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As demand grows for locally raised meat, farmers turn to mobile slaughterhouses

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2010; A03

When Kathryn Thomas wanted to turn her sheep into lamb chops, the federal government required her to haul them across Puget Sound on a ferry and then drive three hours to reach a suitable slaughterhouse.

Not anymore. These days, the slaughterhouse -- and the feds -- come to her.

A 53-foot tractor-trailer rattles up to her farm on Lopez Island, the rear doors open and the sheep are led inside, where the butcher and federal meat inspector are waiting. When the job is done, the team heads out to the next farm.

The slaughtermobile -- a stainless steel industrial facility on wheels -- is catching on across the country, filling a desperate need in a burgeoning movement to bring people closer to their food. It is also perhaps one of the most visible symbols of a subtle transformation at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, long criticized for promoting big agribusiness.

Under the Obama administration and the 2008 farm bill passed by Congress, the USDA is shifting attention to small and mid-size farms, encouraging organic and sustainable agriculture, and investing in projects to bring locally grown meat and produce to consumers.

"There is unbelievable consumer interest in local agriculture that we haven't seen in decades," said Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. She is overseeing the agency's "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program, designed to revive the processing, marketing and distribution networks that once made small farming viable but disintegrated in the last 30 years as U.S. agriculture went through a dramatic consolidation.

Along with mid-size and small farms, the number of federally inspected slaughterhouses has been dropping, from 1,627 in 1980 to 1,051 in 2010, according to the USDA. Today, four corporations slaughter 80 percent of the cattle in the United States. In Wyoming, for example, where cattle ranching is so iconic that license plates carry an image of a cowboy, there is no longer a single slaughterhouse inspected by either the federal or state government. Instead, ranchers ship cattle across state lines to megaprocessors, where cows are usually fattened on grain and fed antibiotics before they are slaughtered in facilities that process up to 3,000 animals a day.

"There are farming operations that are really big and do huge volumes of food and that's part of American agriculture and that's good," Merrigan said. "But there are a lot of people who want to do alternative markets, and we want to find a way to help them find a living and stay in rural America and help those towns and villages thrive. This really is a rural development strategy."

The agency is promoting small meat producers in part by funding and approving more mobile slaughter units, staffing each one with a federal inspector, educating farmers and USDA employees about the units, and setting clear guidelines for farmers who want to build one. In December, the department set up a toll-free help line dedicated to small producers.

A cultural shift

Most people in this country are not likely to eat meat processed in a mobile slaughterhouse, but the USDA's promotion of the units marks a significant cultural shift at the agency, especially since Earl Butz, the agriculture secretary from 1971 to 1976, famously admonished farmers to "get big or get out."

The change coincides with a backlash against factory farms, fueled by concerns about animal welfare, impact on the environment and quality and safety of meat. Consumers are increasingly demanding grass-fed beef, pork and lamb raised on local pastures by farmers who can vouch for the animals' diet and treatment. The USDA estimates that the market for locally grown food will be about $7 billion by 2012, up steeply from $4 billion in 2002.

But there is a bottleneck in the system: a lack of slaughterhouses that can work with small farmers. Most big slaughterhouses require farmers to book appointments far in advance, sometimes as long as 18 months. That's difficult for a small farmer raising animals in pastures, where weather and other variables can affect their growth and readiness for slaughter. But without a federal or state inspection seal, or a special exemption allowed by some states, meat cannot be sold.

The USDA approved the first mobile slaughter unit for Lopez Island in 2002 and has certified eight others across the country for large animals -- cattle, sheep and pigs. A group of about 20 farmers in Western Maryland will meet with the USDA later this month to discuss bringing a mobile slaughterhouse to Washington, Carroll and Frederick counties.

"People want to buy their stuff locally and they want to buy it from you instead of the counter at Safeway or Food Lion or from some anonymous slaughterhouse that stuffed it full of antibiotics so it wouldn't get sick," said Dick Stoner, who raises black angus cattle on a farm in Sharpsburg, Md., near the Antietam Civil War battlefield.

Like neighboring farmers, Stoner sells some cattle to bulk slaughterhouses in the West. He has been consumed with the idea of a slaughtermobile ever since he heard Merrigan give a talk six months ago. "We've got all these farms within an hour and a half. All we have to do is connect the buyers in the city with these farms and figure out a way to get the meat to them."

At roughly $250,000, a basic slaughtermobile costs about one-fourth of a permanent facility and is likely to face less opposition from the community. "No one wants to live next to a slaughterhouse," Stoner said. "So getting a new one built, even on a farm, is almost out of the question."

Bruce Dunlop, an engineer and farmer on Lopez Island who designed the mobile slaughter unit there, has gotten so many inquiries from other farmers that he launched a side business and has built nine others. "I get calls and e-mails every week, from farmers all over the world," Dunlop said.

'Just one strategy'

Farmers point out that there are still significant barriers. Slaughtermobiles have to meet the same federal sanitary standards as permanent slaughterhouses, which is costly, and they come with particular challenges, such as a need for potable water and a way to dispose of animal waste. Farmers must form cooperatives to purchase and operate the units. And once the animal is slaughtered, the carcass still has to be brought to a packing house for cutting and wrapping before the meat can be sold.

"Mobile slaughter units are a bit of a quick fix," said Joe Cloud, a landscape architect who joined farmer Joel Salatin -- celebrated among the "locavore" movement -- to buy a small slaughterhouse in the Shenandoah Valley in 2007 that was about to shut down. Their operation, T&E Meats, is so busy they are turning away business.

"You still need to cut up the meat, you need saws, grinders, stuffers, vacuum packers, smokehouses, curing areas, drying units and all of these things that take a lot of space," Cloud said. "I just don't see how we're going to rebuild the local community-based system using mobile units."

Merrigan agrees. "This is just one strategy," she said.

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