I’ll Pay You to Kill My Steer

When Bill Niman, founder and chairman of Niman Ranch, started selling sustainably raised meat 30 years ago, the slaughterhouse he worked with was about 10 miles from his ranch in northern California. Now he has to truck his animals across state lines to be killed—250 miles away, to be exact.

Though consumer demand for specialty meats like Niman’s is growing, smaller ranchers are having a hard time meeting it. They simply can’t find places to get their animals killed.

The problem is the slaughterhouses. As ranching has changed from small family operations to giant corporations, the killing floors have expanded to meet their needs. An outfit like Niman Ranch, which has hundreds of animals a day that it needs slaughtered, is too small for many large slaughterhouses to bother with. And his is one of the largest specialty meat producers in the country. One farmer with a single herd often doesn’t stand a chance.

Smaller Plants Disappearing

According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the number of federally inspected meat-processing plants fell by about 200 between 2001 and 2005. About half that disappeared were very small plants, or businesses with ten or fewer employees and no more than $2.5 million in annual sales. The smaller guys simply couldn’t compete due to labor costs and stringent new food safety regulations. At the same time, big slaughterhouses consolidated into just 366 giant centers across the country.

Small ranchers often are far from these centers. Besides having too few animals for large slaughterhouses to care about, sometimes the animals themselves present a nuisance. The heritage turkeys raised by Frank Reese, a farmer in Lindsborg, Kansas, are shaped differently than conventional turkeys. In particular, they have less breast meat. Although Reese has a small slaughterhouse nearby that he can rely on for most of his needs, around Thanksgiving he has to kill thousands of birds at a time. This means he has to pay a large slaughterhouse to custom-kill them—at twice the rate a big turkey farm pays.

Heritage turkeys are shaped differently than conventional turkeys.

“They have to slow the line down because they’re not set up to handle our birds,” says Reese. Workers paid minimum wage to cut up turkeys the same way every time must change their process and interrupt their flow just for Reese’s birds. “They’re only willing to do that if we’re willing to pay.”

An Idea with Wheels

A group of farmers in Washington state has developed a novel solution: a mobile slaughterhouse. Pulled by a diesel truck, the refrigerated car is equipped to kill and process everything from birds to cows. It’s USDA approved and can meet small farmers at their doorsteps. It can handle only five to nine steers a day, but its small size is seen as a virtue by its farmer customers.

The farmers built their mobile slaughterhouse after trying to build a permanent one in the area and getting shut down by their neighbors.

On the outside, it looks like a large horse trailer. Inside, it has three sections for processing, refrigeration, and storage. One person can run the whole operation, and farmers pay $75 per animal. The carcasses are then taken to a facility where they’re cut into portions. Farmer Bruce Dunlop, who helped spearhead the cooperative of Washington farmers that built the slaughterhouse, says it cost about $150,000, versus the $400,000 he says a small permanent facility would have cost to build.

After three and a half years of operation, the cooperative now works with about 45 farms in a four-county, hundred-mile area. The mobile slaughterhouse is available all year, but June to December is the busiest time. “It’s a tiny percentage of what the big slaughterhouses do, but for small and medium-sized farms, it’s significant,” says Dunlop. “It’s not a get-rich-quick operation for anybody, but there is enough demand for locally grown meat to keep it going.”

Slow Growth, with Potential

At least one other slaughterhouse-on-wheels is being tested in California, but such operations have obvious limitations in the volume they can process. Farmers in western Washington have been able to sell a quarter-million pounds of meat that they wouldn’t have been able to produce otherwise. However, says Dunlop, “this is obviously not going to take over the industry just based on the number of animals we’re talking about,” says Dunlop. “We can only handle about 1,000 head each year, while something like 60 million animals are slaughtered in the country. But there are a fairly large number of communities around the country that could do the same thing.”

The other hope is that as more consumers are willing to pay higher costs for specialty meats, some of that money will flow into the coffers of small slaughterhouses, allowing them to compete against the bigger houses.

“Twenty to 25 years ago, this was a booming market; everybody was killing beef and poultry until boxed beef drove the prices down,” says Mike Smucker, of Smucker’s Meats in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania. Smucker recently expanded his business from a small butcher shop to a full-service, federally inspected slaughterhouse, after noticing consumers’ growing demand for specialty meats. “We just can’t do it as cheaply as the big packaging places. Still, there’s a large segment of the population that doesn’t want to buy from Wal-Mart.”

If that segment grows, slaughterhouses may shrink.