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Mobile meat processing aids small ranchers

Issue Date: November 3, 2021
By Ching Lee

As someone who opened a new mobile slaughter operation in Sonoma County earlier this year, John Fagundes has answered a cry for help.

The former carpenter said he decided to start the business after seeing news stories last year about meat shortages and processing plants overwhelmed with ranchers needing to turn their livestock into meat they could sell.

"This wasn't even an idea pre-COVID," he said of his new business. "I did minimal market research, and I just said, 'Hey, there is a definite demand here, and somebody needs to do this.'"

Even though ranchers for years have raised flags about their struggles to get meat processed, it was the pandemic that brought urgency. Outbreaks of COVID-19 forced plant shutdowns at some of the nation's major meatpackers, leading to supply-chain disruptions and empty meat cases at grocery stores. People took notice.

With a cattle background and experience raising cow-calf pairs, Fagundes said it was always his dream to work in the cattle business—"I just never thought it was this."

Considering some of the past failed attempts to open new slaughter facilities in the state, Fagundes is already ahead of the game with how quickly he set up shop: He ordered the mobile unit in June 2020, it arrived in December, and he opened in March.

Meanwhile, a group of ranchers in the region last year formed the Bay Area Ranchers Cooperative, or BAR-C, to raise money to start their own mobile slaughter operation. Their unit—parked on a ranch in west Marin County—was slated to open in May, but it ran into delays with equipment, federal inspections and power hookups. Co-op directors say they now expect to open in late November or early December.

BAR-C came in response to the loss of Marin Sun Farms, the North Bay's last federally inspected slaughterhouse, which ended services last year to producers that don't sell to the company's labels. This left ranchers in the region with fewer choices of where to take their animals, forcing them to drive long distances as they face increasing difficulty competing for slots at the slaughterhouse.

Their problem is far from unique. Consolidation has led to larger meatpackers and fewer of them left in the nation. But now the momentum for change has picked up, with legislators and policymakers hearing from everyday people, said Michael Dimock, president of the Oakland-based nonprofit Roots of Change.

"They've been hearing it from producers for years, but producers are such a minority in our country," he said. "Now we are hearing from the general public and the smaller producers, and the politicians are responding."

Dimock is the lead author of a recent study by the University of California, Davis, Food Systems Lab that examined the challenges and opportunities of meat processing in California. He said not only is government "pumping tons of money" to get more meat processing facilities started, but regulations also are beginning to change to alleviate some of the meat processing bottlenecks.

A case in point is the recent passage of Assembly Bill 888, which California Farm Bureau sponsored. Signed into law in September, the legislation allows ranchers to use mobile operations that are exempt from federal inspections to slaughter any number of cattle, sheep, goats and swine on their farms. The meat is not for sale and can go only to the buyer of the animal.

For meat to enter commerce, the animal must be slaughtered at a plant or mobile operation that's federally inspected—such as the ones run by Fagundes and BAR-C.

With passage of AB 888, Dimock said he hopes there will be expansions of existing federally exempt mobile slaughter operations—or new ones started—to handle a potential surge in requests for such services when the law takes effect in January. But it may take two to three years "to see real impact," he added.

David Dewey, owner of Chico Locker and Sausage Co. and president of the California Association of Meat Processors, said the legislation came about when large retail chains and warehouses began running out of meat and more people turned to buying directly from farms. His business, which provides on-farm slaughter and processing, saw "big demand," he said.

With AB 888, instead of taking their livestock to the sale yard or feedlots, ranchers could sell directly to their customers and sidestep large packers, he said.

"It gives them another option for sale, and it's going to cause a little bit of competition for the animals," Dewey said. "Competition is always good."

Placer County rancher Karin Sinclair said she thinks the pandemic has opened people's eyes to the challenges that ranchers face trying to get their animals slaughtered and processed, "but I don't think it's opened them wide enough."

Her proposed slaughterhouse in Carson City, Nevada, has been approved by the city planning commission. But a group opposed to the plant is appealing the decision, with a hearing set for later this month. "It's one of those not-in-my-backyard situations," Sinclair said.

She had tried for years to open a facility in California but could not find a suitable piece of property. She looked to Nevada in recent years, initially wanting to set up shop at an old dairy south of the current proposed location. She had faced similar opposition from some residents, and the county eventually rejected her plan. She said she's now trying to turn the dairy into an operating ranch as she works through her "legal battle in Carson City."

Stephen Hohenrieder, CEO and founder of Grounded Capital Partners in Marin County, which invests in food companies that can potentially influence how food is produced, said he thinks the catalyst for the current movement started before the pandemic as people began to put more value on food with attributes of "authenticity, traceability, transparency and connections."

"I believe that people are reconnecting with the source of their food," he said.

He's supportive of producer efforts such as BAR-C, which he said will create not just a new avenue for ranchers to process their animals but a more resilient food system.

"The demand is there," he said. "The ranchers need it and want it, and the consumer wants it. It's just a matter of making it happen."

(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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