Feds find gap between small-scale ranchers and customers eager to buy locally raised meat

Back in the 1990s when Bruce Dunlop, owner of Lopez Island Farm in northwest Washington, would drive around on his “home island,” he couldn’t help but notice that as beautiful a sight as the flocks of sheep grazing in green pastures might be, something was wrong–very wrong–with the picture.

As a livestock producer, he knew that the problem wasn’t out there in the fields but rather in the marketplace. At the local store on his island, for example, the only lamb available was shipped in from New Zealand. That was also the case with stores and restaurants on the mainland, although some of the lamb there was brought in from Eastern Washington, California, or other states.

lopez-island-farm.jpgYet demand for locally raised meat was strong and getting stronger. Something just didn’t make sense.

Dunlop knew firsthand that a large part of the problem was the steady loss of slaughtering facilities and meat-packing plants catering to small- and mid-size livestock producers. Whereas only 15 years or so ago, he and his fellow livestock raisers had had a range of slaughter and cut-and-wrap facilities to choose from, times had changed with the advent of large farms and mega-processors. One by one, many of the smaller plants had closed their doors. A huge chunk of the infrastructure had disappeared into thin air.

That left many livestock producers like himself with the burden of having to truck their animals considerable distances to large slaughter and meat-packing facilities. No need to pull a pencil out to add up the numbers. Doing that just didn’t make financial sense.

Fast forward to a recently released U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) preliminary study showing that the situation Dunlop and his fellow livestock producers were facing back in the 1990s is all too common in many parts of the nation.

The preliminary study is the agency’s first attempt to identify areas in the United States where small livestock and poultry producers–those with annual sales of $250,000 or less–are concentrated but may not have access to a nearby slaughter facility.

In a May 25 press release, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said that to support consumer demand for locally produced agricultural products, meat producers need to have access to local or regional slaughter facilities.

“The study we are releasing today shows that there is often a shortage of facilities needed to bring food to market,” Vilsack said.

Referring to the agency’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, whose goal is to revitalize rural economies through the promotion of local food systems, Vilsack said the agency is working to address shortcomings such as this.

“If there is a stronger closer link between production and consumption, there is often an economic benefit,” Vilsack said in the press release.

Dunlop, who in addition to being a livestock producer is also an engineer, was years ahead of the USDA on this one.

In 1997, he was already working to come up with a solution. What if, for example, a truck pulling a large trailer with all of the necessary equipment went out to farms and slaughtered the animals there, and then took the hanging carcasses to a USDA-regulated meat-packing plant.

Better yet, what if the mobile unit had a USDA inspector onboard. If that could be achieved, Dunlop conjectured, then the meat could be cut into retail portions, which could be sold directly to customers–farmers market and farmstand shoppers, grocery stores, and restaurants, among others.

Bottom line, by being able to sell retail pieces of meat instead of just sections of a carcass (which is the case without USDA inspection), the livestock producers would often be able to earn more money for their meat and even expand their operations. And that, in turn, would help them meet customer demand and stay in farming instead of facing the prospect of selling their land to developers.

The only problem with Dunlop’s plan was that there was no such USDA mobile slaughter unit operating in the entire nation.

Undeterred, he set about designing a mobile slaughter unit and helping to form a cooperative, the Island Grown Farmers Cooperative.

History was in the making.

mobile-slaughter.jpgIn 2003, after 6 years of hard work and plenty of bureaucratic setbacks, the co-op put a mobile slaughter unit that Dunlop designed into operation. An unmarked self-contained 33-foot-long trailer lined in stainless steel with heat, cooling, and potable water, the $250,000 unit can hold about 10 beef cattle, 20 hogs, or 70 sheep.

Under this arrangement, an onsite USDA inspector checks each live animal before it’s killed and then again as it is being processed in the trailer. From there, the hanging carcasses are taken to the co-op’s USDA-regulated meat-packing plant near Bow, Wash., where the meat is aged, cut into retail portions, and packaged and cold stored.

The livestock producers have the option of selling their meat out of the retail store attached to the packing plant or finding their own customers.

mobile-slaughter2.jpgFinancially, the cost of a mobile slaughter unit is significantly lower than a “brick-and-mortar” facility, which would likely run into opposition from neighbors.

Now 7 years later, Dunlop can tick off the advantages of having a mobile slaughter unit available to him and the co-op’s members.

“The biggest advantage is that it opens up a lot of markets that otherwise wouldn’t be there for us because now we have USDA inspection,” he said. “That’s a huge advantage.”

Estimating that it has allowed him to expand his livestock operation, which raises pasture-raised pork and grass-fed lamb, by up to 200 percent, Dunlop said some of his fellow co-op members have doubled, tripled, and even quadrupled the size of their operations.

For George Vojkovitch, co-owner of the Skagit River Ranch in northwest Washington and a member of the Island Grown Farmers Cooperative, the mobile slaughter unit represents the chance to stay in farming.

“We wouldn’t be in business without it,” he told Food Safety News. “It’s what’s kept us here.”

He also pointed out that his ranch employs local people, buys feed and equipment from local businesses, and “feeds a lot of families.”

“We’re an important part of  the economy of our rural community,” he said.

His comments are in line with USDA Secretary Vilsack’s comments during an April 21 conference call with reporters following testimony on the Farm Bill.

Referring to the Obama Administration’s goal to create a “rural renaissance–a new rural economy,” Vilsack said the framework of that includes, among other things, the development of more local production and more consumption links so that farmers can sell not just on a commodity market but also on a local market . . . .”

With that goal in mind, the USDA has
apparently come to see the value of a mobile slaughter unit such as the one Dunlop designed.

On May 24, the agency announced that it was releasing a compliance guide for mobile slaughter units. The document presents recommendations but is not a regulatory requirement. The guide also explains how people can make comments on the requirements.

According to the compliance guide, the meat and poultry industries have become increasingly consolidated, while consumer interest in locally grown and specialty products has continued to expand. As a result of this industry expansion, there’s a lack of USDA or state-inspected establishments available to small-scale producers in some remote or sparsely populated areas.

Taking that into consideration, the compliance guide says that mobile slaughter units can help small producers meet demand, expand their businesses and create wealth in rural communities.

In a press release about the compliance guidelines, USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Jerold R. Mande said that the agency “is excited to offer this help to small producers” and encourages establishments that own or manage mobile slaughter units to use this guidance document to help meet food safety regulatory requirements.

“Food must be safe, regardless of where it is produced, and FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) has worked with mobile unit operators to develop inspection procedures tailored to their needs,” Mande said.

cows-mobile-slaughter-featured.jpgAccording to the USDA, there are only five USDA FSIS-inspected red-meat mobile slaughter units in the United States.

On the food-safety front, livestock producer Dunlop said that although you can’t necessarily say that a facility is safer because it’s small, most of the meat recalls have been related to large processing plants.

Even so, he emphasized that the entire process of sanitation and keeping track of how that’s done is required of all USDA meat plants.

“But being smaller, things aren’t happening as fast and fewer people are involved,” he said. “And with a small facility, if something were to happen, there would be limited effects. The small facilities don’t serve millions of people.”

Skagit River Ranch co-owner Vojkovich agrees. “It all has to be done right, no matter how big or small the operation,” he said.

Vojkovich sells his beef, pork and chicken at his farm store, various farmers markets, through his website, and to restaurants.

“Food safety is getting to be a bigger and bigger issue,” he said. “We (small-scale producers) are capable of doing it. At our ranch, we’re very conscientious. One contaminated piece of meat, and we’re out of business.”

Perry Schermerhorn, president of the Puget Sound Meat Producers Cooperative, which has a mobile slaughter unit that serves South Puget Sound in Western Washington, shared similar thoughts with Food Safety News.

“Food safety has to be at the top of the list,” he said. “Without that, we risk putting out an unhealthy product, and that’s not acceptable.”

In California, the Coast Grown mobile slaughter unit is currently not in operation due to financial constraints. But the Central Coast Agricultural Cooperative is evaluating its options for the future of the unit, including a potential shift in ownership.

Debra Garrison, who helped get the unit up and running for 6 months, said mobile slaughter units “can work just wonderfully in communities where the local meat movement is strong.”

With a group of local ranchers “very excited” about how the mobile slaughter unit can work for them, Garrison said she foresees the day when the unit will be back in operation.

Turning to food safety issues, Garrison, currently a food safety auditor for a large California-based company, said that percentagewise, the chance of pathogens entering into a product in a large plant, where so many people are handling the meat and the meat is being processed so fast, is greater than in a smaller operation.

Then, too, the USDA inspectors sample very few carcasses in a big plant, whereas in a small plant, they probably check every carcass, she said.

Even so, Garrison said it’s not a slam-dunk. The larger companies have more sophisticated monitoring equipment, for example, and some are very diligent when it comes to food safety.

On the net: To see videos of a mobile slaughter unit in action, go to www.extension.org/pages/Mobile_Slaughter_Unit_Videos.

Photos:  Bruce Dunlop and the mobile slaughter unit.  Photos courtesy Lopez Island Farm.