Saturday, March 27, 2010

Eat Food Produced Locally, If You Can Find Any

 As the son of a farmer, I am all too familiar with the laws of supply and demand involving perishable food products. Even the most urbane of city dwellers know the freshest foods are purchased at their neighborhood  farmers market or food co-op or, with luck, one of the remaining mom and pop butcher shops.

In a half century of growing vegetables, my dad was lucky enough to corner the produce markets only four times where, in his words, he made a "killing." He, again in his own words, "lost his shirt" hundreds of times when the market was glutted and the rest of the time felt "fortunate" he broke even.

With that as a backdrop, I read with vested interest a yawner some people mistakenly may consider in the New York Times today. It was the plight of livestock farmers unable to sell their herds and flocks because of a lack of slaughter houses.

What struck me as a high fastball directed at my head was a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the number of slaughterhouses nationwide declined from 1,211 to 809 between 1992 and 2008 while the number of small farmers of livestock increased by 108,000 in the last five years.

At first blush, I considered this uptick in farmers naive and committing economic suicide if they can't get their product processed in a timely fashion to sell at their markets starving for locally produced meats. It is akin to crates of lettuce rotting on my dad's packing platform because the truck transporting the goods to the produce market broke down.

That is precisely the scene described by the Times for many livestock farmers in Vermont and upstate New York. By the time they travel long distances or wait for an opening at a slaughterhouse, the animals are stressed and unfit for butchering. Some farmers make reservations for the slaughterhouses before their cows, pigs or sheep are even born.

The decline of slaughterhouses is both economical and environmental. Animal rights activists such as People For The Preservation of Animals (PETA) play a small role. Even in farming communities, no one wants them in their back yards.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a Times interview “It’s pretty clear there needs to be attention paid to this. Particularly in the Northeast, where there is indeed a backlog and lengthy wait for slaughter facilities.”

The increase of small, independent livestock farmers is part of a movement for America’s local-food movement, championed by so-called locavores. But, it is what my dad would say was "putting the cart before the horse" if the supply chain is interrupted.

“There are a lot of people out there who raise great animals for us to use, and they don’t have the opportunity to get them to us because the slaughterhouses are going away,” said Bill Telepan, chef and owner of Telepan, a high-end restaurant in New York.

The newspaper quotes Randy Quenneville, program chief for the Vermont meat inspection service,. that small, family-owned slaughterhouses started closing when strict federal rules regarding health control went into effect in 1999.

The result was large corporations such as Cargill began to take over much of the nation’s meat market.

“We recognize that the buy-local food movement is a significant economic driver in rural communities,”

Ag Secretary Vilsack said.

As for slaughterhouse economics, the Times quotes one operator:

“You need skilled management and work force, a cooperative town, a good supply of water, a good way of getting rid of waste,” said Ed Maltby, a spokesman for Adams Farm, a slaughterhouse in Athol, Mass., that reopened in 2008 after a fire. “It’s not a problem that can be easily solved.”

As I suspected, one solution offered by a livestock farmer suggested softening health and food safety regulations of slaughterhouses. The Times quotes Erica Zimmerman of East Montpelier, Vermont, whose nearest slaughter facility is 1 1/2 hours away:

“We have a product that people really wanted; we should have a system that would allow us to produce it as efficiently as possible,” Zimmerman said. “There’s not enough room for all the people like me.”

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