It's hard to miss the growing interest in local meat, poultry and fish. Retail shelves, school menus and farmers' markets all feature more local protein offerings, touting benefits for public health, the environment and local economies.
Research data confirm this trend. The USDA's Economic Research Service reports that despite a generally declining per capita consumption of meat, the combined market for local, grass-fed, natural and organic beef is growing at a rate of 20 percent per year nationally. A 2011 study of the Northeast meat market conducted by Rosalie Wilson and funded by the John Merck Fund found significant opportunities to sell local ground beef to schools, colleges, hospitals and other institutional buyers in New England. Strong demand for ground beef offers opportunities to bring organic and nonorganic dairy culls and lower-value beef cuts to market and could open a new fresh ground beef wholesale market in the region.
While this growing demand holds the promise of economic, environmental and public health benefits, producers in our region face significant economic and structural challenges.
In September, members of the New England Farmers Union (NEFU) were in Washington, D.C., as part of the annual legislative fly-in, where we meet with legislators and communicate our concerns and priorities. A key item this year was the economic potential of New England's fast-growing market for locally produced meat, poultry and fish. NEFU has been working with the Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society and the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project to develop federal policy options to support this developing industry.
In every meeting on Capitol Hill, NEFU's fly-in participants delivered a background paper on ways to grow meat and poultry production. The fly-in concluded with a briefing for congressional staff that featured several NEFU member panelists and was sponsored by Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine).
Demand for local protein is strong, the panelists told the staffers. There's a lot of opportunity for New England, but at every step - from birth to market - producers in New England face significant barriers, ranging from a lack of key inputs to a lack of infrastructure to regulations limiting growth.
Chris Grigsby said that local is the fastest-growing sector at the Belfast Co-op, where he is general manager. He has seen a 50 percent increase in local meat sales since 2009. One of his suppliers, a poultry producer and processor, is eager to expand to meet the growing demand. However, his goal to increase from 20,000 to 50,000 birds a year and sell across state lines would require a significant capital investment and compliance with a set of rules designed for plants that process 75,000 birds a day. A lack of USDA inspectors is also a problem.
Access to land can be a significant challenge for grass and pasture-based livestock producers, particularly in New England, where land costs and development pressures are high. Pat McNiff operates Pat's Pastured, a multi-livestock and processing operation in East Greenwich, R.I.
McNiff processes 10,000 birds a year on his farm and also raises cows, sheep, pigs and laying hens. He markets through a CSA, an online buying club, farmers' markets and to local chefs. Federal programs have been key to McNiff's success. He farms on land conserved with funds from the federal Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program. As a first-generation beginning farmer, he has benefited from Natural Resources Conservation Service programs and other USDA assistance. Growing this industry will require training and technical assistance on everything from grazing plans and fencing to leasing and learning how to grow feed grains.
John Cleary is a farmer and New England coordinator for Organic Valley (OV), a farmer-owned dairy and meat cooperative. OV markets beef, poultry and pork nationally under the Organic Prairie label, and they would like to develop a wholesale market for fresh organic ground beef in New England (about one-third of OV's 1,800 members farm in the region), providing a market for organic dairy cull cows and bull calves that could be raised as steers.
With appropriate infrastructure, OV could also bring to market organic beef cattle raised by its members. While OV has found slaughtering capacity, New England currently lacks the kind of high-end processing facilities to package products for major food retailers. Sean Buchanan, business development manager at Black River Produce, a food wholesaler in Springfield, Vt., noted that they have seen exponential growth in meat sales and described how their new processing plant will eventually provide these services.
The visits and the briefing sparked interest in developing comprehensive meat and poultry production and processing legislation addressing everything from research to cooperative development to food safety regulation. NEFU and our partners will continue the discussion we started with our congressional delegation around policy options and programs to support livestock production in New England. Join NEFU (http://www.newenglandfarmersunion.org) and join the conversation.
Annette Higby is the policy director for New England Farmers Union.