Small farmers still struggle to compete with supermarket meat


At the start of the pandemic, supermarket meat counter shelves were sometimes empty as the country’s major meat packers were forced to shut down or reduce production. At Full Moon Farm in Gardiner, the shortfall in grocery stores meant more business than usual. As a result, customers accustomed to paying $4 to $5 a pound for ground beef were willing to spend nearly double that.

“I had to close my little self-service…farm shop because they were coming day and night. People were hoarding,” said Paul Colucci, owner of Full Moon Farm.

Colucci production doubled in 2020, but the boom was short-lived. Farm sales returned to pre-pandemic figures as soon as supermarket shelves filled up again.

The Biden administration has appealed to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to address inequities in the meat industry and increase the profitability of small meat producers. Big meatpackers have consolidated the market to the point where prices are set too low for small farmers to compete for supermarket presence, leaving them to sell their product in the small farmers market and direct selling models to consumers.

President Joe Biden, in a virtual address Jan. 3, addressed the “lack of competition” that distorts the cost of meat to consumers and the prices independent farmers and ranchers are paid for what they produce.

Yet, according to some Hudson Valley animal producers, growing a small farm’s market share in the meat industry is more complicated than simple federal subsidy programs.

Few meat processing options for local farmers

Full Moon Farm in Gardiner uses a USDA facility to harvest most of its meat, the only way the farm can sell cuts of meat online or in its farm store.

full moon farm

Under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the USDA announced a $500 million investment to expand meat and poultry processing capacity. The funding will provide loans, grants and technical expertise to expand opportunities in rural areas for more slaughterhouses and meat processors, infrastructure that has lagged behind the needs of smallholder farmers for years.

Additionally, another $155 million grant is being offered to existing small processors to increase production efficiency and alleviate some of the financial burden of overtime inspection fees the pandemic is placing on processors.

For areas like the Hudson Valley, there are few options for USDA-certified facilities that can kill and process animals into meat. The number of farms in the region with animals for processing exceeds the capacity that local processors can fill under current guidelines.

The obvious solution would be to build more slaughter and processing facilities, but that’s not as easy as it sounds, even with the financial incentives offered by the USDA.

“The federal bureaucracy and guidelines are just cumbersome, for lack of better words,” Colucci said. “Besides… municipalities don’t really like having a slaughterhouse in a certain area. It’s almost impossible to locate any of these things.

There are few viable locations for a slaughterhouse that local residents would support. Financial investment is its own fight.

When Colucci was looking to build his own facility 10 years ago, a state-of-the-art 10,000 square foot facility would have cost $3.5 million to build, he said.

USDA loans and grants would help a new business meet its financial obligations, but running a slaughterhouse is not a business many people clamor to get into.

“You have to be a 30-year-old man with energy…to want to take on something like this,” he said.

Even though there is a shortage of meat processors in the Hudson Valley and Taconic areas, some small farmers can avoid having to take an animal to a USDA-inspected facility by selling animals directly to customers and processing on the farm under the Customs Exemption Directive. from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.

“If you come to my farm and choose this steer and pay me whatever we agree on. I can actually do on-farm slaughter,” Colucci said. “We could do anything for you and we would never have to go through federal inspection.”

This type of direct-to-consumer sale can be profitable for small-scale farmers, but it requires the equipment, labor, and expertise of on-farm slaughtering and whole-animal butchering. Also, any meat processed in this way cannot be sold at retail, which means that the cuts of meat cannot be resold to customers of an agricultural store or market.

Bring the meat to market

Chaseholm Farm lost a nearby USDA-certified processor, and now owner Sarah Chase drives three hours each way to prepare meat for sale.

Chaseholm Farm lost a nearby USDA-certified processor, and now owner Sarah Chase drives three hours each way to prepare meat for sale.

Chaseholm Farm

For most farmers, on-farm processing is a purely complementary option to the more common practice of taking animals to USDA-inspected facilities.

But in the Hudson Valley and Catskills, there are only a handful of USDA-inspected slaughter and processing facilities, leaving many farmers traveling for hours.

Sarah Chase, owner of Chaseholm Farm in Pine Plains, has to travel three hours each way to bring her steers to harvest. Its previous processor was only minutes away, but it ceased to be USDA certified last year.

“It doesn’t make sense to bring a cow for three hours,” she said. “Instead, I have to bring four cows for three hours.”

The loss of another processing facility puts more pressure on the few remaining facilities to serve farmers. More animals means more meat to sell, provided a processor has the space to accommodate the additional animals.

Fortunately for Chase, the increased demand for local meat during the pandemic has continued into 2021. Yet it cannot effectively grow its business in local grocery stores and supermarkets where most consumers buy the majority of their meat. . Its price for beef is too high to be competitive.

Rather than selling in regional supermarkets like Hannford’s, Chase used a recent food sovereignty program facilitated by the nonprofit Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming. She received $12,000 last year – the market rate for her produce – to supply her meat to two different local food pantries. The contract is expected to be renewed this year, although the final amount has not yet been determined.

“I know exactly what these people want, like ground beef or sausage,” Chase said. “They want affordable and convenient food.”

There are many unknowns when raising animals for meat and a reliable outlet for the finished product takes some of the uncertainty out of the business. Similar to community-sponsored agriculture (CSA) programs, the Food Sovereignty Fund allows small farms, like Chaseholm, to forecast demand for their produce.

“Engagement helps you plan and grow your business without ending up taking a ton of risk,” Chase said.

A collective solution

Creating more opportunities for small farmers in the Northeast requires more than just boosting regional meat processors. It could mean rethinking the way small farmers work collectively.

“It will take more community members, more investment, better infrastructure and more business networks,” said Jack Algiere, director of agriculture at the Stone Barns Center. “A better network of regional centers so that farmers work more together rather than individually.”

A cooperative or collaborative model of independent farmers working together could open up more opportunities in regional grocery stores. Groups of small farmers could produce a higher volume of locally raised meat and offer lower prices to regional markets. In other words, if there was sufficient processing capacity to slaughter more animals.

Addressing the lack of regional processing capacity is the first step, and the Biden administration’s stance over the past year is admirable in acknowledging systemic issues of inequality with American meat production, Algiere said.

“Look, the USDA has never really done anything that immediately helps the individual, as much as providing opportunities for communities to engage,” he said.

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