While we usually like to feature one of our vendors or new farmers here, a stupendous number of events have occurred on our home farm and we’d like to catch everyone up. We have been sweating bullets for the last two months as the world of inspected meat processing has been turned upside down.
For those of you that are not familiar with how meat processing works in this country, in order to sell most meats the animal has to be slaughtered at a special facility where it is inspected by the United States Department of Agricultures Food Safety Inspection Services (FSIS). This is theoretically to ensure food safety, though the way the system actually works… well it doesn’t really work. FSIS approves the distribution of over 100 million pounds of contaminated meat every year.
What the system has done very effectively though is put nearly all of the small and mid sized processing plants out of business. As a result, four companies (two of which are foreign owned) control virtually all of the meat in the country. These plants can process thousand of cows, tens of thousands of pigs, or hundreds of thousands of chickens in a single day. They are primarily staffed by immigrant, migrant, and refugee laborers. The pay is generally low, the hours long, and the working conditions pretty dismal. Everything works on an assembly line and the faster the line is moving the closer together the worker have to stand. Instead of slowing the lines down, spacing workers out at a safe distance, and deterring people from coming to work sick, the big meat packing plants opted to give bonuses to people that came into work despite being ill, keep the lines at full speed, and pretend nothing was wrong.
If even one of these plants is closed down or not operating at full capacity it can wreak havoc for farmers and ranchers. So when nearly half of them shut down as a result of over 30% of the workers getting infected with covid-19, it created a huge back up of animals that are ready to process with no where to go. As a result farmers and ranchers have a supply glut which is driving the price of live animals down while the limited supply drives prices at the grocery store up. A few weeks ago our local, 100% grass finished premium beef was more affordable than the commodity beef at the grocery store! Add in the insurance money and the hundred of millions of dollars in federal relief going to the big meat packers, on top of record breaking profit margins, and they are sitting pretty pretty right now. Maybe a bit too pretty in fact, as most of the plants are now mostly back on line but the prices at the sale barn and grocery stores still seem to heavily favor the meat packers at the expense of the farmers and the consumer. The DOJ is actively investigating these companies for prices fixing and has already issued indictments. I digress…
What this means for us is that the extremely small world of small scale inspected meat processing just got even more crowded. A lot of farmers and ranchers decided to try to switch to direct marketing meat instead of getting raked over the coals by the meat packing companies, and plenty of other people saw an opportunity with the price increases to try to make a quick buck.
So in early march, when we called the processor in southern Colorado that we have been taking our hogs too for the last two years, we were dismayed to find that all of the slots for the rest of the year had already been reserved. Same story at every small processing plant in the Southwest. So we got on the phone and started lobbying to try to get more of the small plants in New Mexico inspected so we would have some sort of option and wouldn’t have to shut down the shop.
It took about two months but we were able to hook up with the owner of the grocery store in Mountainair and help her in her efforts to help the small plant in Mountainair come back under inspection. I started working there two days a week to try to help them get up and running. It has been an absolute trip seeing the inner working of an inspected slaughter house. It also looks like the USDA is gunning to shut them down again. Whether that is because the primary operator is native, or the billionaire owner has a ten year history of flaunting all the rules, or the town of Mountainair can’t keep the decaying water system delivering potable water to the plant, or the lack of skilled workers to man the plant, or if it’s just a continuation of the same tendency of the federal government to push big corporate monopolies and discriminate against small rural plants is hard to say.
The good news is that our processor in Colorado called us last week and offered to let us book more spots. I guess some of the big ranchers that booked up all the spots found out selling that much meat is not as easy as it may seem. Consequently we have been able to confirm enough spots through the end of the year and into next year that we will be able to continue operating the shop, though not at the capacity we were hoping to be at. We will continue to support the plant in Mountainair and hope they will be able to address the myriad challenges facing them so we will have another quality local option for processing.
At this point we are extremely grateful just to be in business and not to be facing the prospect of having to either build our own processing plant, finding hundreds of people that wanted to process their own meat, or euthanizing and disposing of our animals. If you would like to support the efforts to restore a free and fair market place so farmers and ranchers can have equitable market access and not be beholden to foreign owned corporations please consider contacting you Congress people and asking them to support the Prime act, The RAMP UP Act, and expanding the Talmadge-Aiken Act. Alternatively you can support our efforts to help address these issues at a state and national level by becoming a member of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. https://www.rmfu.org/get-involved/become-a-member/. You don’t have to be a farmer to sign up, and an associate membership is only $45 per year.
At the heart of the solution are more small processing plants serving local communities with valued and skilled meat cutters — the knowledge of both humane slaughter and the craft of meat cutting are disappearing. The images in this essay come primarily from a photo essay published by Edible New Mexico (www.ediblenm.com/meat-matters-photo-essay). We worked with the magazine, the Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance, and the Good Meat Project to offer on farm slaughter and butchering workshops. Supporting these organizations can also help get us closer to more resilient meat supply chains.