Keep wheels turning on local meat processing dilemma

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This pandemic year of farming has been something else. But farmers shouldn't expect the difficulties to go away when the calendar flips to 2021. (Courtesy of Blue Heron Farms)

In a normal year, we could load lambs onto our truck and drive them to one of a half dozen processors within an hour of our farm, all of which are either federally or state inspected facilities. The result: tasty lamb cuts ready and waiting for our customers, often within a few weeks of scheduling an appointment.

There is nothing normal about this year though. Like everyone else, weeks after the lockdown, we found normal avenues to slaughter and process our lambs for direct sales closed off or scheduled out months in advance. It’s taken some maneuvering, but we’ve found a situation that allows us to continue meeting our direct sales needs. But the crunch is real.

Booked up

At one local processor, the cancellation waiting list, especially for beef, is five notebook pages long. It’s not the first time I’ve heard that. Most dates slotted in at this point are theoretical. Hogs scheduled to be slaughtered haven’t even been born yet.

In an informal survey of six local slaughtering and butchering facilities, almost all reported being booked out until 2022 for beef. Most have the majority of 2021 booked for pork as well. Lambs and goats are slotted in as they are able. One has already made the decision to stop taking lambs. There is no timetable on when, or if, they will resume taking them.

And it’s this phenomenon that I want to focus on, because while this year has been quite a wakeup call in almost every area of our lives, it’s not over yet, and won’t magically switch back to factory settings when the ball drops and ushers in 2021.

Processing dilemma

As Rachel Wagoner discusses, in her reporting on the meat processing conundrum, the difficulties smaller scale processors face aren’t new — finding skilled labor and navigating the regulatory labyrinth, among others — but they are magnified now. Processors want to support their local farmers. But they are also businesses, trying to make ends meet, as so many struggling local businesses are these days.

As farmers raising animals for consumption, we cannot think the logistics surrounding the local food supply chain are going to magically flip back to what it was like pre-pandemic. We need to work with our processors going forward, and, perhaps, even start thinking more like pandemic era processors ourselves.

Sounds exhausting, right? Recently, a farmer asked on Twitter why it seemed like her mind never turned off. Working, farming, raising a family. It’s all intertwined. It’s a part of our identity. I’ve experienced it, and I’ve seen it with those in creative fields like journalism and in non profits and missions work. In order to make a go of it though, that’s what we have to do. Think of all of the angles. Be nimble.

The future?

Our processor was very frank with us when lamb processing rates increased recently. They had processed several beef and more than a dozen lambs the week before. They still made more money on the beef.

In that informal survey of the local processors, I asked what kill and processing fees were for beef, hogs and lambs or goats. Let’s figure an average $85 kill fee for beef, and 60 cents per pound hanging weight for processing a whole or half. For hogs, let’s figure an average of $45 kill fee and 60 cents per pound hanging weight (not including the value added expenses of things like ham and bacon). Lambs or goats are usually a set fee for everything, so let’s go with $100.

Take, for example, a processor moving through four beef, with an average hanging weight of 630 pounds; eight hogs, with an average of 189 pounds hanging weight; and 12 lambs in a given week. The animal making the most money for the processor is beef. The animal making the least amount of money is the lamb.

Most processors are still taking all species, but I wonder how long it will be before others start making decisions to focus on the large animals for the sake of efficiency.

As we’ve gone through this process, much like anyone else who is growing animals for slaughter and consumption these days, we’ve seen some opportunities expand and others contract or disappear. More people want to buy locally. I think the shock of seeing empty shelves at the grocery store meat counter had a lot to do with it. We’ve seen an increase in direct sales. But at the same time, potential wholesale avenues we’d been exploring dried up. For a farm our size, diversification even outside of direct sales is important. While I hope those avenues aren’t completely out of the picture for good, our goal is to make more money per lamb.

Hard look

So, as a sheep farmer, I want to take a hard look at our own processing logistics to continue to promote direct sales. Can it be done more efficiently? Do we have any contingencies in place if we find ourselves priced out of local processors? The cost isn’t assessed to us; it’s normally assessed to the customer. But will there come a time that the cost drives customers back to the grocery store shelves?

Recently, my mother and I were kicking around the idea of a mobile processing unit targeting small animal slaughter. Anything from lambs, goats and pigs to chickens and other birds. I have no idea if it’s a viable option, but it doesn’t hurt to consider it.

Federally, legislators are talking about how to improve the local processing scene. State governments and universities are offering more options for folks looking to get into processing, and it seems more folks are interested in opening facilities, in both Ohio and Pennsylvania. Farm Science Review even hosted virtual sessions on how to process your own animals for your use.

The wheels are turning. It’s up to us farmers to keep them moving.

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Farm and Dairy Editor-in-Chief Rebecca Miller was tapped to lead the newsroom in 2019. A veteran journalist, dog wrangler and traveler, she lives on a 220-acre, 325-ewe commercial sheep farm in Lisbon, Ohio, which she runs in partnership with her mother. She can be reached at 330-817-6179 or editor@farmanddairy.com.

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