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Bill would expand ranchers’ on-farm slaughter options

Issue Date: March 17, 2021
By Ching Lee
A bill in the state Legislature would expand the ability for livestock ranchers to process animals on the farm for sale directly to customers.
Photo/Ching Lee

Selling customers an entire animal for their freezers is not a new practice, but California ranchers say state restrictions and limited options of where they can process just a few animals have hampered their ability to provide bulk meat to those who want it.

Passage of Assembly Bill 2114 in 2018 made it easier for cattle ranchers to sell "freezer beef" directly to customers, as it adopted standards that allow ranchers to use mobile operations to slaughter cattle on the farm rather than trucking the animals, sometimes long distances, to federally inspected facilities that have dwindled in the state.

Producers of sheep, goats and swine say they would like the same opportunities, and they're looking to proposed legislation they say could be a game-changer for small ranchers who want to pre-sell whole animals.

Sponsored by the California Farm Bureau, AB 888 aims to do for sheep, goats and potentially swine what AB 2114 did for cattle: Legalize on-farm mobile slaughter of these animals in limited quantities, thereby making it "easier for consumers to connect directly with their food sources, ensure that food safety protocols are being followed and support the expansion of local ranchers selling to consumers across the state," said Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-Marin County, who authored the bill.

The proposed legislation, which will be considered by the state Assembly later this spring, comes at a time when ranchers see growing interest in sales of whole animals, particularly in response to pandemic-related supply chain disruptions that led to empty meat cases at grocery stores last year, Placer County sheep rancher Dan Macon said.

"I think what COVID has shown us is that people are going back to buying freezers and stocking their freezers with meat," he said. "The demand for whole carcass, for a whole animal has really, really risen in the last year."

Macon said not only are people reacting to the pandemic by buying meat in bulk, but there's a segment who "wants to know that an animal was harvested on the ranch where it was raised."

Even before the pandemic, Marin County rancher Marcia Barinaga said she had loyal customers and restaurants that bought whole lambs and hogs from her, but when Marin Sun Farms in Petaluma closed its doors in 2019 to producers processing animals for their own private label, she had nowhere to take her hogs. She started shipping her lambs to Superior Farms in Dixon, but noted the facility is "not set up for really small producers like me" who process few lots of lambs.

Commercial production lines such as Superior Farms make it difficult for ranchers to retain the original product they delivered to the slaughterhouse, which is important for some producers, said John Harper, University of California Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor for Mendocino and Lake counties.

"If you unload your animals, there's no guarantee that those didn't get commingled with somebody else's animals," he said.

Barinaga said she's been using the same mobile abattoir for years to process hogs she raises for her own consumption and for two employees who live on the ranch—but under current state law, she can't do this for her customers.

AB 888 would fill a need for ranchers who raise small numbers of animals and who could use on-farm processing as a viable, legal option to sell to customers who want to buy whole animals, she said. It would also give small ranchers some control over a "very important piece of the processing chain, which is harvest," she added.

Under the bill, meat from these animals cannot be resold or go into the public food system. The bill would limit the number of animals allowed to be processed on a given premise, tentatively set at 25 head of lamb or goats per month.

Ranchers have been offering "cow share" and selling whole animals for years under federal law that does not require animals processed for personal consumption to go through a federally inspected facility, said Vince Trotter, UCCE agricultural ombudsman in Marin County. What ranchers did not realize, he said, is that California law makes the practice illegal unless the slaughter takes place on the property of the person who owns the animal.

AB 2114 removed that requirement for cattle so that the processing could be done on the farm where the animal was raised; AB 888, if passed, would do the same for sheep, goats and potentially swine.

Livestock advisor Harper said he thinks ranchers with small flocks would "jump at the chance" to use this option, as they can "cut out the middleman" and earn a higher price selling their product locally. Other incentives include reduced costs and animal welfare because they're not shipping livestock long distances, he added.

Thomas Butler, who operates TAB Butler's Ranch Butchering in Calaveras County, said he thinks passage of AB 888 would be a boon for his business, which has already seen an uptick in volume since the pandemic. He noted he's now scheduling appointments two months out, whereas before the pandemic, he could serve a customer within a couple of weeks.

"I think (AB 888) would be actually a really good thing," Butler said. "I think people should be able to source their meat directly from the rancher."

Trotter said allowing ranchers to use on-farm processing is not about replacing inspected slaughter but would add "one more option in an environment where currently options are pretty limited." Pointing to the consolidation of U.S. meatpackers and impacts from plant shutdowns due to the pandemic, he said having more options would strengthen the supply chain.

"If we learned anything during this past year of COVID-19, it's that our entire food system needs a little more resilience built into it and particularly meat processing," Trotter said, "so having as many pathways as possible from ranches to consumers' plates can only be good for the system as a whole."

(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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