In the midst of COVID-19 related abattoirs closures threatening Victoria's meat supplies, the state's first on-farm mobile abattoir started operation this week.
Housed in a purpose-built semi-trailer, the Provenir mobile facility processed a small herd of cattle on a farm in Bannockburn where the animals were raised. It is part of a push by farmers for the establishment of small, on-farm abattoirs.
This comes as meat processing facilities from Warrnambool to Tottenham, have shut down due to Coronavirus outbreaks.
On Tuesday, farmer Chris Balazs from Sage Farm received a licence to commence on-farm kills from Victorian Food Safety Authority PrimeSafe. And there are at least 5 other farms in Victoria signed up to have their cattle slaughtered by the Provenir mobile abattoir, with 100s more expressing interest.
"In five years time we could be processing 12,000 head of cattle and 75,000 lambs around the state a year," Balazs said.
Balazs says he, and his business, partners started the arduous journey to develop a system for on-farm, mobile, micro abattoirs after witnessing the slow and continual closure of regional abattoirs.
The result has seen farmers driving hundreds of kilometres to large, centralised plants, to process their animals. "We have lost 75 per cent of our abattoirs over the past 20 years, but we are producing 300 per cent more meat," Balazs said.
His business partner, central Victorian restaurateur Jayne Newgreen, said: "The meat industry's concentration is not good. Now this virus is revealing its weaknesses."
Newgreen said that when animals are trucked long distances, they become stressed. "It's a welfare issue. And for the consumer, stressed animals do not eat well." The cattle slaughtered at Sage Farm this week were then butchered at a processing unit set up on the farm. The first steaks will be on the shelves in stores and available online, home-delivered to Victorian consumers within weeks.
"We are small team," Newgreen said. "While our model is not immune to COVID outbreaks. We are not a 500 strong workforce. Our work practices put us in a good position to weather this storm."
The closure of Diamond Valley Meats in Laverton has central Victorian farmer, Tammi Jonas, forced to find another processor. This could see her pigs trucked hundreds of kilometres away.
"This centralised meat system we have is not working," she said. "There is much greater food security in diversity of production and processing. If we had more, smaller, on-farm facilities spaced every 50 to 100 kilometres, we could feed our domestic market with local meat," she said.
Jonas is now fast-tracking her plans to build a micro abattoir, based on a shipping container, on her Eganstown farm. She already has a small on-farm butchery providing local residents with beef, pork and smallgoods.
Another small scale abattoir is being built near Barham, a NSW Murray river town northwest of Echuca. The local Murray Valley Council is building a small facility to process animals grown on 25 farms in a 100 kilometre radius of Barham, in both NSW and Victoria.
"We had to do this," Murray Plains Meat Co-operative Director and free-range pig farmer and butcher Lauren Mathers said. "My biggest worry is that with the few remaining facilities we (farmers) have left, means when something like Coronavirus happens, we are screwed."
She has seen the closure of two local abattoirs in the past decade. Now some farmers truck their animals over 400 kilometres for processing. "It's not economical, it's not humane, it is not fair." The foundations are to be laid shortly, but the first pork chops won't be on sale until later next year. "I am so looking for forward to our first roast," says Mathers with a smile. "Local food is not a luxury. It is essential."
Minister for Agriculture, Jaclyn Symes, said the state government approved the operation of vehicle-cased abattoirs as "just one of the ways where we're supporting the growth of small-scale producers and responding to increasing demands to support flexibility and innovation."