Washington State University

Small Farms Team

Interested in agriculture on the San Jaun Islands?

Turn to the Lopez Island Community Land Trust's Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development Program

San Juan Farmers' Plan is a Cut Above

By Lynda V. Mapes

Seattle Times staff reporter, Seattle Times, Monday, November 26, 2001
Lynda V. Mapes can be reached at 206-464-2736 and lmapes@seattletimes.com

LOPEZ ISLAND, San Juan County - It's illegal for farmer Terry Swagerty to sell his neighbor a lamb chop. But that may soon change.

Consumers could be able to buy meat – by the cut – directly from Washington farmers under a new approach to meat processing developed by San Juan Island farmers. At the center of the $150,000 project is a "mobile meat-processing unit," a 26–foot long trailer that carries a state-of-the art facility for slaughtering livestock on the farm to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)standards.

The unit is intended to open new markets for farmers and create more options for consumers interested in buying locally raised beef, pork, lamb, and even goat, buffalo and ostrich by the cut.

"Right now I have to take my lambs and jam them on a truck and drive them 14 to 18 hours to Dixon, Calif.," said Swagerty, who also grows peaches, apples and pears.

"It is stupid to raise an animal in Stevens County and send it to California. And who knows where it goes from there." Because of federal regulations, Washington farmers can only sell their meat directly by the whole, half or quarter animal. Few people have the desire or space for that much meat.

On-farm, USDA-inspected slaughter would enable Washington farmers to sell meat by the cut directly to restaurants, retailers and individuals.

Marcia Ostrom, small-farms program director for Washington State University's research and extension center in Puyallup, sees an array of benefits."This gives local producers access to local retail markets by the cut. And for the consumer, it provides better choice in products." Selling direct also could mean more money in farmers' pockets – and that could help keep more farmers on the land.

"Right now farmers get about 15 cents on the dollar," Ostrom said. "If they sell directly to the consumer they get the whole food dollar back. And the best remedy to farmland loss is profitable farming enterprises."

The project is gaining state and national attention, said Sandy Wood, executive director of the Lopez Community Land Trust, the developer of the project and owner of the mobile unit. "There is tremendous interest in supporting small farms."

The unit will be leased and operated by Island Grown Farmers Cooperative, a group of 20 farmers from the San Juans.

Steady supplies?

Some retailers and restaurant operators see a ready market for locally raised meat, even if it costs more.

"It still has to be competitively priced, but I will pay 10 to 15 percent more for the local or regional product," said Tom Douglas, a chef and owner of Etta's Seafood, Dahlia Lounge and Palace Kitchen, all in Seattle.

"The more local, the more sustainably produced the better, and the more we can put back in the small farmer's pocket the better. I buy a lot of meat from the conglomerates but something like this would be fantastic. I would feature it on the menu."

While many retail customers shop by price alone, others like knowing how their meat was raised and where it came from, said Lee Pate, meat and seafood merchandiser for PCC Natural Markets.

" 'Mad-cow,' hoof-and-mouth disease – those things make people want the cleanest possible products," Pate said. "No hormones, no antibiotics, and locally produced is all the better."

The stores feature Oregon Country Beef, raised without antibiotics or hormones in Oregon, lamb from Oregon, and pork from Iowa. PCC's meat sales are up 22.5 percent overall since last year. Some customers will pay as much as $9.99 a pound for the organic pork chops, Pate said.

He predicted the biggest challenge for the farmers cooperative won't be finding a market but consistently producing enough product to supply stores and restaurants. "I think it's feasible. I think it's a lot of work. And I think they will need to start small."

How It Would Work

These sheep, fat and woolly in their winter coats, close their eyes and munch their morning ration of hay under the watchful eye of Rambo the ram, king of Bruce Dunlop's Lopez Island pasture.

The sheep are oblivious to the gleaming trailer a stone's throw from their breakfast in which they may eventually meet their demise: the mobile-processing unit. The 16,000-pound trailer is brand new, one-of-a-kind and, inside, stainless steel throughout. A generator provides electricity for refrigeration, and it has hot and cold running water and lighting.

Animals intended for slaughter will be killed at the farm, bled outside, then brought inside the trailer to be skinned, butchered to a carcass and eviscerated. The innards will be hauled off and disposed of by a rendering company, or composted by the farmer.

U.S. taxpayers would pay for USDA inspection of the animals and carcasses. The farmers pay for use of the mobile unit. The co-op hopes to gain USDA approval for operation of the mobile unit by the end of the year, said Dunlop, who is managing development of the project for the land trust.

The butchering section of the unit will be washed down after carcasses are moved on an overhead conveyor track to another, refrigerated section of the trailer. It is designed to temporarily store the carcasses of six to 10 steers or hogs and up to 30 sheep. Chickens aren't an option; they require different processing equipment.

The carcasses will then be trucked to USDA-licensed butcher facilities off the island where individual pieces of meat will be cut and wrapped for sale. The farmer pays for that service. The meat may then be shipped directly from the cutting facility to customers, or the farmer may return to collect and store it for marketing.

The mobile unit is envisioned as the first phase of a larger Center for Sustainable Agriculture on Lopez that eventually may include a cut-and-wrap facility on the island. But first come several basic tasks.

The Hurdles Ahead

The unit is the first of its kind in the country and presents a host of questions for regulators, said Helmut Blume, district director based in Salem, Ore., for the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the USDA.

"I will be supportive of innovative ideas, but I also need to look at the feasibility of it," Blume said. "The facility itself would probably be a feasible thing to do, but the use of our inspector's manpower is what gives me heartburn. Will he spend more time traveling than inspecting? I'm obliged to watch the taxpayer's dollar."

The co-op must also attract enough business – about 2,000 slaughtered animals a year - for the unit to pay for itself. The $150,000 spent on the project so far came from government grants and private donations. The co-op needs to double or triple its membership for the project to work. "The biggest issue facing the co-op is having enough members and volume soon enough to make this self-sustaining," said Dunlop. "The challenge is getting where we need to be quickly enough."

The Way It Was
Vern Coffelt, 71, remembers when he used to have lots of options for selling his lambs. A third-generation farmer, he works a 200-acre farm on Orcas Island. He remembers a network of small slaughterhouses around the Puget Sound region, and even several in San Juan County. Buyers would also come right to his door at the farm, to make an offer on his sheep. If he didn't like it, he could hold onto his animals and wait for a better price. "That doesn't happen anymore," Coffelt said. Instead, the meat-processing and packing industry has consolidated, locally and nationally.

Farmers have only about six firms offering USDA processing to choose from across Washington. That forces them to make long drives to take their animals directly to a processor. For the San Juans, the nearest processor that offers USDA inspection is in Chehalis.

Coffelt said farmers need innovations like the mobile unit to stay in business."People are already spending money for food," said Swagerty. "What we have to do is align things so that people who raise food can sell it to our neighbors. "What a novel idea. One hundred years ago we were feeding each other. Well, maybe we can do it again."

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