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What's holding back local meat?

A new report analyzes challenges and innovations in local meat processing, and offers business strategies for both farmers and processors.

Building more meat processing plants won't yield more local meat unless farmers and processors change how they do business with each other, according to a new report.

"Farmers say, 'There aren't enough processors.' But how can processors stay open, let alone grow, without enough steady, consistent business to pay their bills?" said lead author Lauren Gwin, a researcher at Oregon State University. "'I'll call you when I need you' is convenient in the short term but doesn't give either side any long-term stability or growth."

The report at http://1.usa.gov/11mqFJb analyzed challenges and innovations in local meat processing. It focused on seven successful processors around the U.S.

Gwin and co-author Arion Thiboumery, an extension associate at Iowa State University, found that long-term business commitments between processors and farmers were essential to success.

"If farmers, on their own or in coordinated groups or brands, commit to bringing a steady supply of livestock, processors could then commit to providing consistent, high-quality services," Gwin said.

Researchers found different examples of these arrangements. For Lorentz Meats and TFC Poultry, two Midwest processors, a few anchor customers provide most of their revenue. This allows them to process for small farms that bring far fewer animals each year, and only seasonally.

Island Grown Farmers Cooperative is known for running the first U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected mobile slaughter unit. Perhaps more critical to its success is that all members commit to slaughter dates a year in advance, even for livestock not yet born.

Commitment goes both ways: Smuckers Meats and Heritage Meats help their farmer customers with marketing and distribution.

"Without local processors, you simply have no local meat," Thiboumery said. "We even saw examples of farmers investing financially in their processors — helping them add needed equipment or improve services."

Gwin and Thiboumery also examined efforts around the country where nonprofits, universities and state and local agencies are working together to provide technical assistance to local processors and their farmer-customers.

USDA's Economic Research Service published the findings this week at http://1.usa.gov/17nmjGl under a cooperative agreement with Gwin and Oregon State. The Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network at http://bit.ly/16eTsze, led by Gwin and Thiboumery, published a version of the report at http://bit.ly/192a7LG with policy recommendations, including technical assistance for processors and farmers and clarification of regulations.

USDA funded the report, "From Convenience to Commitment: Securing the Long-Term Viability of Local Meat and Poultry Processing."

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