To Market, To Market…

Date June 8, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Categories Health Care


To hear some ranchers tell it, the lack of processing facilities is preventing them from feeding more consumers local, grass-fed beef, lamb and pork that is humanely raised without hormones or antibiotics. For folks like Rick Kingsbury of Pecos Valley Grass-Fed Beef, the best of all possible worlds has a USDA, certified organic processing facility on their doorstep.

There used to be one as close as Mora to Kingsbury's ranch in Ribera. But that plant closed a few years ago, leaving ranchers in Northern New Mexico with few options. New Mexico only has a handful of USDA meat processing facilities for a state with a large rural area.

"Processing is a huge problem for us. A lot of us take all our animals to Durango. All that money goes out of state,"€ says Kingsbury, who transports his beef cattle to Colorado Springs, a 600 mile round trip. That's the closest processor that can handle the slaughter, hanging, processing and packaging of Kingsbury's volume of between 100 and 150 animals a year.

Kingsbury sells his beef at the Santa Fe Farmers' Market and through private buying clubs in Santa Fe and Los Alamos. There are smaller processors within about 120 miles from Kingsbury, but for various reasons aren't the best choice for his needs.

One of those smaller facilities is Ft. Sumner Processing, owned by Darrin Burns, in Ft. Sumner. Ft. Sumner's capacity is about four beef a day, with storage for between 30 to 40 carcasses as they hang and age. Burns' ability to serve more ranchers could increase, if he had the funds.

"Limited space is a challenge,"€ he says. "There's a lot of potential out there. I got several different people in the last few weeks that want me to process for them. I could double production, but not with the facility I have. It's not a problem with manpower or employees, either."€

Burns says he's talking to the state's economic development office to capitalize on the opportunity. He also says that there is untapped demand for services like his, and points to his geographically closest competition, SPR Custom Processing in Portales, which is also busy. "There's more than enough work out there,"€ Burns adds. "When slaughter slows down at this time of year, there's the private labeling to do. In certain parts of the state there's plenty of room for more of us."€

The second activity that ranchers rely on processors for is packaging and labeling of meats that they intend to sell to the general public, either through farmers' markets or restaurants. Some processors, like Fort Sumner, even sell packaged meats directly to the consumer from their retail freezers on behalf of ranchers. Burns would even like, in the semi-distant future, to become an outlet for ready to eat products like jerky and summer sausage. Right now, his equipment limits him to selling raw products like ready-to-cook sausages.

So what's keeping more processors from opening? Many ranchers and processors point to the federal government as the bottleneck. The State of New Mexico got out of the meat inspection business recently, leaving only the USDA to certify that beef, pork, chicken, lamb, buffalo and even yak is safe and appropriate to go into the food system. The feds simply don't have enough qualified inspectors to handle the demand for their services.

Additionally, the need for a USDA inspector varies depending on what the processor is doing. Slaughter and hanging of animal carcasses requires an inspector on site full time to review and approve each carcass. Cutting and packaging products requires only periodic inspection.

Some ranchers avoid entirely the complications of both the inspection system and the rising cost of fuel to transport their animals. They sell their live animals directly to the consumer, delivering them to the butcher or processor of the customer's choice. Moonbeam Ranch in Edgewood is an example.

Linda and Jim Rea sell about 15 grass-fed beef each year, either as a whole or half carcass. Because they sell the live cow, the customer can do whatever they want with it. The individual doesn't even need to have it delivered to a USDA approved processor or butcher, as long as he or she is on site to take delivery of the animal.

"People like the idea that they know what's going into their beef,"€ says Linda Rea. "When they buy beef from us, they get it cut exactly how they want it: roasts, steaks, hamburger, whatever, because they are dealing directly with the butcher."€

An average 1,000-pound calf results in 350 pounds of meat. Half a beef will feed a family of five for a year, if they supplement it with other proteins. Last year, says Rea, prices averaged $1.45-$1.55/lb on the hoof. She has no idea what the processing fees run, because the customer doesn't pay her for that.

Linda and her husband are both retired and not trying to make a living off the sale of their cattle, which makes them different from ranchers like Kingsbury or Antonio Manzanares of Shepherd's Lamb in Tierra Amarilla. For them, the rising cost of fuel to travel to far away processors is forefront in their minds. There's a price point beyond which consumers just won't buy a lamb or steak. They are nearing price point as fuel costs bite into already slim profit margins.

There is a potential bright spot, though, for everyone who values the end product of healthy meats humanely raised. Taos Economic Development Corporation introduced a traveling 36-foot long slaughter and storage unit called the mobile matanza. The mobile matanza has been traveling Northern New Mexico since November of last year and has harvested 40 animals, says Victor Mascarenas. The majority of those were buffalo for Taos and Pojaque Pueblos use in their feasts.

The mobile matanza's travel boundary is about 100 miles as the crow flies from Taos, with a capacity to harvest up to 16 beef, 30 hogs, or 50 lambs at one time, given the USDA inspector's eight-hour working day. If doing custom slaughter for private consumption, they could do more. Because the unit is self-contained, it could stay overnight at a ranch and continue work the next day before delivering the hanging carcasses to a processing and packing facility. Mascarenas reports that TECD is working on a license to cross into Colorado to be able to deliver to processors there, as well as the capability to cut, package and label products for retail sale.

Mascarenas sees the mobile matanza as a true service to the farms and ranches of the state. "This will work because people on the land here raise their animals, crops, and families with love and passion. That carries through to the food we eat. These products will make us healthier because we know they are safe, local, and humanely raised without antibiotics or hormones. We give thanks for the animals every time we harvest them. We do this because we have pride in providing for people's needs, and this is a way to tie community and neighbors back together again. I see this as the second coming of the acequia, because the acequia was part of the community and bound it together."€

As optimistic as Mascarenas projects the future possibilities for the mobile unit and the TECD kitchen, even the full capacity of the matanza won't completely satisfy the needs of Kingsbury and his fellow ranchers. That will take the recognition that consumers' demand for locally raised and processed products is growing at a pace that makes more processing facilities attractive economic propositions. Certainly, a facility on every rancher's doorstep isn't realistic or supportable. But more happens to be better in this case.