Many of us who are connected to raising, processing, purchasing and eating local meat have watched all the hubbub surrounding meat slaughter-packing plants and Whatcom County zoning regulations with a keen interest. Meat producers in Northwest Washington have traditionally utilized several methods of getting their animals to market. Many young animals are sold at auction as feeders, shipped far away for finishing and processing, and then distributed to who-knows-where. Some local animals that are raised to maturity may be sold at auction, either in Everson or in eastern Washington, with most being processed out of the region.
Alternatively, the farmer may sell the animal privately and arrange for the slaughter and processing to be done under the Washington State Department of Agriculture custom meat program. There is one business in Whatcom County, Keizer Meats, that operates a USDA-inspected processing plant that includes USDA-inspected slaughtering. Island Grown Farmer's Cooperative owns and operates a USDA-inspected mobile slaughter unit and a USDA-inspected processing plant that serves farmers in Island, San Juan, Skagit and Whatcom counties. This provides farmers with the ability to get their animals processed with USDA inspection and ready for sale at farm stores, farmer's markets, or directly to local businesses. These are all good and valuable methods of moving local meat producers' products to the end user and they need to be preserved and encouraged.
At present, the capacity for processing does not meet demand. Many animals are shipped out of Whatcom County due to the lack of processing capacity while most of the meat consumed here comes from packing houses located in California and the Midwest. This is abusive to our animals, wasteful of our natural resources, and not in the interest of a prosperous agriculture sector in Northwest Washington. Local distribution is difficult, time consuming and, quite frankly, not something most farmers enjoy doing. Animal husbandry is a full time job. Dealing with the grocery store meat manager just doesn't fit very well in our schedule.
North Cascades Meat Producers Cooperative is a new cooperative that has looked at these problems and the existing processing options. We have developed a new approach to better serve the needs of the producers, the users, and the consumers. North Cascades will operate a leased, self-contained, USDA mobile slaughter unit. Like Island Grown, we will be able to locate on a farm near the animals to be slaughtered. This minimizes stress on the animals and provides the most humane methods possible. Keeping the by-products of the slaughter process with the mobile unit eliminates the waste disposal concerns on-site and allows us to be good neighbors. Dressed sides will be transported to an aging and processing plant in a USDA-inspected refrigerated truck. Neighbors will notice little difference from a Washington State custom farm slaughter truck they see now, except it is a larger unit.
A critical new feature of North Cascades is a cooperative branding and marketing program for grass-fed beef, lamb and goat, and pasture-raised pork. Under this program the cooperative buys its producer-members' animals for a premium price at slaughter and markets the finished product under the cooperative-owned brand, North Cascade Meats. The cooperative has spent a great deal of time working with the local food community to develop the market for locally produced, premium, grass-fed beef, lamb, goat and pasture-raised pork under the North Cascade Meats brand. We have purchasing commitments from retail grocers, institutional buyers and restaurants providing new markets for local meat producers.
As our membership grows we will be able to expand the opportunities for members and consumers in areas such as other high-quality meats and organic meats from local producers.
The cooperative, which just approved the application of its 20th member, has received $37,500 in member equity investment thus far as well as a "matching fund" commitment of $65,000 from the Whatcom Community Foundation. This regional and collaborative approach between producers, market partners and community members could be a great solution to provide expanded economic opportunity for local farms and greater access to high-quality, locally produced meat products for consumers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patrick Grover is president of the North Cascades Meat Producers' Cooperative and a third-generation food producer who has raised lamb and pork in Whatcom County for 20 years. For more information go online to northcascademeats.com.