By Milli Legrain
Flower Hill Institute- a native-owned nonprofit based in New Mexico- is partnering with National Latino Farmers and Ranchers to expand meat and poultry processing with the support of USDA. Dave Carter has been helping ranchers set up processing facilities for almost 30 years for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, the National Bison Association and now for Flower Hill. As a rancher himself, he tells us why this is important.
Why is there an urgent need to decentralize meat and poultry processing?
Over the decades we have seen this incredible consolidation in meat and poultry processing industries. They said it was the most efficient and resilient system out there. But those of us on the ground were seeing that family ranchers were getting locked in as price-takers with little control over our markets.
Only four major meatpacking companies operate in the US: Tyson Foods, Cargill, National Beef Packing Company and JBS. A true resilient and equitable processing system is more decentralized and offers producers better access to their customers and products that they’re proud to produce.
How bad is it?
Covid exposed the myth of how resilient and efficient centralized meat processing is. We saw ranchers put down animals because they couldn’t get them processed. Others held onto their animals for an extra year to get them processed. We saw empty shelves and workers getting sick in these large facilities…
The flip side is that there is now an increasing desire to know where food comes from and whether animals were raised locally… When you process 4000 head of cattle a day you can’t do that.
The initiative to decentralize processing gives more opportunities to ranchers but also gives the public better options to buy more natural food which is organic and antibiotic free.
Will a more local processing system help reduce costs for the consumer?
I don’t know. But we have been paying a high cost for cheap food for a long time. We have emphasized mass production, getting animals from birth to slaughter as quickly as possible, giving them growth hormones…
In future we will be able to provide the consumer with good value and a high-quality product. And when you look at the rising cost of fuel, I think that the economics are starting to swing in our favor. When you raise an animal in Farmington, New Mexico and then it gets shipped to Amarillo, Texas to be finished and then gets shipped to Greeley, Colorado to get slaughtered just to get a pound of hamburger back to Farmington, you have to ask how efficient that is.
At the same time, the smaller plants will never be able to process meat as cheaply as in those huge plants that have workers standing in an assembly line. But we are bringing back small plants that engage workers that have the butchering skills to be able to process an animal. They won’t be doing repetitive motions as the carcasses swing by. They will have a better skill set, more training and hopefully earn a living wage that can benefit the whole community.
Are we producing high quality meat products for elite consumers who can afford it?
We don’t want to be elitist. We want to make sure that we are providing the proteins out there to people that need it. We’ll always need to have programs that assist folks in being able to purchase food.
But at the same time the success of the meat industry has been measured by how many pounds of beef or chicken the average consumer eats each year. We are at 52 pounds of beef and about 90 pounds of chicken. If we eat a little less of that but it is a higher quality product which is nutritious and has less additives – that could be the key to a good healthy diet.
Is it difficult to convince people that this is a good idea as we head towards a recession?
Price is a huge factor -you have to be able to feed your family. But surveys, particularly among younger shoppers, show that they want to buy food that is healthy and that will make sure that their kids have a decent environment 20 years from now.
People are concerned about inflation and a recession. But what we have seen over the last 20 years -and it accelerated with Covid – is that people are making a direct connection between diet and health. What they eat determines how well and how long they will be living. And more recently people are making a connection between diet and the health of the planet.
Do we have to stop eating meat to save the planet?
Livestock done properly is actually a very good tool to help sequester carbon. Grasslands are very efficient in trapping carbon. They take it out of the air and put it in the soil. People focus on forests as great sequesters of carbon. But forests store a lot of it above ground. And when we get wildfires, or if that tree dies naturally, that carbon goes right back into the atmosphere. With grasslands, the carbon they absorb goes right back into the soil. And those grasslands rely on proper grazing from large grazers to be healthy such as bison, antelope, deer and elk.
Is USDA linking livestock to climate solutions?
Secretary Vilsack recently announced more than $2 billion in awards in the first round of climate-smart agriculture grants. Fourteen of those grants, totaling $550 million in funding, include livestock as a major component in addressing climate change through carbon sequestration and other means.
I am hoping and optimistic that some of the funds going out to reward producers for producing climate smart animals will help compensate them without driving up the price of meat in the grocery store. For me, it’s a win-win situation.
How about decentralizing poultry processing?
It is very important but it is still a big challenge. Right now you either have the large scale processors that do tens of thousands of birds per day or very small on-farm processing that supply local food coops. And there hasn’t been much in between. We need to ask what is needed in terms of resources and markets to reestablish some of this mid-sized production. We haven’t cracked the code on this yet but we will.
What about the USDA grant to put Latinos, Native Americans and other underserved communities at the forefront of meat and poultry processing?
The USDA has committed $1billion to develop a more resilient, equitable and diverse meat and poultry processing system. But what is exciting to us at Flower Hill is that they brought together a technical assistance network made up of six organizations: the Oregon State University- Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network, the Intertribal Agriculture Council, the American Association of Meat Processors, the American Meat Science Association, the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute and Flower Hill.
My role as the coordinator of this technical assistance program is to connect with historically underserved producers. So we have been partnering with organizations that can help us do that. We are really pleased National Latino Farmers and Ranchers were one of the first to say yes to working with us. We are doing the same with the Rural Coalition, RAFI- USA and Farmer Veteran Coalition.
USDA has told us “ Don’t leave any stone unturned.”
This has been so interesting, Dave. Thank you for your time. We will check in soon to see how things are progressing.
- Individual ranchers and farmers interested in developing or expanding meat and poultry processing facilities can submit a request for technical assistance here:
- For more information on USDA’s new technical assistance initiative click here.