says Jim.

The Gowans are booking into 2022 for regular livestock producers. They recommend that producers submit booking forms well in advance of their processing needs.

While many factors contribute to the limited slaughtering capacity on Vancouver Island, the labour shortage and lack of training may be the most important and perhaps most overlooked, says Catherine.

“We haven’t had any training programs on Vancouver Island for some time now. Young people don’t get presented with the option to become an abattoir worker or meat cutter,” she says. “They have to leave BC to get that training and that’s not likely to happen if they have never been exposed to (these jobs) as teenagers. … We need more infrastructure around training and development of the industry.”

Jim agrees.

“In the last year and a half, the biggest issue has been access to labour. We need an apprenticeship program that provides training to people who want to learn and live in the community at the same time and build careers and businesses,” he says.

As farms and regulatory oversight evolved throughout the years, businesses were less likely to continue the art of butchery and provide that service for local ranchers. While recent licensing changes could increase slaughter capacity on the Island, they could also cause ripple effects in the food supply chain.

“The licensing required for an abattoir is pretty extensive,” Jim says. “With Catherine’s nursing background and my feed-mill background, we’re quite familiar with regulatory process. … We think food needs to be safe and that people need to work in a safe environment. There is good regulatory process for good reason.”

The couple submit water samples every two weeks and are regularly audited by the SPCA, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, WorkSafeBC and the province.

“We’ve complied with that, but it’s a lot of bureaucratic work,” he says. And remote animal processing may have less regulatory oversight. 

The Gowans aren’t the only operators taking over meat plants to provide for themselves and others. Dave Semmelink of Lentelus Farms in Courtenay plans to open his own facility in Kelowna in May. Both operators are members of the BC Association of Abattoirs. The association’s executive director, Nova Woodbury, says there are many more mothballed facilities around the province, but a shortage of skilled labour is a challenge. The Gowans and Semmelink are examples of how such plants can be brought online.