Press-Republican

January 22, 2012

Producers market local meat

Peter Hagar: Cornell Ag Connection
Press-Republican

---- — One of the things I have learned from the livestock farmers in our area is that marketing their livestock is one of the toughest jobs they have.

Raising beef cattle, sheep or goats is often a labor of love. Owning some land and using it to raise a food product and generate some income is the dream of many. The producer may not be depending on farming for their livelihood but still wants to have a sustainable and profitable enterprise.

So, while owning and raising livestock is by no means uncomplicated, often the biggest hurdle for the livestock producer is selling their product. Unlike our local dairy farmers and apple growers, there is a lack of infrastructure for the local slaughter and processing of livestock products to be sold at retail.

There are several avenues by which a livestock farmer can sell his or her product. The first option would be the wholesale market where the producer would sell his animal as a commodity. In this case, the farmer usually takes his cattle, sheep or goats to an auction where buyers from near and far purchase livestock for other growers or large meat-processing plants located far outside our region. This method requires the least amount of marketing but generally offers the lowest profit margin.

Another common method that many livestock producers use to sell locally grown beef, sheep and goats is to sell to the "freezer" market. Consumers can purchase all, a half or a quarter of the live animal and have it processed locally at a custom slaughterhouse. Since the consumer is purchasing a portion of the live animal, this allows them to be in control of how their share of the animal is processed.

While this is often more profitable than selling your livestock at auction for wholesale prices, it does still involve finding one to four customers, timing and arranging the details and keeping everyone happy. This marketing effort is not always easy and some farmers just don't want to deal with customers.

One option that is currently difficult is selling locally produced meat directly to consumers, restaurants and stores for retail sale. Regulations exist for the protection of consumers that require all meat sold at retail to be processed under USDA inspection. However, the nearest USDA slaughterhouse located in New York is almost 100 miles away. The transportation costs and added time involved can be discouraging, especially for small farmers.

Because of the lack of competition, this facility is almost always booked months in advance. Some farmers report that wait times of six months are not uncommon.

As opposed to large industrial facilities, which can slaughter 390 cattle or 1,100 swine in one hour according to USDA figures and aren't set up to take an extra pig here or a steer there, a small local plant might butcher 250 cattle in a whole year.

And since large facilities aren't designed to take in and return small batches of animals, many farmers feel the attention to detail is higher at smaller facilities — more consideration to animal welfare, higher quality standards and more care with the actual butchering.

With the recent interest in local food and eating locally, local livestock farmers are hoping that efforts underway to establish a small USDA-inspected slaughterhouse and meat processing facility in our region will come to fruition.

A small-scale, locally owned facility would give both farmers and consumers an opportunity to keep our locally produced meat close to home. Small scale livestock farmers, especially organic and grass-fed farms, would finally have the ability to reach more local consumers.

Why purchase local meat? You would be supporting you neighbors in the North Country and the businesses they purchase supplies from. You can ask and find out how the animal was raised.

Most locally raised animals are not bought and sold at auction, are raised with their mothers and have access to the outside. Most have access to pasture at the right time of year and are not given hormones or medicines unless it is because the animal needs them. Most farmers that sell meat also eat it themselves and take pride in growing a quality product.

For more information about buying local meat or raising livestock in Clinton County, contact Cornell Cooperative Extension at 561-7450 or email phh7@cornell.edu.

Peter Hagar, agriculture educator & Energy $mart Communities collaborator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Route 22, Suite 5, Plattsburgh, 12901. Phone 561-7450, fax 561-0183 or email Phh7@cornell.edu.