Farmer-run Livestock Processing Company Lends Hand and Marketing Muscle to Sustainable Producers
June 29, 2012 | Missy Smith
In a modern world of grocery and big box stores, farmers have even more of a need to stick together. Forming personal and professional relationships is one of the most important aspects of running a successful farming business. For those just starting out, it is invaluable to be able to depend on experienced farmers who not only know the ins and outs of the industry, but also possess valuable knowledge surrounding farming practices.
One group of farmers has formed a company called the Northeast Livestock Processing Service Company (NELPSC) that allows other farmers to tap into this rich source of knowledge and receive vital business assistance. The NELPSC, based in Sprakers, NY, was created in 2005 to help small livestock farmers navigate the business end of sustainable agriculture such as processing facilitation and marketing to increase profits.
“There were a lot of problems with processing. Farmers were trying to find adequate processing, but it was not available,” explains Kathleen Harris, owner of Currytown Farm, Montgomery, NY, and NELPSC’s processing and marketing coordinator. “The group was designed to mitigate those problems by forming a company that would serve in between the farmers and the processing plants.”
Realizing the challenges livestock farmers faced, the group organized to help their fellow farmers stay afloat, become successful and make processing a little less stressful. “A lot of farmers come to us because they called New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Cornell Cooperative Extension, and wanted to find livestock processing. These government organizations do not want to recommend one plant over another,” she says. “So everyone just tells them to call NELPSC.”
In addition to Harris, there are four other members that round out NELPSC’s team: Seymour Vander Veen, president, and owner of Seven View Farm; Hal Hermance, vice president; Jim Sullivan, treasurer, and owner of Miller Farm; Jim Hayes, secretary, and owner of Sap Bush Hollow Farm. In 2005, to form the NELPSC, the board members each bought a $100 share of the company. And, over the last 7 years, they have provided $22,000 in no-interest loans to the company during temporary cash shortfalls.
During its start-up period, the NELPSC received grants from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets and the New York Farm Viability Institute. The company has also received support and funding from the Rensselaer County Economic Development Office, New York State Assembly, David Rockefeller Foundation, Heifer Project International, USDA and NRCS.
Though one might assume that the NELPSC, which began as a project of the non-profit Hudson Mohawk Resource Conservation and Development Council (HMRC&D), would operate as a non-profit, it is in fact a for-profit company whose members pay for its services. Harris explains that the NELPSC buys livestock from member farmers, works with processors to create a product to sell within the local food markets, which include individual consumers, restaurants and caterers, and institutions that include government offices, colleges and universities. Looking toward the future, the company hopes to reach other institutions including nursing homes and hospitals. “They need good food too and we want to make sure they get it,” Harris says.
Essentially, NELPSC operates as the middleman in helping livestock farmers get their product to market more easily and efficiently. One example of this assistance is the NELPSC on-line listing service called ‘Seek and Sell’ where members can buy or sell their livestock to each other within the NELPSC network of farmers.“Farmers will say, ‘I’m running out of cattle, can you find me some grass-fed beef?’ It’s a good network and they have farmers they can sell to or buy from,” she explains. NELPSC serves as a great facilitator for not only its members, but other farmers looking for products that its members farmers may have.
NELPSC also makes a point of insuring that its 135 farmer members employ sustainable agriculture practices. When NELPSC buys from their member farmers to fill orders, Harris personally selects the livestock at the farms and obtains a signed affidavit from the farmer saying that the farm raises their livestock sustainably.
As part of its mission to reach out to and support small livestock farmers, the NELPSC strives to make its processing and marketing services affordable, which sometimes means the company will undercharge them. In addition, the company makes sure that they pay their farmers well. “The cost of beef has never been higher, but we pay the farmers well anyway,” she says.
This poses an ongoing challenge for the NELPSC. “We’re trying to sell an expensive product, but we’re selling it wholesale,” says Harris. “We’re asking our buyers to pay quite a bit more than they would in the industrial model, say for instance if they were buying it off the SYSCO truck. We buy high, and sell low, but somehow”
But, the company’s mission has never been to make money. It is more about supporting and nurturing small livestock producers during a time when the agricultural industry is in a decline. As part of this effort, the NELPSC works under a policy of not competing against their farmers. “We’ll encourage farmers in every way possible, but will never compete with them.” Harris says. “We are farmers helping other farmers.”