Quick fire response saves poultry processor from widespread damage

Schefter Poultry plays key role for small-flock sector in Ontario

The primary processing area of Schefter Poultry was undamaged by the fire, which originated in the composting facility, shown burned to the ground.

A fire that started in the engine of a skid-steer destroyed the composting facility at Gorrie-based Schefter Poultry on April 21 but was contained before it affected the primary processing area.

Why it matters: Any disruption in the availability of processing capacity at the plant would have forced hundreds of small-flock producers to make other arrangements.

“Let’s start with the most important part of our entire ordeal, by recognizing the selfless efforts of the firefighters that came from Howick, Wingham and Minto,” said processing facility owner Dale Schefter, in an article about the fire that he wrote for the What’s Happening in Howick newsletter. “Water was already hitting flames within 15 minutes of our call to 9-1-1.”

The composting facility was housed in an old bank barn on the property, which became home to the poultry processing business in 1977 with Schefter’s parents as owners. They closed the business in 1997 but he reopened it and retrofitted the processing plant in 2006.

Schefter Poultry Processing now employs about 30 people and plays a crucial role in the production and marketing of chickens through the Chicken Farmers of Ontario Family Food Program and Artisanal Chicken Program, as well as a group of producers who provide Pekin Duck to the Greater Toronto Area.

“Twenty-nine hours after the flames went out, we were back in production,” Schefter told Farmtario.

His newsletter article describes the family sitting down to an 8:30 p.m. supper and hearing “a bang in the yard, similar to a shotgun or aluminum trailer tailgate being dropped to the ground.”

Attempts to contain the flames with three successive fire extinguishers were insufficient. By that time, 9-1-1 had been called and a neighbour had arrived. He hopped into a nearby Freightliner that was hooked to a trailer containing chilling tanks for the processing facility and moved it out of harm’s way.

“Knowing I needed that skid-steer out of the barn I ran to get the tractor,” Schefter said. “That 11,000-pound flaming ball of skid-steer came out of the barn very fast, as can be seen on our video surveillance, (but) now the structure was on fire.

“The TMR compost mixer was still attached to the loader tractor … the snowblower with quick hitch was quickly scooped up,” but by then “smoke was billowing throughout the entire building, so the equipment rescuing was over.”

Crews from three fire departments worked several hours and prevented the fire from spreading to other buildings. Lost inside the structure were a compost screener, crusher bucket, sand spreader, hammer mill, hay rake and some spare poultry crates.

The business owner also expressed gratitude to neighbours, extended family and Schefter Poultry employees who assisted in serving coffee and played other support roles.

Schefter says the composted material was contaminated by debris from the fire but he thinks it can be salvaged through screening. That process will include use of a magnet to remove any metals that fell into the compost.

He says the business has secured temporary approval from the environment ministry to store the compost on the existing concrete pad and foundation while a new structure is built elsewhere on the property. First he is researching the best type of building to replace the old one.

Schefter says operations will continue as they did before the fire.

“The pandemic has really brought to light how important this kind of business is to everyone.”

About the author

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Stew Slater

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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