A majority of the beef and pork Americans get today is processed by just four companies. Fifty years ago, this was not the case: several small, independent meat processors and packers serviced local markets.
Growing interest in local food prompted a study by the UI Livestock and Small Farms Project on the feasibility of small-scale meat processing facilities in north Idaho. At the Clearwater Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) Council’s Sept. 27 meeting, keynote speaker Darin Saul, Associate Director of the UI Office of Community Partnerships, reported the results of this 14-county study.
Saul said the study encompassed the Riggins area up to the Canadian border, plus four counties in Washington State that border Idaho. It revealed that 60 percent of those surveyed consider locally-available food more important than any other factor, including whether the food is organic. And 87 percent of those surveyed considered local meat processing to be somewhat to very important.
Creating and maintaining local meat processing facilities is most dependent on what people involved in the industry have the interest and energy to make happen.
To sell to local outlets, the processing facility must be USDA inspected. The profit potential for USDA inspected and processed meat (known as value-added) is up to four times higher than that of custom-exempt (not USDA inspected and therefore not for resale). Most custom-exempt shops supplement their main business by processing wild game, smoking meats, and making sausage.
There were only two USDA-inspected meat processing facilities participating in the study: Woods, in Sandpoint, and UI Meats. Both facilities provide services from slaughter to packaging, and the meat can then be sold in grocery stores, restaurants, farmers markets, and other commercial outlets.
The steps required to become USDA-compliant are a lot for small processors to handle.
Because processing availability in north Idaho is presently so limited, many livestock producers have simply shut down, or drastically reduced the number of animals they raise.
It would cost approximately $2M to get one new meat processing plant up and running.
Lack of labor is another concern. Several meat processing plants have closed in the last five years because the owner wanted to retire and couldn’t find a buyer, although the business was profitable. Simply finding workers to cut and wrap the meat is difficult.
Local meat isn’t available seasonally, because most livestock producers keep the same calving times.
Livestock producers want to retain ownership of their animals through the entire process. Right now small producers lose ownership once the animal is sold at auction, while producers with a large number of head keep ownership of their animals, and therefore earn profit even after the animals are auctioned.
A processing cooperative, to share marketing and other tasks, is perhaps the most viable and most favored solution to some of these concerns. Ninety-two percent of those surveyed were interested in a cooperative, though smaller operations were concerned with having to spend time participating in the cooperative instead of working.
Cattle Producers of Washington in Odessa, WA and North Cascade Meat Processing Association in Bellingham, WA are examples of the trend of ranchers forming a USDA-inspected meat processing cooperative.
Providing financial incentives to producers who would stagger calving times to provide meat year-round—such as discounts on processing—could help with seasonal availability of meat.
Building up current plants to meet increased processing needs might reduce the need for new processing plants. Many custom-exempt shops have room for more processing. They could do custom-exempt processing for part of the week, and value-added for part of the week.
On Nov. 5 a meeting will be held in Moscow, where Saul says the project will share results of the study and, more importantly, see if people are willing to consider strategies for expanding processing and marketing livestock.
Filling in for Joe Dupont, the originally scheduled speaker, Clearwater County Economic Development Council Director Loren Whitten-Kaboth reported to Clearwater RC&D on the 55-acre Deyo Reservoir’s progress.
The Deyo Reservoir, Wetlands, and Recreation area is moving along well, but no exact date of completion has been announced. One cause of delay is unfinished repair of two cracks in the reservoir’s 35-foot dam.
Wetlands are being added to the east side. A pavilion (for weddings and other events), paved boat ramps, six floating docks, three restroom houses, and gravel road access have been or are in the process of being added. The pavilion is ready for its metal roofing, which was scheduled to arrive Sept. 27.
Major maintenance needs would be handled by the same IDFG staff that services Deer Creek and Campbell’s Pond, so no additional manpower would be needed, and any added cost would be minor.
Road, boat ramp, and dock maintenance would typically occur on a 10-plus year rotation. These costs would be covered by the motorboat access program, which is well-funded with 15% mandatory allocation of the annual Dingell-Johnson fund apportionment. Dingell-Johnson provides federal funds for sport fish restoration.
Enforcement and fishery management of Deyo Reservoir would also be covered by the same staff that currently exists.
Additional needs for the reservoir, such as scenic walkways, hiking trails, campgrounds, and campground hosts, would not be provided by IDFG. Friends of the Deyo Reservoir are willing to seek other funds to develop these things, with assistance from the local recreation district.
Campground user fees might also be charged to fund these activities.
Mike Hanna, representing Idaho Senator Jim Risch’s office, reported to Clearwater RC&D that the 2012 USDA Farm Bill has yet to be approved by Congress.
Not much legislation is being passed of late, Hanna said. The Farm Bill has gone through several revisions, and Congress is deeply divided over how much to cut food stamps. Dairy farmers have been hit especially hard.
It is unclear when a new bill may be approved. The bill has already been deemed a continuing resolution a number of times, which Hanna equated to kicking a can down the road.
The 2008 farm bill expired Sept. 30. If a new bill isn’t passed, or the 2008 bill isn’t extended, federal price supports revert to their 1949 levels. Several important subsidies may also disappear.
Hanna also reported that a bill to fund wildfire fighting efforts will be passed. Money from budgets has been taken to fund firefighting efforts during this rampant wildfire season.