When John Lash took over as food service director in the Gilford, N.H., school district, he wasn't satisfied with the highly processed, USDA commodity and out-of-a-can school lunch being offered. With a degree in culinary arts and experience as a chef, Lash wanted to cook from scratch with local, high-quality, fresh ingredients. He encountered more than a few obstacles. His kitchen staff had no culinary skills. He had a tight budget and an administration that wasn't sure that buying local was worth the extra cost and legwork. Despite the obstacles, he refused to give up.
"No more excuses," he decided. "Just figure it out." Among other important lunchtime changes, Gilford now serves all locally sourced and grass-fed beef to its 1,350 students in grades K-12.
Lash buys about 40 percent of the district's beef from Miles Smith Farm, owned by New England Farmers Union members Carole Soule and Bruce Dawson. Soule and Dawson raise 60 head of Highland and Angus beef on mostly rented pasture. They sell ground beef in bulk to the district, and because Lash picks the beef up at the farm, the farm only charges $3.60 a pound. It's a good deal for both the farm and the district. The school gets fresh, high-quality beef for burgers, meatballs and meatloaf that Lash says tastes much better than USDA commodity beef. With the school's order in hand, Soule can plan ahead, and she gets paid for her beef within a week. Selling ground beef in bulk allows her to sell more and higher-value cuts through the farm's retail outlets. She and Dawson are considering expanding to meet the increasing demand for local and grass-fed beef.
Soule's beef is slaughtered and processed at PT Farm, a new 10,000-square-foot USDA-inspected slaughter facility in North Haverhill, N.H., owned by Pete and Tara Roy, and at Adams Farm in Athol, Mass. Like lots of plants in New England, PT Farm is operating at less than full capacity, except for a seasonal pileup in late summer and early fall. A study conducted by Chelsea Lewis of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and Christian Peters of Tufts University found that on average, New England slaughter facilities operated at just 38 percent of their physical slaughter capacity in 2009. On-site processing, on the other hand, operated on average at 78 percent of inspected physical capacity. The uneven demand for slaughter and the seasonality of meat production in New England, however, can cause six to 12-month wait times at some plants.
Consistent, year-round throughput is just one obstacle that slaughter facilities face. Many plants in New England are also old, outdated and inefficient. Abattoirs are understandably reluctant to invest in upgrading facilities when the supply - and in some cases quality - of local beef is so uneven. State-inspected and custom slaughter facilities need a consistent supply, as well as capital and technical assistance, to help them become USDA-inspected and more efficient. The study by Lewis and Peters also noted a lack of skilled labor (butchers). In fact, the lack of skilled workers was cited by operators as a bigger hurdle than the difficulty of complying with the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service's Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points regulations.
Still, where some see obstacles, others see opportunity. A new USDA plant will come online this spring in Barnstead, N.H. In Springfield, Vt., Black River Produce plans to construct a new 43,000-square-foot meat facility that will initially cut and pack meat, but will eventually include a kill floor. There does appear to be room to grow. Overall, New England has the capacity to slaughter just 63 percent to 84 percent of all animals marketed in the region (depending on how you account for the utilization from marketed dairy calves), and to cut and pack just 29 percent to 43 percent. There is also a growing demand for USDA-inspected plants to process smoked meats and charcuterie, and to provide other high-end meat processing services.
Farmers also need to address efficiency, consistency and scale. The survey conducted by Lewis and Peters suggested that producers travel an average of 52 miles each way to slaughter. The majority of producers responding to the survey send fewer than 10 animals to slaughter per year. The lack of affordable transport options is often cited as a problem, as is a lack of high-quality cut-and-wrap services, at a level above what is offered at most USDA-inspected plants.
Here too there is opportunity. 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 a year.
The portfolio of USDA programs under the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative has played a tremendous role in spurring investment and increasing meat production in New England. Several projects are under way.
Beef production The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE) is providing solid farmer-led and farm-based research on improving beef production efficiency. SARE has funded several projects in the Northeast to increase profitability of beef production. SARE has supported projects that evaluated the incorporation of brassicas into pasture, for example, and another that assessed pasture grass and legume mixtures.
Processing The Massachusetts Department of Agriculture received a Federal State Marketing Improvement Program (FSMIP) grant from USDA to expand infrastructure for Massachusetts local meat producers, and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets is using a FSMIP grant to assess the supply chain for New England's value-added meat industry. Rural Business Enterprise Grants have funded a feasibility study for a small-scale local slaughter and processing facility on Martha's Vineyard and an environmental analysis for a beef slaughter and processing facility in Connecticut.
Marketing Carole Soule used a Farmers Market Promotion Program grant to initiate New Hampshire Meat, an aggregation and marketing hub that will serve as a single point of contact for New Hampshire health care institutions looking to source meat from local New Hampshire farmers. SARE has helped fund the formation of a beef producers' marketing cooperative.
This next farm bill needs to reauthorize and re-fund those USDA programs vital to building this meat (and poultry) producing, processing and marketing infrastructure. You can help make that happen by becoming a member of NEFU. Go to www.newenglandfarmersunion.org to join, as well as follow 2013 farm bill developments by signing up for the NEFU newsletter and action alerts.