Small-Scale Slaughterhouses Aim To Put The 'Local' Back In Local Meat
by Beth Hoffman
This cow may have been raised for food on a farm near you, but it may
not necessarily have been processed nearby.
It's hard to go a day without hearing people brag about how they eat
local. In-the-know consumers wax poetic about their local farmers'
markets, and some even make pilgrimages to meet their rancher, visit
cows grazing and see pigs playing happily in the mud.
But the dirty little secret is, while that steak those "locavores" just
bought at the farmers' market may have come from a cow that grazed in
nearby pastures, it probably wasn't processed anywhere nearby. In fact,
many local meat products are sent to slaughterhouses hundreds of miles
away, across state lines.
So some small-scale cattle producers are taking matters into their own
hands in an effort to keep money, jobs and something "local" on dinner
In Washington state for example, most grass-fed beef raised on the
eastern plains journeys some 400 to 600 miles to Oregon or Idaho for
processing before arriving back in Seattle. That means not only a larger
carbon footprint for each hamburger served, but processing animals out
of state also sucks money out of the state's rural communities and makes
locally produced beef more expensive.
So the Cattle Producers of Washington (CpoW), like several other
innovative groups around the country, are breaking ground this summer on
a new slaughterhouse in Odessa (Lincoln County) that will cater
exclusively to small eastern Washington ranches.
"We don't want to be the next Tyson or Cargill, processing large
numbers of animals for national distribution," says Willard Wolf,
President of CPoW. "We are not interested in competing on that level.
The whole idea is to have quality control and humane processing for
local cattle, hogs, sheep and goats that provides consumers in the state
with [the] locally produced products they are demanding. Having a
producer-owned plan will help keep dollars, ranchers and farmers in our
Forty years ago, when Wolf started working as a rancher in Eastern
Oregon, there were seven slaughterhouses in the region able to process
and package meat from small scale producers. Today there are none.
Over the past 20 years, slaughterhouse consolidation has left small
scale producers scrambling. Just four corporations slaughter about 80
percent of the cattle in the United States. Many facilities now only
process large numbers of animals at a time, and will not allow ranches
to bring in – and get back out – the same animals.
This consolidation of farms and meat processing has meant even less
jobs for already struggling rural communities like those in Eastern
Washington. The construction of a new slaughterhouse will provide new
opportunities for ranchers wanting to raise and sell pasture-raised meat
at more competitive prices.
"We have lost 15 percent of our population over the last five years,"
says Wolf. "For a town that doesn't even have a stop light, a facility
like this will mean significant employment in transporting, distributing
and raising locally raised meat."
Other rural communities, like Sullivan County, New York, aren't looking
to attract more people but want a new processing facility to help the
county retain its agrarian feel.
"The rural nature of the county is a priority for us." says Jennifer
Brylinski, the Executive Director of the Sullivan County Industrial
Development Agency, the organization who helped the county secure
funding for the future facility in Liberty. "We need the agricultural
land here near New York City, and agriculture promotes tourism in this
area. We want to see the farm land kept as farmland."
Only 90 miles from New York City, the proposed 5,000 square foot
slaughterhouse will cater to many small scale ranches in the region.
It's slated to sit on an otherwise undesirable location, sandwiched
between the highway and the sewage treatment facility.
But for some ranchers, traveling to a regional processing plant is even
Walter Jeffries of Sugar Mountain Farm in Vermont is pioneering what he
calls a "nano-scale" animal processing, an on-farm slaughterhouse and
butchering facility built for a fraction of the cost.
"When our butcher announced his retirement in 2008 after two other
regional facilities burned down, we knew we had to build our own
slaughterhouse on-farm," says Jeffries. "We were warned that it was a
huge task to take on, that the costs were high. But we are on target for
completing the first part of the building for only $150,000, and are
making all the plans available online to anyone else who wants to use
Mobile slaughterhouse units too are being used for very small scale
processing of animals on-farm. It's a program the USDA has subsidized
and promoted under the Obama administration. But the cost – upwards of
$300,000 a piece – can be prohibitive, and waste water management is
also an issue.
The Jeffries family plans to compost waste for use on their own
farm."It is the ultimate green burial," says Jeffries. "We are
recapturing the nutrients for our farm's soil - nutrients that are
otherwise disposed of in landfills, burned or rendered. And while that
might seem like a trivial detail, it is an essential part of keeping our