I try to buy local and from family farmers whenever possible. Why is it so hard to find meat from area farmers?

June 2008

Dear Laura,

I try to buy local and from family farmers whenever possible. With veggies this is easy, but I am having a hard time finding meat on a regular basis. I see livestock farms all over the countryside, so why is it so hard to find meat from area farmers?

Brett Walker
Michigan City, Indiana

Hi Brett,

Thanks for writing. This is indeed an excellent question to spend some time with this month. I think your observation is very important at this exact moment. As a movement of folks who care about supporting family farmers and enjoying the quality food that they grow, we’ve done a good job with fruits and veggies. I would wager that if we did a poll asking people to tell us the most recent local product they ate that it would be a fruit or vegetable or at the very most a dairy product. For me, it was salad greens, before that an apple and some duck eggs. However, a person who recently feasted on local meat would be a little harder to find. Not impossible, but certainly less common. So you ask: “Why is it so hard to find local meat?” As always, there are a couple of big reasons, but on the bright side there are also a lot of folks working to remedy this problem.

There are a tremendous number of policies and regulations that aim to ensure that meat for sale to the general public is safe. With the exception of small amounts of poultry, in most states farmers cannot butcher their own animals or sell any meat products that aren’t USDA inspected. This means that animals must be transported to a local processing plant or slaughterhouse that is federally inspected to be turned around for sale.

And here is where it gets tricky: local processing plants are hard to come by. Slaughterhouses and processing plants have suffered, just like family farmers, from the “get big or get out” mentality of large-scale agriculture in the U.S. In Iowa, a major meat producing state, there were 550 small processing plants in the 1960s and now there are fewer than 200. In Massachusetts, where I live, only one slaughterhouse remains, though a second plant is being rebuilt after a fire a few years ago. Scarcity of processing facilities is a national problem. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service reports that about 200 plants went out of business between 2001 and 2005.

So, finding someplace to have your animals butchered locally is a significant limiting factor for farmers who want to direct market their meat products. Keep in mind also that many small facilities are limited by their size and staff, which limits the number of animals they can process. A small family-run operation may only be able to butcher 100 animals a week. In cases like this, farmers actually have to get their livestock on waiting lists. Add to the limited capacity of the plants the fact that many small farmers are raising niche products, like meat from heritage breeds or organic livestock, which means that they need to find a processing plant that can accommodate different sizes and shapes of animals and/or be certified organic. These additional requirements make it even harder to find a good fit in a processing plant and certainly limit the chances of finding a local facility.

The alternative for many farmers is to ship their animals over long distances to a facility that can meet their needs, increasing the stress on the animals and the cost to the farmer. For all of these reasons, and probably several more, most livestock farmers sell their animals to a wholesale market before processing. The animals are butchered, resold to a distributor and turned around again to the customer at a grocery store or restaurant. This process can take up to a month!

In short, locally raised and processed meat products are hard to find because the infrastructure is limited; farmers often cannot afford the extra costs associated with local processing; and for many years our food system has relied on the easy way out: farmers sell their animals to the big companies (four pretty much dominate beef, pork, and poultry markets) and the big guys do the leg work. But as your question points out so well, the scales are starting to tip toward the local. Consumers like you have gotten their feet wet by buying local with fruits and veggies. Now it’s time for more!

A full-scale campaign to rebuild local and niche market processing facilities across the country would be a nice place to start but without a serious bankroll, farmers and their supporters have started to dream up some interesting alternatives. At the cutting edge (oh bad pun!) of this reclamation of our meat is the invention of the innovative mobile slaughterhouse. Several years ago, I was lucky enough to meet with a group of farmers in Washington State who pioneered this invention.

The refrigerated car, which looks like a horse trailer on the outside, is equipped to process any animal, from birds to cows. It is USDA-certified and can be run by one person. I should note that the livestock do require further processing to be reduced to portions or cuts, but farmers see significant benefit in keeping the animals on the farm for slaughter, which significantly reduces their stress. Many believe reducing the animals stress level at slaughter increases the quality of the meat. Another benefit to the mobile processing facility is that the fees for service, which can be as high as $75 for cattle and other large livestock, go to support the on-going service to local farmers. After three years in operation, the mobile unit was up and running with 45 farmer customers.

There are also interesting things afoot in my neighboring state of Vermont where Farm Aid-funded group Rural Vermont is taking local meat to the next level with their Farm Fresh Meat Campaign. The organization has already won the right for farmers to slaughter and butcher up to 1,000 birds (poultry only for right now) at a time. The birds can be sold at farmers markets and to restaurants. Previously they were only allowed to be sold on the farm itself. This year, Rural Vermont is pushing to expand the local meat market with legislation that would allow farmers to contract with customers like you, who would buy the birds before slaughter, and then process the carcasses into cuts of meat on the farm. This kind of legislation would essentially allow the farmer to stay actively involved in all of the steps of raising, processing and selling meat products in their local community.

Another exciting thing going on for buying locals meats is the development of meat CSAs. This model doesn’t exactly address the processing and infrastructure issues but it is worth mentioning if you simply want to know more about how to buy local. Community Supported Agriculture (or CSA) was pioneered here in New England and essentially runs on the principal that community members buy shares in a farm and in return they get weekly portions of the harvest through the growing season. Farms using this model started primarily in veggies but many have expanded to include dairy products and meat. Depending on the type of farm, you can either buy a share for a specific kind of meat or a general share with several kinds in each delivery. This is another route to ensure that your meat dollars stay in town.

I think that about wraps it up. Local meat can be hard to find because our current food system favors big livestock producers and big processing facilities. But as you can see, the combination of demanding consumers, tenacious farmers, and entrepreneurial thinking are helping turn the ship around steak by steak. Developing the infrastructure to keep processing local will help increase local supplies of meat and new legislation that ensure the safety of on-farm processing will do the same. So buy local meat when you can find it, and next time you are at the farmers market (or diner) just ask some area farmers the same question. There might be an exciting effort afoot in your neck of the woods that could use your enthusiasm and support!



Comments:
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Anonymous @ 6/25/2008 12:58:14 PM 
What a great article!
Anonymous @ 6/29/2008 11:56:23 PM 
I've made a pledge to myself and my community. I'm going to focus on locally grown meats from this point forward. My guy & I don't eat a lot of red meat. So, when we do, why not enjoy the fresh taste of eating meats raised right in my own county. I know the farmers. So, that's my plan. I hope others will do the same.
Anonymous @ 6/30/2008 9:24:05 AM 
Hi,

As the only organic certifier based in IN, and a long-time consumer of locally grown products, I could probably help Mr. Walker find some locally raised meats. Please feel free to tell anyone in IN who is looking for locally grown, or organic food, to contact our office so we can help them. My guess is that certifiers in other states can also be helpful. For contact info click on "Certifiers" on the Homepage of the National Organic Program: www.ams.usda.gov/nop

Email is the best method of communication for this: cvof@earthlink.net

Thanks for your fine work!
Anonymous @ 6/30/2008 9:27:10 AM 
i love this article!
maybe in the future you can talk about how living a vegetarian / vegan (or mostly so) lifestyle is so much better for the enviornment and for health!
Anonymous @ 6/30/2008 9:40:44 AM 
Our family bought a steer from a local farmer last fall, who dropped it off at the local slaughterhouse for us. We paid the processing fee and filled our freezer with local, grass-fed, kindly-raised beef. We don't eat much meat, so the slaughterhouse packaged the meat in two-person portions, vacuum-sealed so they don't get freezer burn. Grass-fed beef is very lean and a bit tough, so we have much of it ground. If a whole steer is too much, split one with friends!
Anonymous @ 6/30/2008 9:46:16 AM 
I live in Louisville, Ky and there are many, many farmers markets here. Most have meat vendors, some of which are from Indiana. I buy pork and beef from a farmer from Rome, In, and chicken from a farmer in Bloomington, In. Do a search for farmers markets in your area and I bet you will find some. I have made a vow to not support factory farming any longer. The farmer in Rome, In is Certified Humane Raised and Handled also which is a big plus, to me anyway. Hope this helps.
Anonymous @ 6/30/2008 9:47:43 AM 
Local grass fed beef is cheaper bought as a whole cow, if you are able to find a farmer to do that. Same with lamb. We get whole animals, splitting the larger ones with friends, butchered to our specifications. Frozen local meat, year round, at a cost much lower than any store. $3 a pound for beef (both ground beef, steaks and rib roasts). $5 a pound for lamb. Compare that to buying grass fed steaks and leg of lamb at the store or butcher.
Anonymous @ 6/30/2008 9:48:56 AM 
I live in Yorkville Illinois - there is a town called Lisbon - they have the Lisbon Locker where you can buy fresh beef & pork (in large quantities of course) but it doesn't get fresher than that!
Anonymous @ 6/30/2008 10:31:23 AM 
Laura- excellent article. You point out many of the problems for the small-scale, niche meat producers across the country. In my state of California, the elimination of the state meat inspection program left only two options for slaughter- either custom slaughterhouses in which you take your own animals and cannot resell the end product, or USDA-inspected slaughterhouses in which you can resell the end product as long as the cut-and-wrap was also USDA inspected. Consequently, we only have a couple to choose from and USDA cut & wrap leaves a bit to be desired (no charcuterie, no special cures, no prosciutto!). To learn more about the ins and outs of the livestock industry, visit my blog at www.honestmeat.com. And for those looking for local meat, I always recommend www.localharvest.org. Thanks! -Rebecca Thistlethwaite
Anonymous @ 6/30/2008 10:52:15 AM 
Hello, Laura and All!!
This is an excellent article and I am so thankful Mr. Brett Walker bringing this to the attention of an organization that can help do something about it!!
I plan on contacting the 'National Organic Program'as we are in the second season of raising our own livestock. We do the slaughter, the butchering and the packaging, but we can't sell our meat we can only give it away to family and friends. We are small right now, but with more years to come and help and knowledge from organizations we hope to be able to sell outright.
I love all the information I read in your articles, Laura!
Health to all!!!
Anonymous @ 6/30/2008 10:59:56 AM 
As organic, pastured poultry growers, We applaud your effort to buy loocally from family farms. Check out the website localharvest.org.
The Criste Family
Baker Road Farms
Anonymous @ 6/30/2008 12:08:50 PM 
Hey Laura...Great article!!! Southeast PA here...We buy local and raise our own chickens for eggs and slaughter. I'm fortunate I married into a dairy farming family. Our pop raises steer and neighbors raise pigs. We obviously live in a rural community so it's not too hard for us. We raise alot of our own feed for the animals. There are alot of small farms raising livestock for meat. My pop also has a herd of boar goats that are sold for slaughter. My advise is get out of town a little bit and stop and ask. Most farmers are more than willing to sell what they raise and if they don't have what your looking for they will send you to someone that does... Grace W
Anonymous @ 6/30/2008 12:38:31 PM 
So funny - I'm from Michigan City too and have always wondered the same thing
Anonymous @ 6/30/2008 12:40:42 PM 
Buying grass-fed beef and other pastured livestock is important, too, for health reasons. I won't re-invent the wheel, but will rather direct you to the site I used to find my beef rancher. The site also includes some excellent articles on specific nutrient and health benefits. It's: www.eatwild.com.

If you find grass-fed beef to be tough, then you just need to adjust your method of preparation. I've had excellent success with steaks, roasts, and ground beef.
Anonymous @ 6/30/2008 2:15:55 PM 
Hi all, I'm surprised that no one listed the Eat Well Guide, check us out at www.eatwellguide.org! Sustainable Table and The Meatrix launched the Eat Well Guide several years ago, and we've recently expanded and re-launched our website. Eat Well is your free tool to find sustainably raised meat, animal products, and produce from local family farmers anywhere in the US and Canada. You can print free custom books to take with you, and this fall we're launching a travel tool to help you find good food anytime on you're on the road. Destin
Anonymous @ 6/30/2008 4:48:28 PM 
PLEASE CHECK THE WEBSITE FOR THE AMERICAN GRASSFED ASSOCIATION:

www.americangrassfed.org

SINCERELY,
WILL HARRIS
WHITE OAK PASTURES
BLUFFTON, GA
Anonymous @ 6/30/2008 9:52:21 PM 
I guess we're pretty lucky here in Billings,MT. The local health-food store and the co-op both carry great Montana meats,..bison,chickens,pork goods,breakfast meats and of course, organic beef. There's also a meat market that can process your game and sells local beef,elk,venison and the occasional duck,goose and turkey.I feel a little guilty for having such access to good food! Everyone come to Montana, I guess!:)Everything you need within a couple hundred miles.(Now if only the farming kids would stay home to finish what their families started!!:{ Kat R.
Anonymous @ 7/1/2008 12:09:04 PM 
Hi all! I know the perfect place to get some delicious Grass Fed Beef. My Family Farm in Kentucky! check out our website www.foxhollow.com! We ship anywhere in the US! Our mission at Foxhollow Farm is to use the most compassionate and earth friendly farming practices in order to raise our Grass Fed Beef and care for the land. We are committed to the methods of Biodynamic Agriculture, which nurish and sustain the vitality of the soil, plant life, the animals, and our fellow Human Beings.
Peace,
Maggie Barrett
Foxhollow Farm
Crestwood, KY
Anonymous @ 7/3/2008 8:03:05 AM 
I live in the city where we have several farmers markets that travel to different locations during the week which sell only vegetables. I buy my eggs fresh from a man who works with my daughter and my beef from a man who I work with. Both men work and tend their ranches they do not use hormones or antibiotics and the cows are grass fed. I feel fortunate to have them both. Butcher shops are few and far between and tend to buy their meat from large distributers.
If you are looking for locally grown sometimes you have to be creative. I wish I had been more aware of the food I was feeding my children. I now am feeding my grandchildren. The food they eat at home and at my house is locally grown.

Janeane Armstrong
Sacramento, CA
Anonymous @ 7/6/2008 10:12:29 PM 
Oh yeah why don't we slaughter the animals, bet that will make us feel so much better! Let's get a conscience and become aware of what we are doing.
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