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Meals on Wheels
— by Lee Pitts

Fruit and vegetable farmers who see grocery stores selling the product of their toil for multiples of what they receive through traditional markets have the option of selling their produce at a local farmer´s market or a roadside stand. Until now cattlemen did not have the same option. There´s one simple reason why ranchers have difficulty selling direct to consumers: USDA inspection.

A rancher could kill his own beef and eat it but he could not sell it to consumers or restaurants without USDA inspection, and that takes place primarily at plants which are owned by a dwindling number of large firms. What was needed was an establishment that could harvest a smaller number of animals and still be federally inspected. What would be even better is if that slaughter facility would have wheels under it so it could go to the animals instead of having the animals brought to it. Thanks to some enterprising people on Lopez Island, Washington, that is now a reality.

Following The Bison

We can trace the seed of the idea for a mobile slaughtering unit to Kerrville, Texas, over a decade ago. In the Texas Hill Country exotic species of animals were harvested by a mobile unit under the supervision of Texas state inspectors. Because these game species were not mandated by federal law to be federally inspected the meat produced by such a unit could be sold anywhere in the country.

The next manifestation of the concept turns up on an Indian reservation in Eagle Butte, South Dakota. In 1997 the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe received a grant to purchase a state of the art mobile slaughter plant. The ambitious project was designed to let tribal members slaughter their bison in a more traditional Indian manner. Prior to the mobile facility the only alternative was to work the bison like cattle, which put the animals through a higher degree of stress due to their untamed nature. To the Cheyenne River Sioux this was unacceptable. They wanted to treat their bison more respectfully . . . in life and in death. What was needed was a mobile processing plant that would come to the animals home ground. Such a system would satisfy the Indians and also improve the quality of the bison meat.

A million and a half dollars later the Cheyenne had a complete processing plant on wheels. Bison went in one end and came out the other end as packaged steaks and roasts. Why couldn´t the same thing be done with beef? Because beef, unlike bison, has to be slaughtered at a federally inspected plant.

A Man With A Plan

Bruce Dunlop of Lopez Island, Washington, traveled to Kerrville and also studied the ways of the South Dakota Indians with the idea of designing the first mobile processing unit that would accommodate beef, sheep, pigs and goats and be eligible for USDA inspection. That the first ever such unit was created on Lopez Island is no accident. Prior to this time all the island´s meat animals had to be hauled to a ferry for a trip to the mainland. It was very expensive, time consuming and hard on the animals. Bruce Dunlop remembers driving past field after field of sheep on his way to a local restaurant only to dine on lamb from New Zealand. As a sheep producer he wondered why the islanders couldn´t be dining on locally produced Lopez Island lamb instead.

Trained as an engineer, Bruce helped design the 26 foot mobile slaughter unit after feasibility studies were begun in 1996. The final result looks like a cross between a mobile home and a big horse trailer with no windows. To pay for the project, grant money was applied for by a nonprofit community organization called The Lopez Community Land Trust which owns the unit and leases it to a producer´s coop known as The Island Grown Farmers´ Cooperative. The mobile unit, built by well-known gooseneck manufacturer, Featherlite, became the first mobile meat processing unit to receive a USDA Grant of inspection to process beef, sheep, pigs and goats.

At first glance the ownership of a slaughter plant by a land trust may seem odd . . . but not upon further reflection. One of the goals of the group is to help the landowner maintain a sustainable and profitable enterprise. What better way to achieve this goal than to help the producer receive more money for his livestock?

Right now Bruce Dunlop says the rig is in the final stages of a year-long test. "Basically this was a prototype and we have made some changes and altered it. In addition we have learned how to better prepare the animals for slaughter. For example, shearing the sheep in certain spots so that the process is cleaner." The unit was built for $150,000, of which two-thirds was grant money. Bruce anticipates running about 1,500 animals per year through the facility.

USDA Inspector On Board

The Island Grown Farmer´s Cooperative has now hired a full time employee to man the rig and on October 1 they will begin operating a meat processing facility to work in conjunction with the mobile unit. The food processing center will facilitate cutting and wrapping and provide cold storage. They also hope to use the facility for educational programs thereby qualifying for research funds to advance sustainable agriculture.

When the USDA gave their approval to the mobile slaughter unit that meant they were obligated to provide an inspector. The coop gives the USDA their slaughter schedule in advance, "so it´s not like a USDA inspector is just waiting around with nothing to do on off days," says Bruce. He anticipates that once the processing plant is open that either the slaughter unit or the plant will be in operation every day. Although the USDA pays for inspection, grading of carcasses requires a fee.

A very encouraging sign was the assistance of the USDA employees all through the process. Bruce says that all of his dealings with USDA personnel at every level have been very positive. "They have been open, willing and understanding," says Bruce.

"That doesn´t mean the inspectors are going to let us get away with anything that would not be permitted in a regular fixed facility. They might even expect more of us," says Bruce, "since this project is apt to draw a lot of attention."

The Island Coop also received help from Washington State University Cooperative Extension. They applied for and received grant money for an outreach program to take the unit on "show and tell" missions throughout the Northwest. Everywhere the rig went the concept received an enthusiastic response. Such has been the level of excitement that the coop membership has grown to include 25 members. Bruce anticipates that the mobile unit will service five Washington counties all within 100 miles in Northwest Washington. "The idea is that the group who owns the rig will not make a profit. Any extra premium will be made by coop members based on their ability to market their own meat."

Bruce raises sheep that are non-implanted, given no antibiotics and are grass fed. He sells the meat at one of three farmer´s markets held on the three major San Juan Islands. So far Bruce says the reception to his product has been very enthusiastic. "My customers are excited and supportive." The day this reporter called, Bruce had received a telephone call from out of the blue: another potential customer wanting to know how they could get their hands on his locally produced lamb.

For anyone contemplating such a project Bruce warns there is definitely more money to be made, but it´s not as easy as it sounds. Right now individual members are doing their own marketing but Bruce says the Coop will soon address the issue of establishing a marketing arm, perhaps selling some product all under one label.

One study we have seen shows the cost to the producer per head to be about $25. "Needless to say, says Bruce, "we can´t be as cost effective as IBP but they can´t do what we can either: Produce a locally grown, grass fed, all natural product."

Granted

George Work is a fourth-generation California cattleman. But not just any ordinary cattleman. Not content to do things the same old way, George has been a leader in implementing modern methods in grazing and diversification on his southern Monterey County operation. One of the ideas he implemented is a "farm stay" program where paying guests come and stay right on his ranch. George was disappointed to learn that he could not legally serve his own meat to his paying guests because it was not federally inspected. So when he heard about plans for a mobile slaughter unit on Lopez Island he called Bruce Dunlop and started asking lots of questions.

In one conversation George told Bruce that if he needed any help with changing laws to accomplish their goals that he should give George a call because he´d had more than a little experience in this area. George also mentioned the mobile processing unit to his local Congressman, Sam Farr, who has always shown a keen interest in helping ranchers and farmers. Sam kept track of the Lopez Island project and when it was approved the Congressman called George to ask if he´d like some grant money to do the same thing. Sam figured they had a fifty-fifty chance of wrangling some money out of Congress for the project. Then the budget crunch hit and the purse strings tightened up. But out of the blue another group in the area turned back some grant money and Sam Farr was able to get $138,750 for the project.

There was only one problem. The money would come from the Economic Development Department but all the paperwork had to be done by September 30. This included getting approval from the local Board of Supervisors who had to actually apply for the grant. Rather than set up a new non-profit to accept the money it was decided that the Monterey County Ag Land and Historic Land Conservancy would own the unit and lease it to an entity formed by cattlemen, hog farmers, sheep and goat raisers, much like the coop had done on Lopez Island.

Feeling that there might be some opposition at the Supervisors meeting, George carried with him 16 letters of endorsement including letters from the Small Farms Center of the Cooperative Extension Service and the Community Alliance with Family Farmers. Fourteen ranchers went with George to the Supervisors meeting to lend their support. George explained how the mobile slaughter unit met many of the objectives of the ag element of the county´s general plan. Specifically it would promote, preserve and support agriculture and the industries that serve it. The project would also preserve the long term sustainability of agriculture in the county.

There was no opposition and the Board approved a motion to apply for the grant. George had two days to write out a proposed budget for the mobile processing unit and the grant money is now on the way.

Now the real work begins; first the designing of the rig and then its construction. The group has not decided if they should form a coop or corporation but there is widespread support from hog, sheep, cattle and goat producers in the area. There are many unique niche markets that will be served by the unit, due to be online a year from now. Due to the large Hispanic population in California the demand for goat meat is high and the market for grass fed, natural beef and lamb is growing all the time. George is optimistic about the impact the unit can have on the ag community.

A Win-Win Deal

The mobile unit could silence many of our critics. For the proponents of humane treatment of farm animals the unit is ideal because the animals would be kept on the farm until the end. They will be born, raised and slaughtered all on the same property without the stress of trucking or unfamiliar surroundings.

The mobile processing unit allows county farmers to supply their community with healthy, nutritional and wholesome meats. And the product will probably taste better due to less stress on the animals. The pH level of live muscle tissue is usually around 7 due to a process where glycogen is converted to lactic acid. If animals are processed when they are more calm the ph level of the meat falls into the 5.0 to 5.3 range, which means the meat will be more tender.

In the wake of 9/11 bioterrorism and food security is an important consideration and the mobile unit can ease some of these fears. Now days many people are worried about the dangers of mad cow, foot and mouth disease and E coli, and they want to buy the cleanest products as close to home as possible. They also want meat that has been raised without the use of extra hormones or antibiotics. Many consumers say they would prefer a lower fat, grass fed product and their buying habits would suggest that they are willing to pay a premium for such a product.

The unit will open new markets for ranchers and create more options for consumers interested in buying locally. It will also allow producers to sell USDA inspected meat to restaurateurs and retailers which could translate into more money in rancher´s pockets. We´re not suggesting that IBP should be quaking in their cowboy boots right now but this concept does provide a small ray of hope for many meat producers who don´t see much future the way we´re currently headed.

The ranchers featured in this story have found that, more often than not, the best place to find a helping hand is at the end of their own arms.