Postcard from Cowboyland: The barriers to buying local meat in Wyoming

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.

wy_steer-head.jpg 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.

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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:

  • Recognize that state inspection can be just as good as federal inspection. State-inspected facilities that meet federal guidelines should be allowed ship meat across state lines, a concept sometimes called “reciprocity of inspection.” Federal and state inspectors will honor each others’ judgment so long as they conform to the same standards.
  • Help build healthy, community-based meat production systems, including the development of appropriate technology and infrastructure for small-scale processors (read Grist’s Tom Philpott’s take on the importance of this idea here). One big piece of this puzzle is the development of more mobile slaughterhouses, a project pioneered by Washington State’s Island Grown Farmers’ Cooperative in partnership with the Lopez Community Land Trust and the Washington State Cooperative Extension Service. Their mobile slaughterhouse is USDA-certified, giving the producers who use it even more marketing options. But the Feds are hesitant to certify mobile units; this process should be streamlined.
  • Train and certify a greater number of food safety inspectors for mobile slaughterhouses, farmstead operations, and small-scale processing facilities, and develop reasonable and consistent standards for food safety inspections of these facilities. The lack of available inspectors and the variation in food safety protocols from state to state are roadblocks for smaller processors and confuse both consumers and processors. Creating consistent standards appropriate to small-scale facilities will increase efficiency and reduce the costs for small processing facilities while ensuring food safety and proper food handling.

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.

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We definitely enjoyed Wyoming, but we couldn’t enjoy its beef. Maybe next time.

6 Responsesto “Postcard from Cowboyland: The barriers to buying local meat in Wyoming”

  1. Ed Bruske says:

    Great post. Thanks for all the links. My printer has been busy this morning...

  2. AnnaMarie says:

    Fabulous Post! I regularly buy my lamb on the hoof but didn't know the backstory. Since I'm in neighboring Idaho now I'm wondering if it's the same here.

  3. Does the state of Wyoming provide any financial assistance or loans for the local meat industry? It would be a good investment for a potentially sustainable economic sector, as opposed to the Wyoming other big industry, drilling holes in the ground, scarring the landscape to dig out coal, and other extractive activities (which probably are showered with state aid).

  4. Jenny says:

    Despite the obstacles to purchasing meat directly from the farmers, I find that the eatwellguide (www.eatwellguide.org) is a great resource to locate restaurants, shops, markets, and etc. that carry local and organic products. I can just plug in my zipcode and, in my area, find a well-researched list of places that sell sustainable food-- foods that are more likely to be coming from close-by and not millions of miles away.

  5. Elanor says:

    Marc, good question. I didn't know, so I did a bit of research. The short answer is that I'm still not sure-- but I didn't find evidence that they give any significant amount of funding to local meat processors. If anyone knows otherwise, please let me know.

    One sad example of the state's lack of support for smaller-scale processors was a January 2007 decision by the state gov's Business Ready Community Grant and Loan Program. The city of Powell, WY petitioned the program for $1.5 million to fund the renovation of an abandoned building and turn it into the state's first USDA-certified processing facility-- and an organic one to boot! The board of the program did not approve the funding request. In their explanation, which you can read here (http://www.wyomingbusiness.org/pdf/irc/1-25-07_BRC_Staff_Recomendations_Final.pdf), they stated that "the staff is skeptical of the adequacy of public benefit [from the project].... Staff believes the public benefit is weakened by the specialized nature of the building which would minimize adaptive reuse of the facility for business development beyond [the packing plant]." In the same report, they approved $1.2 million for the construction of a factory that would manufacture polo equipment. Right.

    In slightly better news, on the federal front, the USDA's Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program gave a $77,000 grant in 2004 to the Wyoming Department of Agriculture to analyze the economic feasibility of a mobile meat processing unit. The survey they conducted showed that there was a need and that producers would be interested in using a mobile unit should one be built (you can read the analysis at http://www.ams.usda.gov/tmd/FSMIP/FY2003/WY0407.pdf). It hasn't been built yet as far as I can tell, but we can still hold out hope.

  6. It is even worse than you think. In some states, like Vermont, we can't even legally sell live animals to be butchered unless it is done by a USDA or state inspected plant. That means I can't sell my neighbor a whole pig, never mind a half pig share, and have it slaughtered on-farm or at a non-inspected processor. Legally, he can't even take an animal he didn't raise back to his house and slaughter it. In Vermont you must have participated in the raising of the animal or be a non-paying guest to eat the animal if it wasn't slaughtered at an inspected slaughter house. We're trying to change this but it's like swimming against the stream of molasses.

    This topic is near and dear to my heart because we drive many hours every week to deliver our pigs to a USDA processor and then back again, back again jiggity-jig to pickup said meat for delivery to stores. This rule is eating up three years of our life in driving over the long haul as well as the petroleum burnt and the wear and tear on the van and roads.

    The USDA inspected processing also costs about 50% more than custom processing thus raising the price of food and making less of that money flow to the farmers.

    The solution for us is to setup our own inspected processing facility. I'm reading everything I can to learn about this topic. We're years from that so I foresee a lot of driving before then.