by Dan Woolley
Members of the Northumberland Lamb Marketing Co-operative, commonly called “NorthumberLamb,” marked their 35th anniversary with a reunion and lamb chop barbecue on Sept. 23 in Toney River, Pictou County, N.S. NorthumberLamb began as a marketing agency for Nova Scotia lamb in 1982, when the co-op’s original seven members held their first meeting and elected their directors.
Today, the co-op markets and processes lambs from dozens of sheep farmers through its Brookside Abattoir Co-op plant on Brookside Road in Bible Hill, Colchester County.
In 2013, the Brookside Abattoir had its busiest year as a provincially licensed facility, processing some 6,300 lambs.
In July 2015, following three years of renovations that cost $700,000, the abattoir achieved licensing as a federally inspected meat plant. The Brookside Abattoir has since expanded production and has grown from seven to 10 employees, both full and part time.
Brookside Abattoir president Mike Isenor estimates its annual production at about 8,000 lambs, adding that the abattoir can handle a maximum of 10,000 lambs per year.
Expanding Brookside’s capacity meant Nova Scotia sheep farmers no longer had to ship lambs to Ontario auction yards when they produced more lambs than the Nova Scotia market could handle. Those extra shipping costs used to mean reduced profits of 10-25 percent.
With Brookside’s federal licensing, NorthumberLamb was then able to sell its lamb beyond Nova Scotia’s borders, into New Brunswick, P.E.I., Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Magdalen Islands, as well as to major retailer Sobeys, said Robert Johnson, a manager at the plant.
However, this year, with its expanded processing capacity, Brookside encountered a shortage of lambs in the Maritimes, said Isenor. “We had a shortage of lambs from March to the beginning of August,” he said. “We even went to Quebec for one or two loads. But it was tough even getting lambs anywhere in the spring.”
The Toney River reunion and barbecue drew some 60 people, including co-op members, past and present directors, and Brookside Abattoir managers and workers. Also present were five past presidents of the co-op, Jeff Moore, Terry Wenham, David Firth, Harry Redmond, and Harry Crouse, as well as current president Fred Hamilton.
The Brookside Abattoir’s renovation was a recurring theme in reminiscences at the reunion.
“You wouldn’t believe the changes,” said Johnson.
With federal regulation, he witnessed enhanced standards of plant cleanliness, quality control, quality assurance, record keeping, and product recall. “We have good employees,” he said. “It certainly makes a difference. A lot of us are long-time (employees).”
Brenda Stewart, Brookside’s secretary from 1996-2016, said, “The upgrades they demanded were just unreal.”
But now that Brookside is the only federally licensed lamb meat plant east of Quebec, it is a source of pride in the NorthumberLamb ranks.
“They have a beautiful plant,” said Crouse. “The directors, members, and managers should be very proud of it.”
“The supply of lamb is the big thing … to keep an even supply,” said Stewart.
Crouse agreed, saying, “The big problem now is getting enough lambs year-round.” He added that producing lambs is hard work. “You can’t do it with a front-end loader,” he said. “You have to get down on your hands and knees.”
Pointing to Isenor, Firth said, “The person who kept this going through thick and thin is Mike.”
Isenor quickly responded that he couldn’t have accomplished what he did without the support of the directors and members. He then singled out Redmond, who has been on the board almost from the beginning, adding that he’s been very supportive of the co-op and has shipped lambs to the Brookside Abattoir “even at a loss to himself.”
A current co-op director, Doug White, praised Redmond and his wife Grace, noting that Redmond helped him when he started sheep farming. “He is such a giving person,” said White. “I thank you and Grace for being very good friends. Anything I learned about farming, I learned from you people.”
At the barbecue dinner, Redmond responded with his own compliments, saying, “I enjoyed working with everybody at NorthumberLand.” He added that Isenor kept the co-op going.
Isenor joined the co-op as its marketing manager shortly after its 1982 founding.