Meat Processing Disruption Puts Livestock Farmers in Western WA at Risk
By Micha Ide of Bright Ide Acres
When my husband and I first dipped our toes into farming back in 2013, we started out by growing organic produce alongside raising a small amount of animals for meat. It became clear within a couple years that we were much better suited for animal husbandry, and we made a pivot to focus solely on what we call “ethically raised meat.” At that time, (and to this day), the number of farms growing meat animals on pasture in our region was fairly limited, and we saw an opportunity to fill a gap in the market.
Reasons to avoid entering the meat farming business abound: infrastructure needs, land access, feed bills, vet visits – these costs add up quickly and often require payment before animals can be harvested and sold. Cash flow is tight for all farmers, but meat farmers and ranchers, especially those with very seasonal harvests, can be particularly pinched by the ebb and flow of income streams. Yet despite all these challenges, perhaps the single biggest risk our business, and others like it, face is the extremely limited access to slaughter and processing.
In Washington State there are several different ways animals can get to market. Some of you may have enjoyed what we often call “custom meat” – perhaps you’ve purchased a half hog or a quarter cow directly from a farmer. Slaughter and processing options for this type of meat are limited, but reasonably available across the state, and many livestock farmers default to selling this way because it’s most accessible. In this type of sale, the animal is typically harvested on the farm and the carcass is hauled to a local butcher shop where the customer dictates the cuts requested.
On the other hand, if a farm would like to sell red meat by the cut – ie. bacon, steaks, pork chops, etc, the slaughter and butchery options are drastically reduced. In order to supply meat this way, we must haul our animals to a USDA-inspected slaughter facility. Once harvested, those carcasses must be butchered in a USDA-inspected butcher shop. Unfortunately consolidation of meat processing and packing over the past several decades has reduced the number of options available to farmers all across the country.
Here in the south Puget Sound region we are extremely lucky to have access to USDA-inspected slaughter and butchery, and have been selling meat by the cut for years. We ship our meat around the state, and being able to sell small volumes of meat increases our profit margins and our customer base, since not everyone has the freezer space for bulk meat.
Unfortunately, cracks in the local meat supply chain are fissuring. After bouncing back from pandemic-related processing capacity issues, some meat-producing farms suddenly find ourselves scrambling once again. The USDA slaughter facility in our region is currently shut down, and with limited options some farmers are having to haul their livestock several hundred miles across a mountain pass to access slaughter.
Adding this extra haul time is a burden in many ways. The fuel costs during animal transport are astronomical. Stress to livestock increases as travel times go up. Farmers are now acting as long-haul truckers, rather than doing their chores back at home. For those that haven’t been able to access slaughter during the current shakeup, animals that should have been processed are racking up feed bills without generating the usual income; an untenable economic prospect for any business.
What are the implications for the consumer? Unfortunately, some local meat prices may rise once again to help alleviate some of these new costs. Access to local meat in the southwestern part of the state may be reduced if this closure persists. My worst fear is that some farmers will be forced to exit the industry altogether.
I’m holding out hope that our local slaughter facility will be able to reopen soon, but we must plan for the future knowing this may not be resolved quickly. Fortunately new slaughter facilities are in development around the state, but it’s a slow and expensive slog to work through the regulations involved. Even if this disruption turns out to be a short term blip, it’s very clear that our extremely limited access to slaughter and processing means the local meat economy is teetering on the edge.
If you’re reading this and wondering what you can do to help, consider allocating some of your food budget to purchasing local meat when possible. If your meat farmer raises prices, try to be understanding of the economic pressures they are facing, and be sure to let them know how much you appreciate their hard work! In these stressful times, gratitude from the families we feed helps us carry on. Ready to buy local meat? Search for meat producers across the state by using the Washington Food & Farm Finder.