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The road to real food


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You, the ethical eater, the eschewer of hormone-laced meats, the epicurean locavore, the esteemer of seasonality: You are lucky to live in the Triangle. Farmers' markets are multiplying, grocery stores are getting around to carrying some local produce and even some local meat. Compared to 10 years ago, much less 20 or 30, our agricultural cup runneth over. Or so it would seem.

But the cornucopia is only half full—if that. Only a minute fraction of the food consumed in the Triangle is good, clean, fair and local. And you have to work hard to find it—combing farmers' markets, investigating whether that grass-fed beef is finished on grain or not, resisting petro-peppers from Holland and gas-guzzling kiwis from New Zealand.

Why aren't our shelves filled with local products? North Carolina is an agricultural state with a long growing season; this isn't Vermont.

Demand isn't the problem; it's roadblocks in the supply chain, bottlenecks and barricades on the road to real food that make local eating a chore for the few instead of a choice for the many.

Those kinks and bottlenecks aren't often obvious to us, the consumers at the happy end of the food chain. Why would we have guessed, for instance, that cod and salmon are shipped frozen from Northern Europe to China, where they are filleted, refrozen and shipped back?

But it's not just fish taking the long way to our mouths. If you've bought a chicken at a Triangle farmers' market, the odds are that chicken has visited either South Carolina or Virginia; local meat producers have to drive hundreds of miles to get their chickens processed. That detour between farm and retail takes locally raised meat animals on long and stressful road trips, consuming time and gas along the way.

A large part of our food infrastructure, the part relevant to small and mid-sized producers, has gone missing. Piece by piece, it is being rebuilt, but it will take time, money and effort. We're missing processing plants. We're missing venues for local "value-added" food. We're missing a structure for responsibly scaling up the supply of sustainable local food. And we're missing a friendly regulatory environment for all of the above.

The good news is that local farmers, agriculture support organizations and even the state government are working to smooth out the bumps.

This little chicken went to market

If you think you have to work hard finding that tasty pastured chicken, that grass-fed beef, the farmer has to work even harder getting it to you. On small sustainable farms, the everyday work is onerous and subject to the traditional farming worries—uncertain weather, voracious insects and diseases. And market farmers are, of necessity, also in the marketing business—convincing you that this heirloom sweet potato tastes better, that breed of chicken is worth the premium. Raising meat animals adds to the complexities. First of all, forget about yearly vacations. Animals don't go dormant in January. Second, animals don't grow into uniform portion sizes, ready for display at the farmers' market. That entails a trip to a processing plant. (On-farm slaughter is an option, but even more of a niche; there's a 1,000 birds per year maximum—a lot of chickens for most small farms.)

Over the past decade, there has been a rapid consolidation of slaughterhouses. Smaller slaughterhouses have closed or been bought out by large operations—and closed. Nationally, we've lost well over 200 slaughterhouses since 2001. In the vertically integrated factory farm world of supermarket chicken, huge slaughterhouses are devoted to the automated processing of the output of huge chicken "houses." You just don't drive a pickup truck with some dozens of chickens up to the loading dock of Big Slaughta. In fact, until just a couple of weeks ago, poultry processing required a drive out of state.

(Shortly before Thanksgiving, I had my heritage breed turkey rendezvous in a darkening parking lot near N.C. State. The family farmers of Rainbow Meadow Farm in Snow Hill had just driven four hours to Kingstree, S.C., stayed to help with the processing, and then driven the four hours back.)

A much-needed poultry processing plant for small producers opened near Siler City last month. Chaudhry Halal Meats, which has had a red meat (lamb, beef, goat) processing plant for more than a decade, took the expensive plunge into air-chilled poultry processing. The April 2 open house attracted many local farmers eager for a nearby alternative. They avidly questioned the details of labeling, cut-up, availability of livers, and, of course, price.

Three weeks after opening, Abdul Chaudhry (see "Farmers' helpers") is pleased with his careful ramp-up of the plant. They've processed 2,000 chickens in three weeks, as they fine-tune the process far below the full capacity of 2,000 a day.

"We're lucky to have experienced people working here," Chaudhry says, and it's gone "smoothly."

Touring the facility and reading such material as "Grower Guidelines for Poultry and Fowl Processing," I was struck, once again, by the enormous hurdles processors and growers face. The regulatory environment is simultaneously onerous, vague and capricious. Like much of the U.S. food system, regulations favor large producers: Large producers have access to capital (a small plant can be a $1 million investment), can tolerate losing a few birds, deal in exploited workers and have the ear of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of course, part of the real price for the so-called economies of scale are inferior products, inhumanely raised.

And, as Richard Holcomb of Hillsborough's Coon Rock Farm points out, it was a USDA-inspected plant that made news a month ago for forklifting comatose cows onto the slaughter line. Holcomb processes his chickens on-farm, saving himself almost a day's worth of labor, the gasoline costs and the processing fee by doing it himself. He estimates his savings at $5 a bird, but he's limited to selling a maximum of 1,000 birds a year.

On-farm slaughter of red meat animals is not permitted at all. Not 1,000, not five, not one.

Small and medium-sized operations end up saddled with regulations that have been promulgated in reaction to missteps (to put it blandly) indigenous to large plants.

One solution, not yet implemented in North Carolina, is the mobile slaughterhouse. Washington, Kentucky, New Mexico, Texas and a few other places have pioneered the portable abattoir, proving the regulatory hurdles are not impossible. It can save gasoline and is much less stressful for the animals, particularly those who have never been confined.

So, it's a great good thing that we ethical eaters are willing to pay a premium for sustainable foods that taste good; the price the farmer pays per bird for processing hovers around $3. Cheap food, and the system that enables it, is the problem, not part of the solution. (See "We all pay the price for cheap food," Oct. 26, 2005.)

The cure

While the new processing plant in Siler City is a boon to local chicken farmers, a halal processing plant isn't about to do pork. The situation with pork (and the other "red" meats) isn't as desperate as it has been with poultry, because there are a few processors for small raisers.

Jennifer Curtis (see "Farmers' helpers") of N.C. Choices estimates there are 30 independent slaughter facilities in North Carolina that are inspected by either the USDA or the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. This is quite a lot. California, she points out, has no USDA beef plant for small producers. (About poultry, Curtis says: "Chaudhry opening a chicken line—that's huge.") With red meat, the problem is more one of skill in butchering (getting all those chops the same thickness) and the important issue of "value-added" products—sausage, cured sausage and cured meat in general.

"When I first came on board," Curtis says, "I thought it was about building new plants; it's much more about refurbishing existing facilities."

The ideal would be an operation that had the machinery and the culinary skills to produce high-quality charcuterie. The training for these skills will have to come from somewhere, as will willing capital. With these "infrastructure needs," she observes, "It's not a lot of money to buy equipment" for sausage making, smoking, curing, etc.

That may be a while coming. But the demand is there. Local chef-owned restaurants have, as is often the case, led the way—doing some of their own salting, smoking and curing of locally raised meat. There are beginning to be some artisans of curing in our area. Giacomo's salamis out of Greensboro are sold at Weaver Street Market in Carrboro and at Wine Authorities in Durham. And chef Glenn Lozuke is making pastrami, ham and other cures for local restaurants, including Watts Grocery and Magnolia Grill in Durham.

Part of the problem, hinted at above, is one of scale. There is only so much that can be sold at farmers' markets and to those restaurants whose skill level and flexibility can deal with the variability in both supply schedule and portion size that small farming entails.

One solution is to scale up. Not the kind of scaling up that Earl Butz, infamous Secretary of Agriculture, famously kicked off in 1972 with his "get big or get out" remark. There's a gaping hole in N.C. farming between the small farmer and the corporate and contract farmers. There are basically two ways to scale up: medium-sized farms and co-ops.

There is some nascent co-oping going on with N.C. Choices, Growers' Choice and Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO), each of which offers a different kind of help for farmers in navigating the roadblocks preventing them from getting their products to market.

N.C. Choices maintains lists of local farmers with sustainably raised products, offers technical assistance and marketing help, and organizes meat-buying clubs to consolidate purchasing. They've been remarkably successful in support of local, sustainably raised pork.

Growers' Choice is a farmers' co-op helping to get local meat to market. After a fitful start involving a failed effort at establishing its own plant, Growers' Choice now envisions enrolling a number of medium-sized chicken growers and, utilizing Chaudhry's plant, offering a regular supply to local groceries such as Weaver Street Market.

In a well-functioning market for food, we should be able to buy chicken for $2/pound to $3/pound from medium-sized growers and $5/pound from smaller growers who raise the slower maturing, fully pastured, tastier breeds. If we've finally learned that there's more than one kind of kale, we can also support different kinds of chicken.

ECO is a farmers' co-op for getting local organic produce from farm to table. It was kicked off a few years ago by the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association.

Government chips in

Until recently, the state government's agricultural support agencies were heavily tilted in favor of Big Ag. Even academic support at the land grant schools for small sustainable farming has been weak, as departments tend to be funded by those with funds; the Food Science department at N.C. State is largely concerned with products that Kraft finds interesting.

But things have changed, and the state has become surprisingly more supportive of small sustainable farming. Officials from NCSU Extension and NCSU Poultry Science were on hand at the Chaudhry open house; the state agriculture department had given substantial engineering and design assistance for the upfitting of the building to an inspection-worthy plant.

At NCSU, the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, a project of NCSU, N.C. A&T and state government, is doing great work and has spun off N.C. Choices, which has been an enormous force in getting sustainably raised pork to market. Says N.C. Choices' Jennifer Curtis: It's "a foray into [going] beyond production ... to actually supporting farm to fork."

Orange and Chatham extension services have been supporting local sustainable agriculture for quite a while. Debbie Roos (see "Farmers' helpers"), the Chatham County extension agent, has been a vital resource for sustainable agriculture for years. Finding out about, much less navigating, the complex regulations concerning food and food handling is very tricky. Gathering and providing that information is one of Roos' most vital services. (See, for example, "Selling Eggs, Meat, and Poultry in North Carolina: What Farmers Need to Know.")

On the value-added front, Noah Ranells (see "Farmers' helpers"), the agricultural developer for the Orange County Economic Development Commission, has been working on a "shared use food and agricultural processing facility" with professional grade and size equipment, for small-scale food entrepreneurs, farmers and caterers. If everything goes right, this will be a 10,000-square-foot food processing facility for producing preserves, baked goods and prepped vegetables. For an hourly fee, clients will be able to work in a well-equipped, inspected kitchen. Ranells foresees that coaching, labeling, training and help with marketing will be provided, making it an incubator for small food-related businesses.

Balancing the scale

Scaling up with medium-sized farms, well-coordinated farmers' co-ops, and a value-added infrastructure is necessary in order to allow stores to retail locally raised meats. Weaver Street and even Whole Foods and A Southern Season are actively looking to be retailers of local meat.

Medium-sized means between 50 and 200 acres—too big to sell direct, too small for big buyers. As Jennifer Curtis points out, medium-sized farms can't sell to big buyers because they'd be "crushed on price." What these farms can offer isn't cheap meat, just better meat.

Only 1 percent of the American population works on farms, a huge decrease from even 50 years ago. Two exceptions to vanishing farms: very small, tax-shelter farms and mega-farms with sales of more than $5 million per year. All other types of farms are decreasing in number. Small farms often make it only on off-farm income; large farms make it on your tax dollars.

Many factors are hurting sustainable unsubsidized farming. We need farm incubators, to attract and train new farmers, and farmland conservancy, to counteract sprawl, on a big scale. State funding of these efforts is at least as worthwhile as throwing money at Google. And, work needs to be done on unnecessarily arcane regulatory hurdles, an often surprising mix of city, county, state and federal rules.

The goal, as Curtis says, is to have "a fair food-value chain where no one is squeezed, everyone is making some money."

And chickens have to cross fewer roads.


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