A Meaty Resource for Sustainable Processors
June 30, 2011 | Desa Philadelphia
Imagine that you’re a small rancher in a state, let’s say California, where sustainable meat products are in high demand. You’ve got a high-quality, grass-fed product that your neighbors and their friends would snap up in an instant if you could get it to them regularly, at a reasonable price. However, there isn’t a local meat processing plant that’s willing or able to handle your business and sending your cattle long distances undermines your customers’ commitment to eating local as well as elevates costs. Should you do your own processing?
The growing demand for high-quality, sustainably produced meat has resulted in a number of producers answering this question affirmatively. But opening a processing plant, even a small locker-type facility, requires so many certifications, regulations and market analyses that not being fully prepared could spell disaster. How then to evaluate the prospects for success? Enter NMPAN, the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network.
Where’s the Meat Research?
NMPAN bills itself as the first stop for information if you’re considering becoming a processor. Neither a trade organization nor a regulating body, it’s primarily a collective of university researchers, livestock producers, processors, marketers and buyers, NGOs and government agencies. The result is a brain trust of information about what’s needed to start a small processing plant, and what are the best practices for success. NMPAN not only connects all these stakeholders who need each other to stay in business, but it also helps them to access each other’s resources.
The idea for the organization grew out of Oregon State University professor Lauren Gwin’s dissertation for her PhD in Environmental Science Policy and Management from Berkeley. Her research focused on the barriers to scaling up sustainable meat production. From her conversations with meat processors struggling to scale their operations Gwin came to the realization that there wasn’t a definitive resource online or elsewhere where they could go for information. “Because I was just finishing my PhD I was thinking ‘what am I going to do next?’” she says. “Then I thought, ‘I am supposed to create a place where people can hook up with each other.’ There are lots of great groups working on sustainable agriculture and there are some great groups dealing with processors, but there wasn’t any sort of one-stop place where people can go to say ‘how do I do this?’, or even ‘should I do this?’”
Gwin joined forces with Arion Thiboumery, Vice-President of Lorentz Meats, a medium-small sized processor in Minnesota. Thiboumery, who has a PhD in Rural Sociology and Meat Science from the University of Iowa (he also teaches there), was already working with niche processors in Iowa where small locker-type facilities are resurgent. They launched NMPAN about three years ago with a seed grant from Heifer International. Today NMPAN stays afloat by participating in the eXtension program for Land Grant Universities and through grant funding that it receives from the Kellogg Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The organization also relies on a healthy helping of expert pro bono assistance.
A Valuable Resource for Processors
The greatest void that NMPAN fills is in providing assistance to processors who need help starting up or expanding their businesses. The website offers step-by-step guides on getting started and dealing with those pesky regulations, not just the federal mandates but all the third party audits from sustainable buying groups, which Gwin says can become really taxing. There are also case studies of niche processing businesses, even failed ones that serve as cautionary tales. The information forces potential business owners to think about all the what ifs: What if eating habits change, or equipment breaks down, or neighbors protest, or not enough producers use my facility?
For some considering becoming niche processors, where NMPAN may really have assisted them was in the decision not to get into the business in the first place. “Everybody wants to build a plant and most people shouldn’t,” says Gwin. “They think ‘processing is three hours away and I could save money if I did it myself.’ But if you start to add up all the costs of starting and running a plant you’d have to drive all the way to China to spend that much in gas.”
NMPAN also connects producers to processors (including mobile processors who travel to accommodate clients), provides state-by-state information through its network of locally focused experts and offers advice on how to make existing businesses more efficient.
The only group of stakeholders that seems to be underrepresented on the NMPAN website is consumers, a group that could clearly benefit from having more information about niche meat processing. Gwin recounts problems in Marin County, California where demand for local organic meats, grass-fed beef and other niche products is high, but where consumers are wary of plans to open meat processing plants. One niche processor had to jump through hoops to be allowed to cut up meat because his neighbors were concerned about water conservation and contamination issues. “It was hard for them to wrap their minds around that this isn’t the slaughterhouse you read about in The Jungle and this isn’t a huge Tyson farm, it’s a little butcher shop,” says Gwin.
Despite the high costs of doing business and following regulations, niche meat processing is going to be a growing part of sustainable food production. Gwin and other researchers in the field have documented explosive growth in niche meat consumption in the last decade. Take grass-fed meats for example. Estimates are that U.S. production reached 65,000 head in 2006, increased to 100,000 in 2007 and may have reached 400,000 head last year. No wonder there is interest in reaching for the cleaver.