29-03-2012 : Orcadian Column, 29th March 2012
No skipping to the bottom of this article to find out what happens in the end. Truth is, it hasn’t been written yet.
Like everyone else, I don’t know what the future holds for Orkney Meat.
What I do know is that the threatened closure of the Hatston facility is potentially a devastating blow for the islands and the prospect of Orkney being left without a locally-based abattoir is not one I wish to entertain.
For the 30 or so staff affected, the announcement last week will have been a particularly bitter pill to swallow. As the management and board have tried over the last couple of years to make the plant viable, staff have shown themselves willing to do everything asked of them to help turn things around.
Ultimately, though, the economics of the sector have defied these efforts and those of a board that understandably feels ‘heartbroken’ at the way things have turned out. High freight and operating costs have taken their toll, while competition with the ‘livestock’ trade has proved increasingly difficult.
Stewart Wood, the Chairman of Orkney Meat, observed recently that when the farmer-owned enterprise was first set up, it was possible to send away two processed beasts for the price of one live one.
That equation has now been turned entirely on its head. “The new shipping system favours livestock and we just cannot compete”, Stewart said at the weekend.
But it is not just staff who face an uncertain future. Farmers looking to Orkney Meat to slaughter their animals over the coming weeks and months are desperate for news, as indeed are local butchers, retailers, the catering trade and others.
The wider public too has shown its concern, most visibly through an online petition that has gathered huge support in a very short space of time. Doubtless the prospect of Orkney Meat’s demise has prompted more people than usual to reflect on the wider importance to the islands of this facility.
That fact will not have been lost on Councillors meeting to discuss options on Tuesday. Uppermost in their minds, I suspect, is a realisation that, at the very least, it is imperative that any immediate decisions are taken forward in a controlled fashion. The alternative is insolvency, which would have serious and widespread knock on implications for the Orkney economy.
But what of the longer term? As I say, the notion that Orkney would not have its own abattoir, that livestock would be sent off-island for slaughter then re-imported for sale, is almost unthinkable.
After all, Orkney Meat has almost become a ‘poster child’ for the Scottish Government’s food and drink strategy. It has added value to local produce, selling Orkney Island Gold branded beef and lamb into premium markets UK-wide. In the process, it has supported local island communities.
These are points I will be making to the Agriculture Secretary, Richard Lochhead on Thursday, when I will be joined for a meeting in Parliament by the OIC Convener and Chief Executive.
Previous meetings with Mr Lochhead over recent years have failed to resolve the underlying problems faced by Orkney Meat, notably the cost of shipping waste south and the competitive disadvantage this creates for the island abattoir. Too big to enjoy the exemptions offered to smaller facilities in Shetland, Mull and Islay, who bury their waste on-island, Orkney Meat also suffers from being too small to take advantage of economies of scale.
Unlike previous meetings, however, the Minister and his officials can be in no doubt about the consequences of a failure to act.
I believe Mr Lochhead is sincere in his admiration for Orkney Meat and respect for what Orkney’s farming industry delivers more generally. Now is the time when the value of that admiration will be tested to the full.
What will emerge by way of a solution, I can’t say, but I plan to do all I can, working with the Council, Scottish Government, HIE and the local industry to make sure this is not the end of the story for Orkney Meat or a locally-based abattoir.