By Micah Cheek
Jeanie Alderson is trying to solve a puzzle that is still confounding many of the country’s alternative meat producers: Getting her meats from her ranch to customers’ tables. Large meat processors cannot process a small farm’s meats profitably, and small meat processors are in short supply.
“We have the best grass, the best country and the best cattle, but we’re far away from everyone,” says Alderson. The Montana rancher and co-owner of Omega Beef raises grass-fed and –finished wagyu beef, to the tune of 30 to 40 carcasses a year. “The places where big agribusiness is happening, those processors won’t even look at us,” says Alderson. This size of production constitutes a fraction of what a major slaughter house would process in a year, far too little for a larger slaughter house to cut at a profit. The nearest USDA-inspected processor that will work in Omega Beef’s volumes is Quality Meats of Montana, approximately three hours away. This long drive through the Montana steppelands, combined with deliveries after processing, takes a large cut of the company’s profit margin. Unfortunately, slaughtering at an uninspected processor isn’t an option. Going without the USDA stamp would mean losing the business of their retailers, their distributor and any out-of-state customers. “Basically the only people we would be able to sell to would be individual customers in Montana,” says Alderson.
The issue of finding size appropriate processors is not limited to beef. Les Miller, Food Producer at Wheatstem Meadows Farms in South Dakota, has encountered difficulties with pork and chicken as well. Miller has found a pork processor within 50 miles, but the expansion of his business is beginning to push the processor’s capacity. Miller is also raising chickens, but can’t find a facility to slaughter them in. “That’s the problem I’m facing with the broilers,” Miller says. “The closest [processor] I could find was in Minnesota. There’s nothing in South Dakota.” Miller is legally allowed to slaughter chickens in a limited capacity without an inspected facility, but that poultry can’t be sold across state lines. “Under federal law I can do 1,000 [per year], but it still isn’t like the USDA certification,” says Miller.
Groups like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a network of agricultural advocacy groups, are involved in changing policies to make access to USDA-inspected facilities more available, but Ferd Hoefner, Policy Director with the NSAC, says the results do not come easily. “A number of farmers, frustrated by this lack of policy, are starting their own processing facilities. How do you get inspectors to these plants? That’s a huge bottleneck,” Hoefner notes. This issue has become a top concern for the National Sustainable Ag Coalition. “With the federal government, most policies are going to become one size fits all,” Hoefner adds. “We’re looking for ways to make the regulatory regime fit.” One such legislative change has allowed select state-certified processors to operate as USDA-approved facilities, increasing the number of processors with the USDA’s stamp of approval.
Another potential answer is the implementation of mobile slaughter units. These are large trailers that are essentially a certified facility on wheels. They are driven out to farms. According to the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network, there are approximately 20 MSUs in operation in the country, operating in 14 states. Hoefner notes that the MSU system is still finding its place in the market. “It’s a little bit too early to tell there,” says Hoefner. “As the market develops, maybe the market will be viable.” MSU’ could be a future key to beef and poultry operations. “I would love for my animals to not have to leave, and end their lives here,” says Alderson.