An intriguing piece appeared recently online on the WillametteLive website. Although the report focused on the situation in Oregon, it could apply to any of a dozen different states.
The focus of the article, titled, “Who cut the MEAT? -Local, sustainable meat industry faces challenges,” was on the challenges facing producers and meat marketers involved in that state’s direct-to-consumer marketing channel.
“Pay a visit to any farmers’ market in Oregon and you could easily assume that local ranchers are doing just fine,” the story began. “You might see your local pig farmer sitting at an attractive booth, interacting with customers and making sales. While it appears to be a rosy picture, Oregon’s direct-to-consumer meat industry is actually dealing with several challenges that could put ranchers and slaughter facilities at risk.”
It wasn’t too difficult to guess what those problems are: Lack of shackle space at a smaller, locally situated packing plant—due to a lack of smaller plants—and an absence of rendering facilities in-state.
Both conditions stem from the same source, industry concentration. As large, high-speed packing plants were built (and later expanded) in the Midwest in the 1980s and 1990s, the competitive status of many small, regional plants was compromised.
“Improvements in technology … have made it possible [for the four biggest companies] to efficiently process large numbers of animals,” Jerry Gardner, Oregon Department of Agriculture Business Development Manager, stated. “Small-scale meat processors have not been able to compete.”
Gardner noted that Oregon’s remaining packing plants handle about 40,000 head a year, which is about two weeks’ worth of production for the larger Midwestern beef plants.
According to USDA statistics, there are only nine federally inspected meat plants left in Oregon, and although there are 1.3 million head of cattle, 670,000 dairy and beef cows, 264,000 sheep and lambs and 13,000 hogs, less than 5% of all the state’s livestock are processed under USDA inspection. That’s not good for smaller ranchers, farmers and feeders looking to sell their meat directly to the market segment interested in locally grown foods.
Truth is, the demand for locally raised meat far exceeds capacity—not in terms of the numbers of beef, dairy cattle or heritage pigs, but in terms of producers being able to cost-effectively process them without having to bear the costs for out-of-state transport.