Slaughter allowed on Whatcom farmland, but players stay on sidelines

After two years, seven public hearings and one legal challenge, the Whatcom County Council cobbled together new rules allowing slaughterhouses on farmland. All that effort, so far, has been for nought.

Almost six months after the council unanimously passed the new rules on July 8, no one has applied to operate a slaughterhouse or packinghouse on county farmland.

Farmers and butchers say the high start-up costs and an unfriendly climate are preventing slaughterhouse applicants from coming forward.

The rhetoric around the issue has been fierce. The stakes were high, opponents said: Pollution from farmland slaughterhouses could poison the water supply and kill fish. What was touted as a moneymaker for struggling farmers would actually jeopardize agriculture by taking away prime soil, according to opponents.

Council’s goal was to create more of what the county is known for: buying and eating local. Council members struggled to craft an ordinance that would encourage the small operator while excluding large-scale industrialized slaughter from environmentally sensitive farmlands.

A majority of the council thought they had achieved compromise in September 2013, when new rules were put in place. They wouldn’t last, however.

Two months later, three citizens filed a petition with the Growth Management Hearings Board challenging the new rules. Nicole Brown, Wendy Harris and Tip Johnson argued that allowing slaughterhouses on farmland violated rules mandating the preservation of agricultural soil and the protection of water quality.

Elections in November 2013 replaced two supporters of farmland slaughterhouses with two who were willing to make the rules more restrictive. The old regulations were tossed out; new rules were put in place by summer.

The three appellants were satisfied with the result, and in September they dropped their case before the hearings board.

Small slaughterhouses — 2,000 square feet or less — would be formally reviewed by the planning staff, and the public would have a chance to give written comments. Larger slaughterhouses, up to 7,000 square feet, would be allowed but would require a public hearing and review by the hearing examiner.

Acme farmer Virginia Naef, who spoke at one of the public hearings, mentioned in an interview via email that “the apparent local cultural and regulatory hostility” to slaughtering was a deterrent to potential applicants. The expense also was a factor, she said.

“Given new county restrictions and current economic conditions, start-up costs for a slaughter business, which include very necessary environmental protections and permitting, may be prohibitive,” Naef said.

Gabriel Claycamp has watched the county’s agricultural-slaughter rules unfold since he started the ball rolling when he applied for a slaughtering operation on farmland in December 2011. Since then, Claycamp decided to open a meat processing plant in Burlington.

Parties are potentially interested in setting up shop in Whatcom County, Claycamp said, but they have been put off by recent changes to the rules and the legal challenge.

“The instability around that was nerve-wracking,” he said.

That said, he wouldn’t be surprised to see a slaughter facility launch in Whatcom.

“There’s a lot of players that are moving on this, compared to a year ago or two years ago,” Claycamp said. “I think there’s still hope for it.”

Some meat producers in Whatcom County are joining a cooperative that plans to purchase a slaughterhouse on wheels. The mobile slaughter unit would be certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — an important classification because it allows the meat to be sold to stores and restaurants.

“I can foresee that the mobile slaughter units are going to become a little bit more popular,” said Sandra Matheson. She raises grass-fed cattle north of Bellingham and is president of the North Cascade Meat Producers Cooperative. “They just fit the niche and make it a lot more economically reasonable for those that want to do that.”

The county has one brick-and-mortar slaughterhouse that is USDA-certified: Keizer Meats in Lynden, which was purchased in October by Cascade Food Corp. While the original motivation for allowing slaughterhouses on agricultural land was to meet local farmers’ demand, Keizer owner Althaf Khan said he wasn’t sure the demand existed.

“No, I don’t see it like that,” Khan said. “We are not even 40 percent or 50 percent operational.”

Keizer Meats has the capacity to slaughter 15, maybe 20 heads of beef per day, he said.

“There is a lot of room for us to process more. I don’t know where the (talk of) demand is coming from,” Khan said. “I hope there is demand.”