Infrastructural troubles

February 22, 2008


Last week, the release of disturbing video footage taken inside an industrial slaughterhouse and the subsequent USDA recall of more than 143 million pounds of ground beef gave even the least food-fearful a reason to consider where their sustenance comes from and how it is raised. In the face of growing uncertainty about the safety and security of our food supply, the accountability and traceability that farmers’ markets offer seem increasingly vital. Unfortunately, some of the small, local farms that supply alternatives to industrial food are threatened by their own slaughtering and processing woes.

David Evans of Marin Sun Farms trucks the animals he raises in the Point Reyes National Seashore to three different USDA-certified facilities for slaughter: cattle to Petaluma, pigs to Orland, and sheep to Dixon. Since its heyday as a dairy- and egg-producing region, the North Bay has seen the closure of numerous slaughterhouses. Rancho Veal Corporation, one of the last remaining Bay Area facilities (where David and many others have their cattle slaughtered), has for years now been on the brink of selling its land to developers. The real estate slump is buying local ranchers some time, but when Rancho finally does close its doors, many will be forced to truck their cattle to the Central Valley for slaughter. The longer journey will increase stress on the animals, demands on farmers’ time, and, ultimately, the cost of their meat.

Once they slaughter animals, few facilities process the meat: carcasses are generally cut and wrapped at separate locations. In David’s ideal world, a local facility would slaughter, cut, and package multiple species, and maybe even market them, too. This, though, is unlikely. As a business proposition, slaughterhouses are unattractive to investors. New facilities cost millions of dollars to construct, receive strong opposition from surrounding communities, have to contend with scores of federal and state regulations, and when they are finally up and running, don’t generate that much money. Some innovative solutions, like mobile abattoirs, have been successful in other states, but no one has yet been able to get one approved in California.

Ranchers are not the only food producers for whom processing is a difficult hurdle. Says rice grower Greg Massa of Massa Organics, “Processing is probably my biggest challenge.” When he and his family decided five years ago that they wanted to sell their organic brown rice directly to eaters, their first step was to find a mill that would hull, sort, clean, and package their harvest. Most mills are owned by huge companies that purchase and distribute the grain they process and don’t have the capacity or desire to mill small batches that must be “identity preserved” and returned to the farmer. Luckily, Greg had an acquaintance who owned a small mill that could accommodate his needs, and Massa Organics became the only rice farm in California to sell at farmers’ markets.

This year, Massa Organics has decided to expand their offerings and in June, they will be harvesting several tons of wheat. Though Greg and Raquel are excited to bring wheat berries and flour to the farmers’ market, there is still one big kink they have to work out. Greg hasn’t yet begun the search for a mill that can clean and grind their harvest, but he is already anticipating difficulties.

Processing is also the principal barrier keeping Massa Organics from raising ducks. Though the birds are great weeders, thrive in rice fields, and are in high demand, Greg is not sure where he would have them slaughtered. According to John Lagier of Lagier Ranches, Greg’s concern is valid. John decided to raise geese on his farm last year, but when it came time to kill the 40 birds, he couldn’t find a processor that would slaughter fewer than 200 birds. USDA regulations allow on-farm slaughter for poultry, so John killed the geese himself but, he says, “That was definitely not my first choice.”

A food system comprises agricultural systems, their economic, social, cultural, and technological and infrastructural support systems, and systems of distribution and consumption. For our local food system to thrive, all of these components must be strong. The construction of processing infrastructure that will better serve the needs of small farms will take innovation, cooperation and capital. And though the answers to this conundrum are not immediately apparent, the power of a critical mass of eaters demanding local products from small farms, and of farmers demanding processing facilities that can accommodate their needs, are the keys to uncovering a viable solution.

Please support local small farmers in their endeavors by purchasing their products and by sharing your appreciation when you see them at the farmers’ market!

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