The self ascribed ‘Lunatic Farmer’, Joel Salatin, is a gifted speaker, writer, and farmer. He and his family operate Polyface Farms in Virginia. His blog is a fascinating and helpful insight into the difficulties farmers and ranchers of small holdings face. During this time of renewed interest of purchasing locally from local abattoir, I’m going to reblog those of his which address why local butcher shops and farmers do what they do and charge what they charge. I hope the series will be helpful. However, we are realists and know that, by and large, once the huge foreign owned packers are back up and running, consumers will be back at Wal-mart buying cheap imported meat processed, in some cases, by illegal aliens.
The comments are worth reading as well, but you’ll need to click through to his blog site.
Like local-oriented direct-market farms around the country, we’re dealing with a tsunami of interest. Suddenly everyone wants our meat, poultry, and eggs. Where were they last year and the year before?
For roughly 3 years we’ve been brainstorming and trying to hold onto sales. The biggest hit we’ve ever taken was when Wal-Mart became the world’s largest vendor of organic. Of course, this is industrial organics; produce from hydroponics and meat from factory farms. But organic nonetheless.
Ever since that happened half a dozen years ago local outfits like us have been scrambling to hang onto customers. We haven’t panicked, but the new reality shocked us into realizing we could lose everything if we didn’t stimulate sales. And then along came door-to-door delivery. Another hit.
Many people think here at Polyface all we do is move cows around and the world is our oyster. Nothing could be further from the truth. When we started this 50 years ago, we were the only game in town. We enjoyed that distinctiveness for about 30 years but gradually things changed.
Other farmers began duplicating our systems–not that we tried to keep them secret. Good grief; I wrote every trick into books and made them available to wanna-bes. Even many apprentices stayed in the area and began competing with us. Between more farmers, industrial organics at Wal-Mart, and on-line home-delivery, we realized we were fast becoming obsolete.
Now we’re laughing. How could we have known that the best marketing strategy in the world was a pandemic? If only we had known. Just hang in there until the pandemic and all will be well.
Now, for the first time in a decade, we’re rationing. Yes, rationing. The temptations to compromise are profound. If you’ve watched the news, you know what’s happened in the pork industry. A farmer called us yesterday offering us slaughter-weight pigs at $110 apiece. Folks, it costs us $500 to raise a hog. Do you see the temptation to buy them and turn a fancy profit in a day? But they weren’t raised on GMO-free feed; they weren’t raised on pasture; they weren’t the 1950s-style genetics that put taste and fat on a hog. We said no, of course.
Instead of pulling our hair out on marketing strategies, we’re wrestling with who gets what. If you let a retail store have eggs and don’t put them on line people think you’re playing favorites. Goodness, Teresa went out this morning to grab a package of link sausage to fix for breakfast and had to make grits instead–we don’t have enough sausage for our own breakfast.
Why should all these people suddenly flocking to us get product over the folks who have been with us for 20 years? If we shut down a sector of our patron base, will they ever come back to us? How fickle is this? After the hype and panic, will all these Johnny-come-latelies stick around, or will they go back to Costco?
We can’t expand beef unless we have more grass. We can’t get more grass without more land. We can’t get more land without farms to rent. We can’t rent more land without land lords who want to partner with us. No complaints here; just explaining that you can’t turn a biological system, a whole ecology, on a dime.
And so as we ration and meter out pieces of availability to our broad customer base, we’re dealing with frantic calls, accusations of favoritism, and the angst of people fearful of running out of food. And you can’t buy a home freezer until August–they’ve all been snarfed up by the folks who stocked up early. If anyone wants to buy farm property to secure their food supply, we’re open for partners. We’ve had some wonderful response to this in the past; who knows what the future holds.
Do you think this sudden interest in local integrity food will outlast the crisis?
By now all of us are well aware about the glitches in the meat and poultry processing food chain in the U.S. It’s severe enough in pork and poultry that animals are being euthanized rather than going to processing. Beef will probably not get to that point simply because beef grows slower and therefore has more forgiveness. A month of holding pattern for a chicken is a long time; for a beef it’s not that long.
As a result of these industry problems, the crush on smaller community-based abattoirs like the one Teresa and I co-own here in Harrisonburg (T&E Meats) is unprecedented. With our facilities and crew we can only handle a certain number of animals per week and when the slots are filled, they’re filled. We’ve had a sudden surge of perhaps 30-40 percent in slot requests. Even Polyface can’t get in with all the animals we need processed; then we’re short and customers complain. Sheesh.
We’ve never run Saturday work or a second shift, but we’re examining all those alternatives now to squeeze some more use out of our concrete, stainless steel, and building.
Hang with me here, because this will no doubt infuriate you like it does me. Our small plant of about 20 employees is located on a roughly 1.5 acre lot surrounded by other small businesses. It’s been on that lot for some 70 years. We’re federal inspected which means an inspector pokes and sniffs at livers and looks over paperwork each day.
The inspector has an office in the building to keep records but he’s only there less than an hour a day. He goes to other plants during the day. Of course, he has the right to pop in any time he wants to and see anything he wants to. He also has the right to immediately shut us down if he sees egregious violations of his interpretation of the voluminous subjective codes.
The way the system works is this: if a plant owner passes all the compliance and licensing requirements, the federal government issues an establishment number which authorizes the facility to engage in business. The stamp is called the “Blue Buzz” and it’s the little round blue circle on all federal inspected product that carries the FSIS (Food Safety Inspection Service) acronym and establishment number. That license also requires the federal government to supply, at no charge, an inspector for up to 8 hours per day.
If you need one for more than 8 hours per day, then the business and not the government picks up the tab at a time and half rate for every hour more than 8. What you have to appreciate is that in the case of a small plant like ours, the inspector is actually only on site an hour a day and sometimes less. He or she is not there on location for 8 hours; not anywhere close.
But here’s the catch. As we begin discussing running on Saturday or operating for an extra couple of hours to try to accommodate more of these local farmers who desperately need animals processed, the government requires us to pay a time and half inspector rate for every hour we OPERATE more than 8 hours, regardless of whether an inspector is there or not.
The inspector shows up each day, checks things, and then leaves. Why can’t that check be good for 10 hours instead of 8? Or for 12 hours instead of 8? He’s not there anyway, so if the system trusts us not to cut corners in the 6th hour of an 8 hour shift, why would it be suddenly risky for us to operate another 15 minutes past 8 hours? It makes no sense whatsoever, but it definitely changes our economic picture dramatically the moment we have to pay $75 an hour for someone who isn’t even there.
This is the kind of foolishness foisted upon local abattoirs by a scale-prejudicial system that refuses to accommodate or budge in order to alleviate the desperate need of people for food and farmers to get it to them. This is accounting by the government.
Is it time to build an underground railroad for processing?
Thank your Kate Simon for the photo!