Meat, particularly how it is raised, has made its way into the awareness of the average consumer. Headlines today are all about antibiotics in meat.

The federal government has recently tightened rules for the use of antimicrobial additives in livestock feed, limiting the use of medically important drugs, and increasing the veterinary oversight needed. Large meat brands are taking measures to convince customers that their products were raised naturally, on wholesome family farms. Retailers are putting animal welfare rules in place for their suppliers, and fast-food chains are refusing eggs from caged hens, and reportedly only purchasing meat from “sustainable” sources. Consumer awareness regarding the raising, slaughtering and processing of meat and poultry has been increasing as the local food movement has evolved.

Yet most of the meat consumed in the United States continues to accumulate a lot of mileage as it moves from farm to plate. Exactly how and where the animal was raised, from birth to finish, is lost in the process. Even merit-based claims on meat don’t offer a farm-to-fork connection. Yet it is precisely that connection that is becoming more important to a growing percentage of consumers, as eating local matures from a produce-centric system to one that includes value-added products, beverages and meat.

Breaking local meat barriers

As consumer awareness and demand for local meats increase, small farmers are demanding more access to slaughter and processing. In some regions, USDA certified plants, or equivalent state-inspected plants, are few and far between. Long travel distances and lack of available slaughter slots remain problematic. And custom-exempt slaughter is not an option for those wishing to sell meat by the retail cut, rather than on-the-hoof as freezer meat.

Regulations governing the slaughter and sale of meat are different from those for poultry. While the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) exemptions make it allowable for producers to slaughter and process less than 1,000 birds per year on-farm, and offer them for direct consumer sales, the reality is often that local or state oversight often makes this difficult. (See http://www.nichemeatprocessing.org for the State Poultry Processing Regulations guidebook, updated June 2015.)

Each state has its own set of requirements, which can limit the practicality of establishing an on-farm poultry slaughter operation, either by making it too expensive for small farmers to comply with regulations, or making it too difficult or confusing to market the meat via various sales channels.

But things are beginning to change. In states such as Vermont, on-farm outdoor slaughter rules have been enacted, making it possible for farms to directly sell a small amount of live animals to consumers. It allows the animals to then be slaughtered on-farm legally, as long as the slaughtering is done by the buyer, or by an itinerant slaughterer hired by the buyer, with no involvement allowed from the farmer himself. While these rules still are quite restrictive, and aren’t a solution for many farmers or buyers, it is an option.

Mobile processing units, both for red meat and for poultry, have been established in various parts of the country. These units travel farm to farm, providing slaughter options, and some are USDA inspected, making direct retail sales of meat cuts legal. Butcher shops are seeking locally grown meats, often raised within certain parameters, and some are hiring producers as contract grazers, lessening the producer risk. In yet another model, livestock producers are partnering up to meet the demand for institutional, supermarket and other large-scale buyers.

Going mobile

On-farm poultry slaughter and direct sales to consumers is a viable option for many producers. Yet meeting the requirements for an on-farm facility is not always easy, and the nearest USDA-inspected option for poultry may be too far, may not be able to work flexibly with small producers, or may make the cost of the meat prohibitive.

One option is that of a mobile poultry slaughter unit. In northern New York State, the first USDA-inspected poultry slaughter unit in the nation, operated by North Country Pastured, LLC, was put into service in the fall of 2013. However, difficulties were encountered as the unit traveled to various farms.

According to farmer and manager Renee Smith, the USDA inspectors would not approve processing at some farms, primarily due to debris, muddy conditions, or other concerns in the immediate environment. Some farmers were reluctant to have USDA inspectors on their farms, and Smith had difficulty coordinating with USDA inspectors when traveling to nearby counties. While these issues are being addressed, the mobile unit has gone stationary, conducting USDA slaughters at Smith’s farm.

Meredith Acly, owner of Aspen Ridge Farm, in Oxford, New Jersey. Aspen Ridge has a meat CSA, and also sells retail cuts of veal, lamb and pork, as well as USDA-processed chicken.Photo by Tamara Scully

On Martha’s Vineyard, the nonprofit Island Grown Initiative’s Poultry Program (http://www.islandgrown.org/poultry) consists of a mobile processing unit designed to handle 150 birds per day. Although not USDA inspected, the unit allows small farmers to raise and slaughter poultry for direct-to-consumer sales, under FSIS exemptions. They currently process about 10,000 birds per year, and are credited with generating over $100,000 in additional farm income, as well as six full-time farm jobs, for the island’s farms.

“By funding and equipping a mobile poultry processing unit (MPPU) on Martha’s Vineyard, Island Grown Initiative essentially took much of the financial risk out of raising poultry for slaughter, allowing small farmers to diversify into poultry meat production more easily,” Matthew Dix, IGI Poultry Coordinator, said.

The unit has allowed the island’s small farmers access to the equipment – scalder, plucker, kill cones, processing table and a wash station – that although basic, can be an impediment, both in establishing an approved on-farm slaughter operation, as well as in the ongoing maintenance and operating costs.

“The MPPU is essentially a shared resource which is available to everyone from backyard growers to large farms,” Dix said. “Folks just call up and schedule a processing date, and they are provided with a trained staff and the MPPU.”

The mobile unit provides a set-up that is already inspected and approved, eliminating the hassle for individual farms. The program was able to work with federal, state and local officials to ensure best practices were met as it traveled from farm to farm.

“Most of the day-to-day issues are the mundane headaches of any small enterprise, finding and keeping good help and staying vigilant with maintenance,” Dix said. “There are very tight price margins in small-scale poultry production. It is a challenge to keep the unit’s operational and maintenance costs enough so that the rental fee assessed to the farmer is low enough for them to make a little money.”

Marketing options

Even if slaughter and processing concerns are removed, livestock farmers still have to sell their meat. While selling directly via farmers’ markets is one option, more farmers are finding other ways of reaching the consumer.

While farmers’ markets sales can be time-consuming, selling meat via Community Supported Agriculture shares has become popular. Whether the meat is from the same farm offering produce, or comes from a nearby farm, CSA customers are given the option to include meat, at an additional cost, in their weekly share box. In some cases, the meat CSA stands on its own, providing meat throughout the year to customers who pay upfront, assisting the farmer with cost incurred well before the meat is ever sold.

Online sales of meat, facilitated by a program such as Home Grown Cow (http://www.homegrowncow.com), offer farmers a way to reach customers online, and to easily take orders for on-farm pickup or perhaps delivery. FarmersWeb (http://www.farmersweb.com) is geared to matching farmers with chefs, caterers, food artisans, grocers and other volume buyers. Other services, such as Wholeshare, (http://www.wholeshare.com) allow consumers to pool resources to purchase in volume, and encourages producers to form cooperatives which work together to provide volume for wholesale customers.

The Adirondack Grazers Cooperative, (http://www.adkgrazers.com) based in upstate New York, is one such cooperative example. Here, all producers raise 100 percent grass-fed beef. By selling cooperatively, they can reach markets not typically open to individual farmers, while offering consumers meat from a local and transparent food chain.

As small butcher shops re-emerge, many are attempting to meet the demand for local meats. Ryan Fibiger, head butcher and Chief Executive Officer of Fleisher’s Craft Butchery, is doing just that. Fibiger merged his Connecticut-based Saugatuck Craft Butchery with New York-based Fleisher’s Pasture-Raised Meats in early 2015, and is focused on scaling whole-animal butchering to meet the growing demand for local meat.

“We don’t buy boxed meat. We still treat processing like it’s a whole animal,” buying whole animals, butchering them and utilizing all the cuts, Fibiger said. “We can’t find enough product to sell. If we had more product, we could sell it. Demand for our product has really gone up.”

The product they are seeking is meat, particularly beef, from regional farms, where “honesty and transparency” are key, and consumers are welcomed to visit. Fibiger is in need of a group of a dozen or so farmers who together can provide a reliable, high-quality, consistent supply of one dozen head of beef each week, with a seasonal increase to 20 head per week in the summer. Not only must the animals be raised on pasture on small family farms, and adhere to other parameters – like no use of growth hormones – the meat has to have excellent taste, tenderness and texture. The farm must be consistent in the quality of its meats. Good grazers, it seems, are in demand.

Fibiger realizes that farmers are taking a big risk raising beef, as they won’t see the returns for two years. So he is working to develop contract grazing opportunities, where the company will buy feeder cattle, and pay local family farmers to graze them to their specific standards. By contracting with experienced grazers to raise high-quality beef in a consistent manner, Fleisher’s Craft Butchery is working to keep small family farmers in business, while offering the highest quality meat to all consumers.

“We’re figuring out how to share the risk,” he said. “We all need to make money to be sustainable. The process has to work for everyone in the supply chain,” from the farmer to the butcher to the consumer.

Despite barriers that make local meat less accessible, and possibly less affordable to consumers, locally-grown meat is back in style. Whether it’s poultry or beef, pork or lamb, goat, bison or veal, more livestock from small farms is making it to tables, either via direct sales or through short supply-chains, where the identity of the meat being eaten is retained.

From on-farm freezer sales and retail cuts available at the farmers’ market, to CSA meat shares and the rise of the local meat butcher shop and meat producer cooperatives, the meat we eat is as much a part of “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative” as is produce. Keeping the meat supply, from farm to fork, as direct as possible means bringing farmers and buyers together, every step of the way.

Resources

For more information on small meat processing, mobile units and inspections, visit http://www.extension.org/small_meat_processors.

Cover Photo Courtesy of Applecheek Farm.