Cow milking facility with modern milking machines. Dreamstime

Courtenay dairy plant to close March 31

Saputo (formerly Dairyland) is closing its dairy plant in Courtenay on March 29, ending more than a century of dairy processing in the Comox Valley.

A company spokesperson in Montreal said the closure will affect 29 employees, including three managers, but there will be a possibility for transfers to Burnaby or Abbotsford.

“It’s always sad when the agricultural infrastructure shrinks,” said Gerry McClintock, former president of the Comox Valley Farmers Institute and owner of McClintock’s Farm on Dove Creek Road. “It closes the options for down the road, and it continues the trend of centralizing production, making it harder for local people to expand, or even continue to exist. Because they’re all in supply management, it’s not a huge deal for them. They will just truck the milk somewhere else. But still, it adds to the cost, and reduces the agricultural employment in the Valley. And it’s very unlikely it will ever return.”

McClintock said the plant closure won’t affect his farm.

“We’re too small. The plant was too big for us. But who knows? Down the road, if we ever developed a big enough water buffalo industry, maybe it could have been an option to bottle the milk for us.”

Scott DiGuistini, co-owner of Tree Island Gourmet Yogurt, was not surprised by the closure. In fact, he had hoped Saputo would sell him the plant.

To his understanding, Saputo plans to ship milk to the Agropur Dairy Cooperative in Victoria.

“It’s probably a good opportunity for us. We’re getting ready to build a new plant,” said DiGuistini, who has received applications from some of the staff at the plant.

Amara Farm co-owner Neil Turner feels the closure is a further threat to food security on Vancouver Island, and the result of a “focus on globalization of our food system.”

“This was more or less predictable, but it is, I would say, a long string of dominoes that have fallen, and this was a logical prediction,” said Jan Slomp, a retired dairy farmer in the Valley and a former president of the National Farmers Union.

He says the biggest domino fell in the early-1990s — the loss of the Crow Rate — a freight subsidy that originated in the 1800s.

“It equalized freight costs across the country,” Slomp said. “We don’t have a large agricultural land mass on the Island, so our livestock production very much depended on the Crow Rate to have competitive prices for feed grain.”

He blames provincial politicians for not defending the system.

“It’s a massive loss because we’re isolated,” Slomp said of the plant closure. “Existing dairy farmers may be still OK. They have paid off their debts and make good income, but the next generation will not make it.”

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