Last Sunday’s New York Times had an article about the shortage of slaughterhouses for those raising non-industrial and local meat.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the number of slaughterhouses nationwide declined to 809 in 2008 from 1,211 in 1992, while the number of small farmers has increased by 108,000 in the past five years.
Fewer slaughterhouses to process local meat means less of it in butcher shops, grocery stores and restaurants. Chefs throughout the Northeast are partnering with farms to add locally-raised meat to their menus, satisfying a customer demand. But it is not always easy.
“There are a lot of people out there who raise great animals for us to use, and they don’t have the opportunity to get them to us because the slaughterhouses are going away,” said Bill Telepan, chef and owner of Telepan, a high-end restaurant in New York.
Mr. Telepan’s veal supplier, Duane Merrill of Walton, N.Y., said there was no slaughterhouse in Delaware County, “and it’s the size of Rhode Island.” Mr. Merrill said he also had difficulty finding adequate transport for veal cattle down to New York City.
Brian Moyer, director of Rural Vermont, a nonprofit farm advocacy group, uses the image of an hourglass. “At the top of the hourglass we’ve got the farmers,” he said, “the bottom part is consumers and in the middle, what’s straining those grains of sand, is the infrastructure that’s lacking.”
Like Tom Philpott, I’m excited to see this gap being highlighted, because it is enormously important. It is particularly important because those of us who raise meat humanely, on grass, and care about the quality of an animal’s life are then pressed in order to sell our animals, into stressing and terrifying those animals in their last hours by hauling them long distances off the farm. This is not something that I consider acceptable, but it is difficult to find solutions for.
For example, my family has attempted to resolve this issue by butchering poultry ourselves – we are permitted to sell a fairly substantial number of birds off the farm directly, and in the past, we’ve scheduled butchering days for our birds. The problem was that customers who wanted our pastured, organic poultry often didn’t show up to pick up their birds in time. Without the capacity to freeze so many chickens and turkeys, we ended up giving them away to others, and with frustrated customers who didn’t fully grasp that this couldn’t wait. Finally, we reluctantly gave up and began driving the birds the night before to a local slaughterhouse about an hour away – but it means that the night before their deaths, our chickens are packed in cages and stressed by transport.
We’ve run into even greater complexities when it comes to trying to serve our local Jewish community by producing grass-fed, kosher, organic meat. Jewish farms are not abundant, and many people we know would like to buy meat from us. We’ve researched bringing a schochet to our farm, and concluded that the cost, on the scale that we do it, would be prohibitive – because while there were once an abundance of small scale butchers accustomed to performing kosher slaughter on-farm, they no longer exist. I know one – he’s an orthodox gentleman in his late 70s who spends his summers in a small summer community of religious Jews near me. We happened to meet a few years after we moved here, and a few times he’s butchered for me, taking chickens in trade. I asked him if he knew anyone who would come to a Jewish farm, not that very far out of New York City, but he shook his head, observing that most of the younger butchers simply hadn’t been trained for on-farm slaughter the way he and the older men often had.
The nearest kosher slaughterhouses are in New Jersey or three hours drive south in the Catskills. We’re presently working on getting someone from our community to learn kosher slaughter, but it is frustrating that a several-year odessey has left us still without local, kosher organic meat to sell, even though there is an enthusiastic market for it.
And it isn’t just slaughterhouses – while this is a harder infrastructure challenge to overcome than some others, there are plenty of other barriers to local food production – lack of certified kitchens for small scale producers to use for value-added products, for example. Most of us will never have the famed triple sink that would allow us to produce jams or breads for sale in our home kitchens (actually, back when we ran our CSA, we used to include bread as part of our sales – unless I had sought out specifically ergot-contaminated grains for the project, it is pretty hard to figure out how I could have poisoned someone with homemade bread ;-)). Certified kitchens that can be rented by small producers to allow them to turn their fruit or whatever into something that will sell for a decent price are essential to local food production.
The start up costs for a dairy farm of any kind come in the 100s of thousands of dollars – strongly discouraging many people who actually want to get up at 5 am every single day to milk cows, goats, sheep or water buffalo so that you can have milk to drink and cheese to eat. That anyone does this, given the price of milk, should be regarded as wholly astonishing by most people. As Philpott points out, despite the fact that the USDA is finally, minutely beginning to recognize that small scale local agriculture is potentially a vital economic force, this idea is only vaguely beginning to penetrate, and the resources invested are comparatively tiny:
Yet there remain massive gaps. The most glaring one today, to my mind, is dairy. According to this pretty amazing 2007 USDA report, there were 2507 processing facilities nationwide for fluid milk in 1972. By 2002, there were 524. Thus in the span of 30 years, we surrendered a startling 80 percent of our milk facilities. Over the same time period, the market share controlled by the top four dairy processors jumped from 17 percent to 42.6 percent. Today, a single company, Dean Foods, bottles more than a third of the milk consumed in the United States.
These trends illustrate a kind of permanent, structural crisis in dairy farming — farmers face constant pressure to scale up and intensify, or exit the business. Between 1994 and 2004, the USDA report informs us, “the number of dairy farms decreased by 45 percent, but milk production per farm doubled.”
Dairy farming recently entered particularly brutal phase — farmers are being forced to sell milk at below production costs, driving themselves into ruin and burnishing the bottom line of mega-processors like Dean Foods. Meanwhile, surviving farms tend to be large, heavy-polluting operations. Yet we’re living in a time when people are increasingly demanding access to milk from appropriate-scale, pasture-based farms. The time has come to bust up the dairy trusts — and rebuild the infrastructure that’s been laid waste as they gobbled up their smaller peers. Of course, I would say that.
In populated areas, what will also be needed is shifts in zoning that permit small scale home and cottage production – a small discreet sign that says “brown eggs for sale” or “Honey” is often impermissable in suburban neighborhoods and developments with restrictive covenants – even if you can raise the animals legally, you often cannot market your products in your neighborhood. Given that local food is needed most where people actually live, the infrastructure that prohibits its production on even a small and tasteful scale is going to have to be dismantled, and replaced with one that encourages local production.
One of my readers, who I will call “Kim” to protect her anonymity recently emailed me telling her story – she is raising perfectly legal chickens in her backyard in a Western US suburb, and supplying a good number of her neighbors will those eggs. The only public evidence of her practice, which involves selling directly to her neighbors was a small 4×4 card by her door saying “for eggs, come around back” – and yet she was recently cited for operating an illegal business out of her home (her total weekly profits from this illegal business run well under $100 week). And yet two of her neighbors, a dentist and chiropractor, operate businesses out of their home. It turns out it was the chiropractor who reported her.
It is easy to say that small scale farming won’t pay – and to ignore the historic pressures that have resulted in enormous investments of resources and subsidies into destroying small scale agriculture. Humanely scaled food production didn’t die out, it was murdered – and despite massive gaps in infrastructure, is emerging again, handicapped by the past. There’s no lack of demand for these products – I can sell every bird or lamb I care to raise and several hundred more besides. When we first opened our CSA in 2003, I ran a small ad (it cost us $10) in our synagogue newsletter, hoping to find five customers for a subscription. I found 12, and within weeks, word of mouth gave me a forty person waiting list. At our peak, we had less than 30 families, and a waiting list nearly 100 families long. I’ve recently begun raising wetland herbs on some of our wet land, logically enough, and even before I’ve begun producing much of anything, I have a growing number of practitioners interested in locally grown medicinals. Demand is not the issue.
But in order to meet that demand we are going to have to get over our NIMBY streak, and work on rebuilding the infrastructure so carefully dismantled by decades of agricultural policy framed by Earl Butz’s famed “Get Big or Get Out” statement. Building the infrastructure of a sustainable local food system may be a bigger project than getting growers.