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Lack of processing slows local-meat sales

Issue Date: January 13, 2021
By Ching Lee
Ranchers say federally inspected meat-processing plants in California are too few in number and often overbooked, forcing ranchers to drive longer distances to facilities farther away.
Photo/Ching Lee

With business booming for small meatpackers and fewer of them left in California, ranchers who sell meat directly to customers say preparing their animals for market has become increasingly difficult as they compete for slots at processing plants and face limited options of where to take their livestock.

Local ranchers for years have raised concerns about the need for more meat processing capacity in the state, and they say the pandemic has further amplified the problem, exposing a part of the food chain that has become more consolidated and that has made it harder for smaller packers to survive.

Marin County rancher Kevin Maloney said demand for locally raised and processed meat "really picked up" when COVID-19 outbreaks last year forced the nation's large meatpacking plants to shut down or slow production, creating a backlog. This put increased pressure on small meatpackers and butchers, with many of them booking months to more than a year out.

Such scheduling issues ultimately limited the amount of meat he could sell, he said.

"In May, when the big plants were closed down, there was so much demand that we were literally going to the farmers markets and coming home with nothing, and we couldn't get any more animals harvested," Maloney said.

One problem, he said, is the long distances many ranchers must haul their animals for processing, noting that he clocks about 500 miles round trip from his ranch in Tomales to Redwood Meat Co. in Humboldt County—a journey he said he is willing to make every other week.

Maloney said many Bay Area ranchers face the same predicament after Marin Sun Farms in Petaluma—the region's last federally inspected slaughterhouse—ended services last year to producers who don't sell to the company's labels.

The loss of Marin Sun Farms prompted producers last year to form the Bay Area Ranchers Cooperative, or BAR-C, to operate and manage their own slaughter plant. Its 16 members—with farms in Marin, Mendocino, San Mateo and Sonoma counties—have so far raised $725,000 of their $1.2 million intended target, enough to purchase a mobile slaughter facility.

Maloney, who serves as co-op president, said the group hopes to have the unit up and running by May 1. The goal, he said, is to identify one or several fixed operational sites where the unit could set up and do a day's worth of work, projected to be about 10 to 12 head of beef, 20 to 25 hogs or 40 lambs. Maloney said they're also investigating the feasibility of a cut-and-wrap facility on site. Another goal is to boost co-op membership to 30 to 35, he added.

As members of the co-op, Mendocino County farmers Nikki Ausschnitt and Steve Krieg said they're so optimistic about prospects for the mobile facility that they have acquired more piglets. Without Marin Sun Farms, they said they were unsure whether to continue raising pigs, because they were unwilling to make the four-hour drive to Redwood Meat—the next closest facility—as the long, twisting road trip would stress the pigs and compromise the quality of the meat.

Because overgrown pigs risk rejection from a butcher shop, they said they were forced last summer to do an on-farm slaughter, which is not certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and would render the meat unsalable to the public. When wildfires disrupted the schedule, Ausschnitt said, they missed their butchering appointment, noting their first-choice butcher was booking into 2022 at the time.

She said what they went through for two pigs is repeated on a much larger scale by other local meat producers, "resulting in hugely higher prices, damaged meat, overbooked butcher shops with stressed workers, plus more pollution due to long drives."

David Dewey, owner of Chico Locker and Sausage Co., a custom-exempt plant that can only slaughter and process animals for the exclusive use of the livestock owner, said he understands ranchers' frustration but lamented "there's no simple answer to any of this."

Despite "huge demand" for small slaughterhouses, he said these businesses continue to operate on thin margins and often do not process enough animals to pay the bills.

Dewey, who serves as president of the California Association of Meat Processors, which represents small facilities, started in the business with his father in the 1960s, when "every town had a small slaughter facility."

"The regulations just got harder and harder," he said. "The older plants started going out of business until we got a concentration of large packers," and those five companies now process 85% of the nation's meat.

With more ranchers selling their animals live and directly to customers, which allows them to use custom-exempt facilities, Dewey said his slaughter business is booked out for four months. Other small plants around him are similarly swamped, he said.

Placer County rancher Karin Sinclair said she's been trying for the past 10 to 15 years to open a new processing facility in California, but could not find a suitable piece of property for it. She eventually purchased an old dairy in western Nevada, where the zoning would allow her to build a facility that could process up to 60 animals per week or 200 rabbits and chickens.

Though ranchers and most people in the area were receptive to the project, she said, "a handful" were against it—and they are "the loud ones that really are trying to cause a hiccup." The permit for the slaughterhouse was rejected and Sinclair has since appealed the decision twice. She said she continues to look for legal remedies and other options, including other locations.

Marin County rancher Guido Frosini, a member of BAR-C, said he thinks the pandemic "helped elucidate how we rely on a transportation-heavy food system." Even though he sells meat off his ranch, he said, his customers know little about how his animals had to travel 600 miles to get back to his freezer.

"Everybody really reveres local food, and yet when you're actually trying to put a slaughterhouse in, people don't want it next to their house," he said.

That's something to contend with, he said, as the co-op moves to find an appropriate site for its mobile slaughter facility.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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