May 26, 2016

“Meating” Local Demand

Caitlin Fisher

Caitlin Fisher

Program Officer

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

slaughter_facilities_map copy

click to enlarge map of slaughter facilities in Maryland

Memorial Day weekend—a time to gather with friends and family, honor those who died while serving in the military, and celebrate the warmer summer months to come. And for many, it’s a time to clean off and fire up the old grill.

As the holiday weekend approaches, you may find yourself thinking about where to buy your hamburgers and other grilling essentials. Should you visit your neighborhood farmers market and buy from a local farmer? Or head over to the family-owned butcher shop down the street? Or maybe you will scour the grocery shelves for any sign of products from a local farm. If these options have been running through your head, you’re not alone.

Over the last few years, people have increased their demand for locally and regionally produced products. In Maryland, the value of agricultural products sold direct-to-consumers has increased by over 300 percent—from $7.4 million in 1992 to just over $28 million in 2012 [1] [2]. Increasingly, this includes demand for locally and sustainability raised and processed meat products. The Number One food trend since 2013 has consistently been locally sourced meats and seafood, according to the Culinary Forecast [3].

Despite this increase in demand, the local infrastructure in the middle may not be keeping pace. Data show the number of slaughter facilities are decreasing and consolidating. Nationally, there were 808 federally inspected plants in 2015, down from 910 in the year 2000, with a small number of large commercial plants accounting for the majority of slaughter [4] [5].

Since smaller, non-commercialized slaughter facilities are typically open to local and regional farms that would like to have their animals custom slaughtered and processed, some questions came to mind:

  • Are the smaller slaughter facilities catering to local and regional farmers disappearing?
  • Are there enough slaughter facilities to accommodate the demand of locally and regionally produced meat?
  • What are the challenges and needs of small and mid-sized slaughter?

With these emerging trends and questions in mind, The Maryland Food System Map Project began revisiting and digging deeper into a dataset we first collected in 2012 on USDA inspected slaughterhouses in Maryland—a dataset originally used to create maps displaying slaughterhouses and their capacity with animal production in order to explore potential gaps in local infrastructure.

First, we looked at updated national data on the total number, location, and types of slaughterhouses. Since the original data collection in 2012, two new slaughterhouses have become USDA inspected and one is no longer listed, for a total of 24. Three of the 24 are large commercial poultry slaughter facilities (no change from 2012) and one slaughters only wild game, leaving a total of 20 livestock and poultry facilities. Looking at the map, all three commercial poultry slaughterhouses are located on the Eastern Shore while the majority of the livestock and smaller poultry slaughterhouses are located in the northern and northwest regions of Maryland.

Knowing that we cannot underscore gaps and challenges with data and maps alone, we set out to find stories from those on the ground. We interviewed 11 of the 24 facilities in Maryland, all of which mostly slaughtered livestock, and gathered stories that we hope will bring the data to life and uncover some challenges and needs of the local industry.

Room for growth and expansion

With a national trend of diminishing and consolidating facilities in mind, and the increase in demand for locally and regionally produced meat, we asked the slaughterhouses about whom they serve and their ability to increase capacity. All 11 slaughterhouses offer custom slaughtering services for local and regional farms with almost half indicating that custom services make up the majority of their business. Interviewees most commonly cited serving farms from Maryland and surrounding states: Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. Additionally, 10 of the 11 slaughterhouses interviewed indicated that their facility could accommodate increased output if customers wanted to bring in more animals. However, the responses often included insight into the challenges they face for increasing capacity: first, there is a lack an ample workforce, and second, the work fluctuates with the season.

Lack of new, young, and skilled workers

Despite the desire and ability to increase capacity, an emergent theme from our interviews was the lack of young, skilled workers to help grow or take over the slaughter facilities – a narrative very familiar in the agriculture and farming community. One interviewee expressed how meat slaughter and processing is not seen as a valued or attractive occupation and therefore hard to entice others to continue this work, albeit an important and necessary aspect of our food system if we want to meet demand for local. Another mentioned that as the industry has grown and consolidated, it has trained employees to work on an “assembly line” with knowledge and skill for performing one action in the process of slaughter or processing. Many people who have worked in the slaughter industry for larger commercial slaughterhouses may not know the skill and art of slaughtering and butchering a whole animal, something a smaller or mid-sized facility may need. If smaller non-commercialized slaughter facilities are not able to find, train and retain skilled employees, they face the threat of closing or drastically reducing their business, even as farmers and consumers demand increases.

Seasonality

Seasonality constraints for slaughterhouses are not unlike the experience of a restaurateur, school, or eater trying to source local products year round. Similar to crops, livestock are raised during the spring and summer months and typically butchered in the fall. One interviewee mentioned how the period of time after 4-H fair season in the fall tends to be the busiest. Slaughterhouses operate year round yet producers often do not have animals to take to slaughter in the off season. This leaves open spaces in these facilities during the winter and spring months. While increasing capacity may be possible, certain times of the year may be more feasible than others.

Conclusion

While the data on the total number of slaughterhouses did not change drastically since our original research in 2012, the addition of stories help to provide insight and bring the numbers to life. The 11 livestock slaughterhouses interviewed were all smaller non-commercialized facilities that cater to local and regional farms, with the ability to expand if they had an adequate workforce, timing and support. Without a thriving “middle,” the capacity to supply the demand for local and regional could vanish.

So when you fire up the grill this Memorial Day weekend, take a moment to think about the middle—the people who work tirelessly in the slaughterhouses, at the mid-point between farm and the burger.

Sources:

[1] USDA NASS, 1992 Census of Agriculture, Volume 1, Chapter 1, Table 2

[2] USDA NASS, 2012 Census of Agriculture, Volume 1, Chapter 1, Table 2

[3] Retrieved from

http://www.restaurant.org/Downloads/PDFs/News-Research/WhatsHot2016

http://www.restaurant.org/Downloads/PDFs/News-Research/WhatsHot2015-Results.pdf

https://www.restaurant.org/Downloads/PDFs/News-Research/WhatsHot/What-s-Hot-2014.pdf

http://www.restaurant.org/Pressroom/Press-Releases/Whats-Hot-in-2013-Chef-Survey

[4] USDA NASS, Livestock Slaughter Annual Summary 2000 & 2015

[5] USDA ERS, Slaughter and Processing Options and Issues for Locally Sourced Meat. June 2012. Retrieved from: http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/820188/ldpm216-01.pdf

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