I left school in 1983 and immediately went to work at Mitchell’s Auction Company Ltd, Cockermouth. The idea was to gain pre- college experience in an industry in which I one day hoped to find employment. Gap years to “find oneself” didn’t exist in those days.
The Auction owned an abattoir on Lorton Street adjacent to the mart. In those days several men in whitecoats (butchers not psychiatrists) stood at ringside buying stock which were then slaughtered “over the road” before being transported back to butchers shops all over West Cumbria. There were beef cattle, lambs and pigs, all brought to market by farmers every monday and then walked across the road to the abattoir. This was a perfectly normal activity, local food produced, purchased and processed by local businesses for local people. It was accepted althoughthe good tonwsfolk of Cockermouth did draw the line if the waste skips weren’t removed in timely fashion, especially in summer.
I found myself delivering the slaughtermen’s wages every Friday morning. Entering the building for the first time I was immediately met by a bovine body part, coming sliding across the red- tiled floor towards me. I’m no footballer but I was able to trap it and return it with a swift side foot. After that I was accepted in to the team but stopped short of joining the Friday morning fry- up’s with the lads. The kitchen area and self cleaning 50 year old frying pan, would certainly raise an eyebrow or two in the modern age!
Sadly like so many more, Cockermouth abattoir is long- gone. In fact during the last fifty years we have seen the closure of almost 97% of all abattoirs. There are now only about 60 left country- wide.
Stifling EU regulation was always gold- plated in the UK whilst perhaps only tolerated in some member states. Small and medium sized abattoirs were unable to compete, suffocated by high costs and reducing profit- margins. Add to that significant grant- aid and tax breaks for larger abattoirs and it is clear why the trend continued.
The resultant economies of scale have resulted in huge numbers of Cumbrian lambs, cattle and also milk transported out of the county for slaughter or processing as far afield as Wales and the South West. Some products might then be returned to Cumbria for retail. We cannot do without the national slaughter- framework as it supplies both the home and export market. However, we do mourn the passing of small abattoirs and with it much of the local supply chain. It has become much harder for independent shops and restaurants to stock local food.
The Sustainable Food Trust, backed by many industry bodies has recently pleaded for small abattoirs to be recognised as a public good and continues to campaign for future policies to re- localise farm animal slaughter.
If government is serious about achieving targets to reduce environmental impact, improve on already first- class animal welfare regulation, increase traceability and support local supply chains, then short-term solutions won’t cut the mustard. What is needed is a long term vision to reverse the trend, reduce the food chain and re- join the links at both ends.
Recently Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership commissioned local company Thomas Jardine and Co to examine the food and drink sector in Cumbria. The resultant report “Developing support for Cumbrian food and drink manufacturers” sets the scene very well having engaged with businesses the length of the Cumbrian supply chain from farmers to retailers including hoteliers and other food businesses. The Farmer Network attended a stakeholder event and witnessed real desire from within Cumbria to both buy and sell more locally produced food, given the opportunity.
As always with such ambition, it will come down to money be it public or private investment. With 85m people to feed within the next 20 years of which more than 30% may visit Cumbria each year, there is a real opportunity here to create a sustainable and ethical local food supply chain. Investment is only one aspect of the plan. To succeed properly, we need much more in the way of education. Food is a cheap commodity and as such, not respected and therefore by definition neither are farmers. The general public as a rule, has little appreciation of food production, provenance or welfare standards. This must change in the future.
A further personal hope would be that auction marts seize an opportunity to become stronger central hubs continuing to supply the national market but also to a greater degree at local level again. In doing so one would hope that a greater share of the end price might land in to the farmer’s pocket. Food for thought?