Old MacDonald Wouldn't Recognize This Farm

Farmers across the country struggle to revamp their business as the average cost of meat sinks below the climbing cost of raising an animal. In St. Mary's County farmer Jim Moore decreases the number of cattle in his heard and begins raising alpacas to sustain the crunch.
By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 3, 2009

Jim Moore has slowly sold off the animals that once made up his St. Mary's County farm. First went nearly all of his 30 hogs. Then, late last year, he got rid of 17 of his 30 cows. In their place are more than two dozen long-haired alpacas, reminders that difficult times have forced him and other livestock producers to adapt.

The alpacas eat less than traditional farm animals, and their cashmere-like wool can be harvested without hauling them to a slaughterhouse. Moore escorts them to dog-show-like conventions, where the quality of their wool is judged.

"Here I am, a big, burly farm boy, in the show ring with an alpaca," Moore said. "I get razzed pretty good by my friends."

The economy and other factors have forced many livestock producers to virtually halt or dramatically refashion their operations. Nearly all of the few dozen producers in Southern Maryland have cut the number of animals they raise by at least half or gotten rid of their animals altogether, agricultural officials said.

Last year, feed prices shot up, mostly because of new demand for corn and soybeans to produce ethanol. Record-high gas prices during the summer made a trip to a slaughterhouse more expensive. Drought drove up the price of hay and made it scarce until late summer.

And after livestock producers invested more than usual in raising their animals, they were met with lower-than-usual prices at market. Not wanting to lose any more money, many turned their attention to other sources of income: greenhouse-grown vegetables, grain, specialty animals such as alpacas, agri-tourism or jobs off the farm.

"It's economics 101," said Mike Russell, a St. Mary's soil conservation engineer who works closely with farmers and livestock producers. "They have no other choice. They weren't making any money. They are not out of the business completely, but as the economy changes, they are cutting back."

It could be a while before the cost of raising animals evens out with the income that can be made by selling them. Adding to the problem: The recession has pushed many people to cut back on steak dinners, said Mike Brannon, director of operations at Roseda Beef, based north of Baltimore. Although Roseda did not cut back on production last year, the farm is considering doing so in 2009.

"Everyone wants bargains right now," Brannon said. "Anytime you see something agricultural on sale, someone somewhere is losing money. And it's usually the farmer."

In recent years, demand for locally raised meat has grown, driven by meat contamination scares, the trendiness of buying local and ethnic groups in search of mutton and goat meat.

"Plus, there's the taste," said Donna Sasscer, St. Mary's agriculture and seafood development manager. "Once you've tasted local meat, you can taste the difference."

But the logistics and expenses involved in raising animals for slaughter in Southern Maryland are daunting. Federal regulations require any meat that is to be sold to be processed in a facility certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Maryland's few USDA-approved slaughterhouses are in the northern part of the state, and some producers find it easier to travel to Pennsylvania or Virginia.

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