I have been so remiss on blogging lately! Last weekend we went camping and razor clamming. The weather was beautiful and warm, it could have been June rather than mid-December. I’ll include photos from the beach, since my topic has no photos.

Here is a short tidbit on another seminar I enjoyed at the recent Focus on Farming. This one was given by Kathryn Quanbeck, Program Manager for Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network (NMPAN). She covered the broad topic of slaughter options- custom-exempt versus state-inspected (which we don’t have) versus USDA-inspected. Her talk was very good, bringing some of the frank realities to the table.

She cited that her organization hears a lot from producers “we need a USDA-inspected plant nearer to us!” But the barriers to this are large. In order for such a plant to exist, it needs to be profitable for whomever is running it. And that means volumes, and year-round volumes. And this is where it breaks down for a lot of us, most small farming communities cannot keep an inspected facility busy year-round, full-time.

It seems that we often approach this topic from the standpoint of “build it and they will come…” meaning, we think if someone builds a slaughter facility, then farmers will appear out of the woodwork and increase year-round production to keep it busy. But this is a pretty risky venture for someone to face: spending millions of dollars on an investment, with the hope that the customers will materialize.

Rather, the way we should approach things is to create the demand model first: show that we are producing enough year-round animals to make a facility profitable, then someone will want to fill that niche and build a local outlet to accept them. But of course, this means the farmers have to make the sacrifice first, of making things work with faraway processors before luring a local one to build. Right now, in our area, it feels like we are stuck in a game of chicken, where nobody wants to make the first move. There are now several potential USDA plant scenarios in the works, in the rumor mill, or in proposal stages; but none is a for-sure bet.

One other golden nugget I got out of her presentation is when she was discussing small farmers needing to scale-up enough to make USDA processing worth their while. If one is just producing a dozen or two animals each year, it’s most profitable to just dwell in the direct-market space, and utilize a local custom-exempt butcher.  But growing past some size threshold, this model doesn’t work anymore, it’s too much overhead to sell to individual customers, and local butchers couldn’t handle the volume anymore. So, then it’s time to seek out more commercial channels: institutions, restaurants, grocery stores etc.; and go the USDA inspected route.

Kathryn talked about this scaling challenge, and how being in the middle of it is high risk. She called it the “zone of death”: the time when you have been 100 and 1,000 animals (those being rough, somewhat theoretical numbers, but you get the drift). And that business owners try to hurry through this stage to get to the other side. If you dwell there too long, it can kill you; in that space where you are too big to do things small-scale, but not big enough to do things large-scale. Something to think about!