Today, due to lack of infrastructure, an extraordinarily large part of Whatcom County's livestock resource is transported to Idaho, California, even Kansas, for processing. Then, the "locally grown" steaks, jerky, hamburger and other meats are shipped back to Whatcom County to be sold to consumers. Not even considering the unnecessary stress long-distance shipping imposes on animals, the dollars wasted in moving farm products back and forth across half a nation come directly out of your pocket, and out of the pocket of our local farmer. The loss to local farmers alone is estimated to average in excess of $80,000 per dairy per year. This is money we are shipping to other places that should be kept here to sustain our local farm economy.
In Whatcom County, farmers can process berries and milk cows on their farmland; they can even make liquor and sell it to tourists, but they cannot process their own livestock into steaks and chops and stew meats to be sold to local stores.
Why has it become controversial to "Buy Local?"
Processing locally grown livestock on our farmland is certainly appropriate -- you have only to look at the EPA website under "Agriculture 101" to find beef, pork and poultry production alongside dairy and crops. In addition, processing farm animals on or near the farm they come from makes sense in many ways, reducing transportation costs, pollution and keeping our food source and profits local.
The farmers of Whatcom County are requesting small changes to the rules for our farmland to better supply our citizens with clean, safe, locally grown foods. The vision is to enable "Small Scale Packing Houses" that would process a limited number of livestock per day, as defined by our Environmental Protection Agency. This would allow our local cattle, pig, poultry and goat farmers to easily and economically have their livestock processed to feed our local community. Imagine how satisfying it would be if you could go to your local supermarket or co-op and buy steak or chicken that had been grown and packaged only minutes from your city or home? That is the very essence of the buy local movement and is the vision of Whatcom County farmers.
Enabling local packing houses for Whatcom County farming is also important for our next generation of farmers. Sadly, Whatcom County has an abundant supply of farmland and a dwindling number of farmers.
Farmers often hear people ask, "But how do we help our farmers, what can I do?"
One important way you can help your farmers continue farming is to help them do so more profitably; you do this, for example, when you purchase fresh berries direct from the berry farm. For the dairy industry the inability to process locally results in high transportation costs and extraordinarily low prices for livestock in the local marketplace. Outside meat providers have no local competition when cows are sold, so they bid low to cover transportation costs and sell back to you at a premium price. That chips away at the viability of our local farms and sends potential Whatcom County livestock profits off to benefit far away communities instead of keeping them at home, in Whatcom County. In return we pay to have our own meat shipped back to us, or worse, meat of unknown origin. And our dollars go elsewhere again!
Whatcom County's farmers are asking that we allow local options for livestock processing that will feed our community with fresh, safe, clean food. This infrastructure will help to ensure the existence of a next generation of farmers in Whatcom County.
You may have read recently that some feel agricultural activities like meat processing should be prohibited on agricultural lands in order to preserve farming. Does anyone really believe the cities are going to issue permits to have live cows shipped into the city to be slaughtered?
The lack of local packing house capacity is a real problem for Whatcom County's largest agricultural economy, the dairy industry. The problem has not, and will not be solved by closing our eyes and hoping things will change. It's time to make change right now.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Wes Kentch is president of the Whatcom County Cattlemen's Association.