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OUTLOOK: Johnston’s meats brings home the bacon

Johnston's is having an impact on B.C.'s food processing industry.
Bonnie Windsor is the assistant plant manager at Johnston's meats.

A Chilliwack business is doing everything it can to prevent Chilliwack’s hog farmers from going bankrupt.

Johnston’s custom meat cutters has been working ferociously at boosting the market for B.C. pork.

For four straight years, Johnston’s has been highly visible at trade shows and charity events, it’s sponsored several barbecue competitions, and has worked with B.C. chefs to get the best from its product. Heck, it even pushed out bacon-loving T-shirts with the meme ‘Bacon is a vegetable’ that were first made as an in-house joke, but quickly turned viral, resulting in five more shirts made for retail.

All to boost B.C. pork’s value.

“We’re trying to educate people about us, about the industry, about B.C. pork, right down to how to cook it,” said Bonnie Windsor, Johnston’s assistant plant manager.

“We’re trying to bring value to B.C. pork. We’re trying to show people that B.C. pork is an awesome product, a lean product, a healthy product, a versatile product, you can do so much with pork.”

The recent push came after Johnston’s started seeing its local farmers struggling; some shutting down operations altogether. Six years ago, the custom meat cutters had 26 producers, now it has 17.

“They were going broke,” said Windsor. “Pig prices have been in the tank, hog farmers were losing upwards of $100 a hog, and consumers haven’t necessarily been willing to pay fair prices for pork.”

Local farmers have struggled to shake the “cheap meat” label that’s plagued the hog industry for years.

“As a Canadian, it really bothers me that our hog farmers, especially in this province, the very people who grow our food are forced to go to a food bank to feed their families,” said Windsor. “It is so unfair to our local farmers. It costs just as much, if not more to raise a hog as it does beef.

“My goal is to take pork off of sale. I’m trying to increase prices so we keep our farmers in business.”

When Johnston’s was approached by BC Pork four years ago to help market the industry, it had no clue how to go about doing so.

“Until four years ago, we had never advertised in the history of our company, and we didn’t need to; our product grew by word of mouth,” said Windsor.

Still, the company has had a long history supporting small, family owned, Fraser Valley farms. It didn’t take convincing for Johnston’s to jump on board.

Johnston’s was founded in 1937 by Chilliwack native Carmen Johnston. A small operation located in a barn on Young Road, it employed one full-time and one part-time employee, and offered custom slaughtering services to local farmers.

Now, more than 75 years later, it’s located on Promontory, employs and supports over 120 families in the Fraser Valley, and is still owned by a member of the original Johnston family.

Don Ball, Carmen Johnston’s nephew, started working at the shop in his teens; in 1968, he purchased it. His son, Mat Ball, is now being groomed to take over.

Every day, 10 Johnston’s trucks go into the Lower Mainland delivering B.C. product; two loads a week to the Okanagan; two loads to Vancouver Island; and one to two loads up North.

Typically, the hogs are transported to the abattoir Sunday night, processed Monday morning, chilled overnight, then broken down first thing Tuesday morning, and loaded onto the various trucks by 10 a.m.

“It’s in the butcher’s showcase by the afternoon – it’s that fresh,” said Windsor.

“We’ve grown simply by putting out quality product and word of mouth.”

Johnston’s has had its issues over the years.

It used to have a bad reputation as a rough place to work with “every drug dealer, jail bird, criminal,” working the floor. There wasn’t a day that went by where two guys weren’t scrapping or pulling knives on each other, said Windsor.

When she set out to clean house she was repeatedly told she wouldn’t be able to do it, that that was the nature of abattoirs. But Windsor, never one to back down from a challenge, set out to prove the naysayers wrong.

Now, 15 years later, it’s a place to be proud to work for, said Windsor.

“I am so proud of my staff. We have the most awesome staff on the planet. Seriously, it’s an awesome culture,” she said.

The company has never had a layoff, not even in tough times. And when a member of the “family” is in need, everyone steps up in support.

That culture, said Windsor, is reflected in the quality of product going out.

One of the biggest challenges Johnston’s, and subsequently B.C. hog farmers, face is competing with the commodity market.

Because farmland and resources is more expensive in B.C., the number of hogs being farmed is limited compared to that of the prairie provinces or South Carolina where “there’s more hogs than people.”

For years, Johnston’s operated at 80 per cent commodity, 20 per cent niche; it couldn’t compete.

“We were having to sell product for less than cost just to get rid of it,” said Windsor, who in the last four years has helped flip those numbers.

“We’re not Maple Leaf. We’ve never been Maple Leaf. We don’t want to be Maple Leaf. We don’t want to grow to be this huge company. We want to remain a family size with our great little staff up on the hill pumping out awesome product.”

B.C. hogs are typically grown 20 kilograms smaller than anywhere else in Canada or the U.S. It’s a leaner meat that’s not being travelled hundreds of miles. And with Johnston’s, it’s not being pumped full of saline or other such preservatives either, adding to the overall priced weight.

“We don’t want to ever turn into commodity; we want to stay in the quality game,” said Windsor.

That means that even though Johnston’s will always be limited by the number of hogs B.C. produces, it can continue to evolve in other ways such as producing different forms of bacon, hams, sausages and other such cured meats.

“If you tried our bacon, you would never back, I swear to you,” said Windsor.

To find Johnston’s meats, as well as other B.C. meats, visit the new BC Meats app called Know Your Meats, which lists every store and restaurant B.C. meats can be found in the province.