Reports & Papers

Six Months in the Meat Business: A Field of Dreams

By Rebecca Frimmer

When I first saw the RFP (request for proposals) from Southern Tier West Regional Planning and Development Board (STW RPDB) back in October, I knew this was a project for me. It was the perfect blend of field research and business analysis to keep things interesting, and offer a unique perspective on an epidemic industry problem in a specific geographic region. I also felt compelled to get involved with this project because it connected me with a family legacy – my grandmother’s five brothers were all involved in the meat processing business, running two plants in the Williamsport area until they retired over a decade ago. I felt that this family history would help me to remain fair-handed, and not necessarily bias the results of our research in the direction of the farmers’ favors, which would be easy for a farmer advocate to do. One of the most difficult tasks when conducting research to develop recommendations is to remain even and unbiased; and avoid leading your research subjects in any certain direction.

STW RPDB was looking for assistance in assessing the state of the local meat processing industry from the perspective of “values-based livestock” farmers. So this meant smaller farms that were raising species on pasture, and may use marketing terms like “grass-fed”, “pasture-raised”, “organic”, or “humanely-raised”. What we were looking to discover was whether or not the region was truly pressed against its capacity for throughput, and what we could do to ensure the capacity was there for the future of these small to medium sized farms. A lot of local farmers were complaining about their processing resources to STW RPDB – the ages-old farmer vs. butcher battle was raging on alive and well in the STW region – which is how this movement for research got started, and is a similar story heard by other organizations.

When thinking about how to break up this project, there was so much to cover. Surveying as many farms as we could from a list of 50 farms. Visiting processors and getting them to open up would be another challenge. We were able to put together an amazing team of field experts with livestock farming and meat processing experience, and subject matter experts in value chain facilitation and local food marketing. I was able to gain perspective by interviewing 17 livestock farmers in the region and 12 processing plants, five of which I was able to tour and see the differences in process between aging plants and newer plants, and even chat with some USDA inspectors. After doing statistical analysis on all of our survey questions (to avoid bias), we finally opened the scope of information and started talking to other organizations focusing on the local meat processing problem – and found they were all coming to the same conclusions. It was an incredible experience to corroborate our stores with The Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network, The Northeast Livestock Processing Service Company, Glynwood, The Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Corporation, and so many more, and hear that they are finding similar assessments around the country.

While there is a loud outcry in the field from farmers that more modern, humane, organic, clean, dry-aging, expert-butchery processing facilities are needed, the truth is that the best thing we can do from an industry development standpoint is make sure the processors that are in business stay in business. We need to make sure they know how to do the right business analysis and create value for their customers by working together to get to the same results – a strong industry for local meat. Essentially, the farmers are totally dependent on the processors to get product to market the way they want it, labeled as grass-fed or organic, or with nitrate-free curing, or whatever else their customer desires. On the flip side, the processors are totally dependent on a manufacturing business model where every change in process costs something, and someone needs to be willing to pay for that, which isn’t always the case.

The easy solution, the “Field of Dreams” solution as I like to call it (if you build it, they will come), only works in Kevin Costner movies about baseball. Building a brand new, state-of-the-art plant facility costs millions of dollars, and won’t solve all the problems. Nitrate-free curing will still cost extra. Organic handling will still cost extra. The plant will still be farther away than some farmers would like it to be. The business will still struggle to find and train qualified butchers that won’t make a $300 mistake with the slip of a knife. It also fails to solve the problem of supply and demand; a brand new plant will likely put other plants out of business unless it’s being co-built with a supplier or distributor in need of massive amounts of product. And it’s not reasonable for non-profit economic development organizations to build and run manufacturing plants. It requires the essential element often missing from public projects – a passionate, driven entrepreneur that will work day and night to figure out how to make this business a success.

The harder solution, which is much grittier and involves complicated problem solving, is to figure out how to get technical and business assistance into the processing facilities that are aging out with no succession plan, or serve a good portion of the region but are unsure about their profit margins and are terrified to raise their prices. This requires funding that is harder to secure, because it’s not directly for shiny, new, hard assets that can be used as collateral; also, the plants are small, and individual plant impacts are hard to quantify and make a case for funding. However what happens when we address lifting up multiple plants in a region as a network, is that the impact becomes more visible and the reach more impressive to funders.

As a person who works in the agriculture industry, I often delight in, and take for granted, the multitude of educational and enrichment resources we have at our fingertips. Whether it’s a PASA conference, or a PA Woman’s Agricultural Network field day, or an Extension seminar via Penn State, we have lots of places to go for help and networking. We have a forum where we can meet other farmers and agriculture experts and talk about our problems, look for common ground, and reach out for tried and true solutions. In the meat processing industry, this is not the case. Visiting processors only an hour away from each other, I discovered that they’d never met or seen each other’s facility. Nor had they discussed their USDA challenges or bookkeeping tricks of the trade, or call each other when in need of a new employee.

What bothered me most about the discoveries made during this six-month process is that we’ve entirely left the processors out of the sustainable agriculture movement. We have not invited them in on roundtable discussions or facilitated tours, or workshops on how to know if you’re profitable. By leaving them out of the movement, they often don’t know that they’re a part of something bigger, and don’t have our frame of reference on how the demand is swelling for certain products that they produce. They simply just don’t understand that we would never take a woodlot pork product and coat it with GMO ingredients, because it impacts our ability to appeal to the customer that would pay top dollar for meats that have never been touched by chemicals on the farm.

The truth of the matter is that without our local meat processors, there is no local meat, and we – the sustainable agriculture movement at large – need to widen our perspective and start including this important link in the value chain when we think about resources to develop and strengthen the industry and the movement at large.