Building the Infrastructure for a Local Food System

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 4x4 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.

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Grrr! Maybe "Kim" should exercise her First Amendment right to put a nice big sign in her front yard advertising some web site debunking chiropractic subluxation scams.

The Midwest maintains local processing because of hunting.

*cue gnashing of politically correct urbane teeth*

I think you are underestimating ingenuity and overestimating individual squeamishness.

Here is a fun (or appalling) story which you might enjoy despite the fact that it is definitely NOT kosher.

One of the most under reported instances of habitat destruction is via invasive species in the U.S. a huge one is the feral pig problem.

Five years ago it was five feral pigs for every resident of Texas. I am horrified to think what it is now but they are all the way up to Canada.

I have a little gang of CIA (the good one) and NECI chefs who had all taken Charcuterie but had never had a victim.

I also had a little gang of Judges, MBAâs and other assorted golfing types who had always wanted to go âa-huntinââ but were intimidated by the proposition.

I also have a gang of land owners who had been paying people to just shoot pigs. They would shoot them and leave them to the buzzards thinking this would save the arboreal paradises they had maintained through four or five generations. Hitch: pigs eat dead pigs and it attracted more pigs. Hitch: I hate waste.

Fast forward through much goofy organizing and wrangling to a bunch of guys with the price tags still on their Cabela jackets and shotguns looking at me, sitting on a wheel hub working a cross word puzzle with expressions that said âWhat now?â. If this were lord of the flies these guys would be screwed.

âWe need to field dress it.â

The average feral pig has a life span that is half that of its domestic counterparts due to fighting infection and a crazy parasitic payload, so its organs, despite gallic covetousness, are not retained. I was fine with that. I kind of like buzzards and this maintained the buzzards and limited the pigs (Vultures are fast, pigs are slow).

Is everyone grossed out yet?

Fast forward again to me with blood up to my elbows and a lot of really quiet forty and fifty somethings who, I was convinced, were scarred for life.

*cue âWe Are the Championsâ*..... they loved it. They found it completely fascinating and insisted on watching processing.

The Chefs were flummoxed. They were expecting a nice pink Wilbur not a giant black hairy acorn eating fat free hog. I watched them theorize on approach for about ten minutes then I got out the hock hooks and hit the button on the Dayton winch.

I speed skinned it so it took me about 15 minutes with a Vietnamese cleaver and narration (wash everything, isolate and discard spinal column etc..

The Chefs just stood there with shell shock and I noticed the âhuntersâ were gone. Five minutes later they are back with one clumsy and one well field dressed pig. They managed not to get killed and the chefs and bankers went nuts while I finished my crossword puzzle.

600lbs+ slaughtered, processed, packaged and off to the respective freezers in an afternoon.

The only limit to what we can do seems to be people willing to show us how.

On a side note, I was just a procurer and butcher in this proposition. I have brought enough mammals into the world and taken enough out to earn my moral stripes for consumption of meat. However you may feel about this, 8 people now know what is involved in the proposition known as pork chops and can make a more informed decision than the vast majority of Americans. The only obscenity I found in the adventure is that some of them had grand kids before they reached their present level of awareness.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 05 Apr 2010 #permalink

Yes, it's really not that difficult. See one chicken done (if you have a grandmother or dad like mine you are in business, otherwise go find somebody). Extrapolate. Everybody looks very much the same inside the skin.

Our cuts of lamb or whatever don't look much like the ones in the charts but taste about the same. But learn to keep knives sharp and away from fingers. YMMV.

risa b

The issue isn't so much whether we can do it on farm, it is the legality of selling it, and the material conditions that you are required to sell meat in. And in New York, some of the places that handle deer can handle other animals, but some are seasonal only.


Yes, there are problems with infrastructure, all right. My friends raise their own meat. They are now feeding a steer who has been ready for slaughter for months, because they can't afford the fees to take him to the slaughterhouse. And the rumor mill has it that the slaughterhouse, the only one in our county, may be shutting down because the state doesn't have the money for inspectors any more.

Selling meat off the farm is illegal in AZ I believe. Which makes that a losing proposition. Selling chickens off the farm is definitely illegal, as is selling raw milk unless it's for pets. I used to buy it anyway, before it got so expensive -- $13 for a gallon is right out of my budget.

And the problems with local infrastructure are also huge -- I can't sell eggs in my neighborhood due to the legal issues even though I'd like to. I only get a couple dozen a week, but still. I can't sell produce from my back yard either for the same reason.

It's frustrating.

I do wonder what is going to happen to those small scale processors if, as in AZ, the regulations keep increasing but the tax dollars to support the inspectors keeps decreasing??

We currently have to produce food & sell it exactly like drug dealers produce & market pot. Industry owns the government and has lobbied politicians, at every level, to pass laws that suppress competition. We are forced underground. It has nothing to do with public safety or health. It's government of, by, & for corporations, at the expense of the people. This being the case, we have a moral duty to subvert the system. If you think you can change such a system via grassroots activism, lotsa luck. Industry can budget a lot more for campaign contributions & outright bribes than any of us can. Even the local farmer's markets have become 'regulated' by the gestapo. So sell your eggs, meat & milk by stealth. Don't cooperate with a system as corrupt as the one that oppresses us.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 05 Apr 2010 #permalink

"The issue isn't so much whether we can do it on farm, it is the legality of selling it, and the material conditions that you are required to sell meat in."

That's why you make sure you least one county commissioner and one city council person gets to play with the Dayton winch.

After that a "variance" and license is just a formality.

Things don't have to be complicated...Kim should have dropped off some eggs to the chiropractor.

I do get your message. One of the things I always represent to the local politicos is that hauling their butts to the county farmer's market for a photo-op once a year is de riguer and while there to sign the waiting list for a free range local thanksgiving turkey.

Unfortunately the baby boomers have the grotesque impression that things are ever accomplished by waving signs and bitching incessantly. The key is to get inside local government and wiggle around until it is roomy.

The Chief County Health Official isn't going to ban your Guernsey if you name the cow after her Grandma Ethel and Ethel butters a few CCHO biscuits.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 05 Apr 2010 #permalink

Go kidz go! Sell by stealth, and get things done by prometheus' cooptation of the local bureaucrats and bigwigs. Forget about waving protest signs. Forget about venting outrage on the giant evil corps! Keep it low, keep it in the grassroots, keep it moving. :-)

Darwinsdog, I'm with you. The system is clearly broken. We can't get inside it to fix it (Prometheus, I'm impressed if you can!), so we need to work from the outside. I have not yet produced enough beyond my own needs to try this, but I keep thinking about *giving* the food away, and accepting donations to keep the production running.

The problem I see is this only works on a tiny private scale, and requires gumption to deal with the neighboring 'chiropractors'. A farm on the scale of Joel Salatin, or even Sharon's, would have a much harder time getting away with it, let alone surviving on a gift/barter economy.

This is also why I stopped calling myself a farmer. I don't need the hoops and regulations that seem to come with the title.

Instead of encouraging kids to go to college, how about encouraging them to apprentice to trades that provide *real* benefit to the community? (Not that I have anything against college, just the debt and crappy job prospects...) Quick, before all the knowledgeable 70-somethings die off!

By curiousalexa (not verified) on 05 Apr 2010 #permalink

The Stealth Farm Network

Only YOU know where your food comes from

By curiousalexa (not verified) on 05 Apr 2010 #permalink

"Instead of encouraging kids to go to college, how about encouraging them to apprentice to trades that provide *real* benefit to the community?"

Agreed. I was all about college in my day; seems like I collected degrees like people collect stamps. But I no longer recommend 'higher education' to the young. Where I work there's a poorly paid fellow whose job title is "farm & ranch laborer" who has more common sense, experience, and real world knowledge than any of the Masters & PhD level staff could ever dream of having. For a young person to just follow this guy around & learn to weld, fix tractors, do the plumbing & electrical work, etc., he knows how to do, would benefit the kid much better in the near future than any amount of formal education would serve. Hell, we have people with advanced degrees in Agro-forestry here who can't even operate a chainsaw, & in Agronomy who can't even drive a tractor!

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 05 Apr 2010 #permalink

One of the secrets of local government is to be funny. Being a code enforcement officer or assistant city attorney can be mind numbingly boring.

When Mrs. Gottrocks thought it would be adorable to have a couple of hens that kept wandering onto the golf course my wife handled it with exchanges like this....

"Unless you are prepared to pay for the genetic testing, and Rick I do believe the burden is on the city, I have an affidavit from a veterinarian that says what you are calling "chickens" are parakeets with a gland disorder which as you know are..........."

"Okay 'Bride'. I guess we can cook up some kind of non-livestock pet license for Sheila's chickens but tell her if she gets more than three we will cite her for having too many dogs then you can prove....."


Actually it was less complicated. She did that to joke with the city attorney and then agreed to a no-prosecute deal because a city park was full of ducks and geese (Hello...decorative livestock...hypocrites).

By Prometheus (not verified) on 05 Apr 2010 #permalink

I think there is a little too much blame on corporations and not enough on government in this post and comments. Yes food inspection was placed because of extremely poor sanitation practices. But those sanitation regulations create a huge barrier to entry for slaughterhouses or dairy processing plants. In the state I work in, a small slaughterhouse for livestock was built. To meet the food safety regulations so that the meat could be USDA inspected requires that millions of dollars be spent. Even with that, the slaughterhouse went out of business within 2 years because too many restaurants did not pay after the slaughterhouse owner extended too much credit to the restaurants. Now the plant has been foreclosed, gutted and auctioned off.

So while slaughterhouses that are USDA inspected are in short supply, custom slaughter houses are in decent supply. the difference being that if I am a farmer, I can sell a customer a whole or half of a live animal and then customer can have that animal slaughtered at a custom facility that is not USDA inspected. If I as a farmer want to be able to sell meat, then the plant must be USDA inspected.

My stop gap solution would be to allow each farm premises to sell a certain amount of animal units (1 cow is not 1 chicken, so the number would scale based upon species) as meat even if the animal was slaughtered on the farm or at a custom kill facility. However, there would need to be strict liability so that the customer could not sue if the meat made them sick.

Mike - In the long run, you are right that we need to become both a less regulated and a less litigious society, which in practice means "caveat emptor." Not sure that it's a good strategy to combine the two issues, though. If you say that making on-farm slaughter work will require a change of rules so that customers who get sick can't sue, many people will interpret this as saying that on-farm slaughter may increase the risk that you will get sick - so why allow it at all? I suspect you mean that even though the small farmer's meat is much cleaner, he could be bankrupted by a single lawsuit while a big producer wouldn't even notice a dozen suits, so he needs special protection. I'm sympathetic, but I also think that the only thing the little guy really has to offer is the perception of higher quality, and special protection destroys that perception. I wouldn't sue a restaurant at which I got sick - but I wouldn't want to eat at a local diner that made me sign a waiver before ordering, either.

"However, there would need to be strict liability so that the customer could not sue if the meat made them sick."

I think you mean a waiver and disclaimer of strict liability by the customer.

I'm not sure how well that would work.

I kind of like the pure food and drug act and the extent to which epidemics of cattle disease are prevented by people flying within radar and bearing that liability.

I would prefer a graduated level of regulatory obligation(and licensing) tied to facility size and capacity mirrored by a greater elasticity in local ordinances.

This puts small processors back in the game with lower overhead, without compromising oversight and with limited expansion of the bureaucracy.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 05 Apr 2010 #permalink

The article leaves out fresh produce- we lack market infrastructure too. csa isn't the only way- we need more efficiency in distribution and more transparency/accountability in marketing! we have so many fake farmers selling wholesale produce claiming it's organic and no one to hold them accountable- the real farmers leave the farmers market with their cosmetically unique tomatoes and the re-sellers sell out of their grocery store fare. we know half a dozen farmers around us that are living on a shoestring trying to do it all- communicate to customers, coordinate deliveries/drop sites, peddle vegetables, grow vegetables, trying to get markets to enforce their rules. online markets are good, but coordinating deliveries and drop sites is a pain for the farmer. need more people starting collective CSA programs and more restaurants to get on board with buying local and it needs to happen now or we are going to lose some good growers.

By veggiefarmer (not verified) on 18 Jul 2010 #permalink