A short time ago, I made a major life decision to join the other disgruntled buffalo in herd-flight from the Northeast to the West Coast. It seemed only fair that if I was going to reject my puritan upbringing so roundly — moving to California being roughly equivalent to joining the circus, as far as New Englanders are concerned — I should bring my dad along with me for the ride out there. He’s a little piece of home, his enjoyment of this geographical transition a silent stamp of approval on my big decision.
The flat expanses of the Heartland and the rolling hills and prairies west of the Missouri River are an homage to many things, particularly the gods of grain and the kingdom of animals. My dad’s passions tend to lie with the latter category, but only if the animals are preternaturally large and made out of concrete, wood, or fiberglass. He’d meticulously planned many of our animal encounters on this trip with the help of Roadsideamerica.com. But some, like this 200-foot wooden steer head, were surprises — hidden roadside gems to be photographed frantically from our moving vehicle. (We will not discuss the near accidents this caused. And if anyone has any idea what this particular arrangement of items might represent, I’d really love to know.)
At this writing, we’ve just entered the great state of Wyoming. I didn’t think that the sky could be any larger than it was in South Dakota, but I was wrong. Cattle and sheep pepper the landscape. They’re a refreshing contrast to the feedlots I’ve become familiar with through my research on industrial livestock production— although as Dan O’Brien reminds us in his book "Buffalo for the Broken Heart," which I’m currently reading, the prairie isn’t cattle’s natural habitat any more than a feedlot is. This land was built for buffalo.
But the cows sure do look nice out there.
Everything from that ubiquitous bucking-bronco image on the license plates to the bow legs and boots on the guy next to me at the diner is designed to make you remember that Wyoming is the land of the cowboy. The land of the cowboy is also the land of cows, and, by extension, the land of beef. When we passed a small-scale slaughter facility in Sundance (home of the kid, not the film festival), my dad veered off the road, and we hopped out to see how cows become beef.
C&A Meats is a family-run operation that slaughters some 3,000 wild game animals, 500 beef cattle, and 700 hogs a year. They weren’t processing on the day we visited — early summer is the slow season — but they were happy to show us around the place. From what I could tell, they’re a cornerstone of this ranching community. The freezer was packed with boxes and bags, each labeled with a different family’s name, and the woman who took us around fretted about the pages-long waiting list they knew they’d have come hunting season.
The spotless facility boasted a Temple Grandin-style squeeze box for cattle and an efficient mechanized system for moving carcasses from point of slaughter to the fridge. The Hemmah family, with the help of a few employees, used shiny machines to turn the carcasses into sausage, ground beef, steaks, and other products. From my limited experience visiting slaughter facilities for my research on factory farms, this one seemed like a model value-added processor. So why, then, was every single package in the freezer, from the smallest bag of ground beef to the box containing half a steer, labeled “not for sale”?
Welcome to one of Cowboyland’s greatest ironies: Unless you make direct arrangements with a farmer or rancher, it’s fairly difficult to purchase beef (or any other meat, for that matter) that has been both raised and processed in the state of Wyoming. That’s because there are no USDA-inspected processing facilities in the entire state — a state where agriculture employs nearly 20% of the working population and where cattle production beats out the next-highest value agricultural product, hay, by a factor of 15.
There are some state-inspected facilities in Wyoming, but they are few and far between, requiring many ranchers to ship their animals long distances to reach them. While state-inspected meat can be sold to restaurants or grocery stores, it cannot be sold over the state line. This restricts markets for Wyoming producers, particularly those living near the border or who want to sell to companies out of state, like Niman Ranch. State-inspected facilities are better than nothing, but they’re no panacea. (For more about the good aspects of state-inspected facilities, see this article from the New Rules Project of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance)
C&A Meats is not state-inspected, meaning that it can only process animals that ranchers will use for their own consumption, or that have been sold live to consumers and then processed after the sale. I didn’t ask them why they haven’t pursued state inspection, but I can guess. Generally, state-inspected plants must meet more rigorous (and costly) standards than what are called “custom” plants like C&A. In particular, state-inspected facilities must comply with federal HACCP guidelines, a set of food safety standards ostensibly geared toward reducing incidents of contamination from E. coli, Salmonella, and other pathogens in meatpacking plants (though many groups, including the good folks at Sustainable Table, have documented the program’s failure to reduce contamination risk).
Moreover, the standards were written to address problems common to large-scale packing plants, where line speed and the sheer number of animals processed make contamination a much greater risk. The costs of compliance for smaller-scale packers have been extraordinarily high. In 2003, USDA’s Economic Research Service estimated that the roughly 5,300 packers in operation in the United States at the time spent a combined total of $570 million to get their plants up to the new standard and $380 million a year to maintain the standards. This amount was significantly greater than what the agency had estimated when the standards were first proposed.
But let’s take a step back. In a healthy local-food economy, Sundance ranchers would be able to bring their animals to C&A Meats, which would in turn sell the processed meat to a local retailer. Local consumers could eat locally produced and processed meat, and the revenues would stay in the community. But the system that exists now in Sundance, as in much of rural America, requires producers who want to sell their meat in local retail outlets to ship the live animals either to state-inspected facilities far away or to neighboring states for processing. The transport costs, not to mention the negative effects on animal welfare, can be enormous. That’s a Rube Goldberg system if I’ve ever seen one — and it makes it extremely difficult to procure local meat locally unless you can seek out a rancher and can accommodate at least half a cow in your freezer.
A great many excellent articles have been written about the barriers to small- and mid-sized livestock production created by the application of existing processing and inspection standards to small processors, including this one by Rod Dreher from a 2003 issue of the National Review and this one [PDF, but worth it] by Kristi Bahrenberg Janzen from Farming Magazine.
The good news is that there are lots of ways to help improve the system — and we can all get involved, because a lot of it will be debated in the next month (or two… or four) when Congress takes up the 2007 Farm Bill. Below are some of the recommendations being pushed by groups like the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture. Read them, and then find out how to take action on the Farm Bill from the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s awesome Farm Bill Action Center.
Some ways to improve our access to locally raised, locally processed meat via the 2007 Farm Bill:
Dreher of the National Review sums up the political demands of small-scale livestock and dairy producers and their consumer advocates this way:
No one is arguing that government health rules are unnecessary. Most small farmers only want them to be reasonable (for example, it makes no sense that it should be legal for someone to take a minor risk to his health by eating raw oysters, but illegal to do the same by eating a soft raw-milk cheese); simplified (regulations vary widely from state to state); and flexible (that is, taking the small farmer's limitations into consideration).
His description is right on target. We need new rules to address the needs and realities of small-scale livestock production. These proposals are not radical; they’re rational. As Virginia farmer Joel Salatin aptly states in the Dreher article, the current regulations are little more than “bureaucracy in action" for many small producers.
We definitely enjoyed Wyoming, but we couldn’t enjoy its beef. Maybe next time.