This is not a new problem
Friends of Family Farmers has been working to expand small producers’ access to meat processing facilities around the state for over a decade. In order to sell individual cuts of meat, farmers across the country have to use a USDA inspected facility. As of now, Oregon only has 13 of these facilities spread across the state. This has created situations where farmers now need to get processing appointments almost a year in advance, and in many cases drive several hours to bring their animals to slaughter. These extra costs and physical barriers limit the number of animals small producers can bring to market. The cost burden of USDA Inspection is not scalable for small processors, so smaller slaughter and butchery operations who often cater to family farmers are going out of business.
There are “custom exempt” butcher operations like mobile slaughter units that can offer alternatives for small scale operations. The catch is these operations can only process meat sold to customers in half or quarter shares while the animal is still alive. Read more about custom exempt butchery in OSU’s Frequently Asked Questions about the law. Although this is a valid alternative, not all farms sell meat in this way, not all customers can afford to buy and store hundreds of pounds of meat at a time, and there are not even enough of these custom facilities to meet the current demand.
COVID-19 makes things worse
Although the situation has been a problem for Oregon’s small and midsized producers for years, the pandemic has squeezed this bottleneck even tighter. With more folks turning to local food than ever for the benefits of a short supply chain and assurance that their food will be good for them and their community, this problem has come into sharper relief. As pastured meat CSAs sell out, we have heard reports around the state of processors cancelling existing appointments, pushing appointments far into the future, and most processors cannot take on new business, work with new clients or book new appointments until 2021.
This problem is twofold. This is due in part to the need to slow down processing to ensure proper time for cleaning and sanitizing equipment and distancing workers to adhere to public health guidelines. With all these facilities running at full capacity, they also need to allow their staff time to recuperate and with the expense of USDA inspectors and the lack of skilled labor, running another shift hasn’t been a viable option.
The less obvious reason for this slow down is coming to Oregon from the Midwest. On May 22, the Oregon Department of Agriculture released a statement acknowledging an influx of swine from the Midwest, where more industrial processors are shut down due to COVID-19. The back up of animals for those plants comes from conventional, factory-farmed animals and the choice for those folks was to either euthanize their animals or ship them out of state. Unfortunately, these animals do not have a proper veterinary inspection or import paperwork, may be bringing in diseases common on Midwest industrial hog farms and are edging local producers out of processing slots.
FoFF is working toward solutions
FoFF has been in conversation with the Department of Agriculture, the Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network and others on this issue to find solutions for this problem. Both the Oregon Department of Agriculture and Senator Ron Wyden’s office has sent letters to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue asking for a temporary exemption for local, custom exempt butcher operations to be able to help meet the demand of local farmers whose business models require selling individual cuts. These requests were quickly denied by Secretary Perdue.
The ODA is now starting the process to design a state inspection program that can meet the standard equal to or better than the USDA requirements. This will take time, but would allow plants to have state inspection in the future rather than the costly and complicated USDA inspection process. FoFF has been providing insight and information to ODA to ensure that this new program is developed with the needs of family farmers in mind. We want to make sure this program is scalable for small plants, allows for producers to sell their products in single cuts through the direct to consumer pathways common for family farmers (CSAs, farmers markets, etc), and will allow more facilities to open across the state.
FoFF Executive Director Shari Sirkin also gave testimony in front of the Interim Oregon House Committee on Agriculture and Land Use (HAGLU) to express to these lawmakers that the current system is squeezing small and midsized producers now more than ever, it was designed with industrial agribusiness in mind and is not built to work for small producers regardless of the pressure brought on by the pandemic. Watch Shari’s testimony here.