Poolesville farm among those interested in custom meat production
Top options for producers: cut and wrap facility, mobile slaughterhouse
Farmers in Montgomery, Fredrick and Washington counties are working to find ways to feed a new type of customer one who doesn't simply ask, "Where's the beef?" but, "Where's the beef been?"
They may soon be served.
Dick Stoner of Stoner Family Farms, LLC, in Washington County, is leading an initiative to bring small farm owners, including some in Montgomery County, a sustainable, financially-digestible option by 2011.
The group plans to build a cut-and-wrap cold storage facility so farmers could ship animals there after they are slaughtered. Then, they would cool and be butchered specifically to customers' orders.
Farmers now drive livestock to one of several slaughterhouses in surrounding counties where it is slaughtered, cooled, cut and wrapped. Custom cuts often are not available, and meat is frozen on-site, so farmers must keep it frozen to sell.
With the cut-and-wrap cold storage facility, customers would be delivered fresh, custom-cut meat that was prepared in a facility run by local farmers.
"We look forward to building a system that really works for people so that farm to table is a reality, not an expression used just in government programs," Stoner said.
Stoner, a board member of the Maryland Small Farm Co-op, said he will apply for United States Department of Agriculture grants for the cut-and-wrap facility before a Nov. 15 deadline, and hopes to begin operations by the end of 2011. In 2008, the USDA Rural Development Community Facilities Program offered an average grant of $655,229 for similar projects.
The cost of building a cut-and-wrap facility would be about $1 million, with expensive monthly operational costs, according to Heath Dehaan, owner of Kansas City, Mo.-based Food and Lifestock Planning Inc., which has helped build and plan several meat processing plants.
Rocklands Farm, southeast of Poolesville, began operations in February. Farm manager Greg Glenn said he would like to hear more about the cut-and-wrap facility, or any solution offering a more cost-effective way to deliver custom cuts.
The cost of cut-and-wrap would be about $250 for each scheduled service, in addition to the price farmers now pay to have meat slaughtered, cut and wrapped, Stoner said.
Rocklands Farm is currently raising 17 cattle and about 150 chickens on 34 acres, and maintaining a vegetable and produce garden. Glenn said he has just recently started considering his meat-processing options.
"If you can farm in a more direct-to-consumer way, you capture a lot more value and you can specialize in what you do, and then it's not just a commodity market," Glenn said.
The cut-and-wrap facility would make way for another method to deliver fresher food to customers a mobile slaughtering unit. The self-contained unit would travel to a farm, or a central location, where inspectors from the USDA would inspect meat as it is slaughtered.
The mobile unit, resembling a medium-size cargo trailer, would be pulled by a truck and have areas designated for slaughtering, inspecting, chilling and wastewater disposal. Farmers who normally wait a few months to get their meat slaughtered at busy, distant slaughterhouses would have an instant solution, and customers could have their orders faster.
Mobile slaughtering units are supported by government loans, but operations, maintenance and staffing are normally controlled by private co-ops.
The nearest slaughterhouse to Montgomery is in Mount Airy, near the county's northeast tip.
Caroline Taylor, executive director of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance, said a mobile slaughterhouse could provide a timely solution to small farm owners. The alliance advocates for agricultural reserve land preservation and solicits feedback from farmers.
"We have heard from quite a few people that were raising livestock, or would like to, but the proximity to meat slaughterhouses and processing requirements made it difficult."
Tom Wagner, owner of the slaughterhouse in Mount Airy, Wagner's Meats, LLC, said his slaughterhouse custom processes meat to farmer's orders, and he hasn't heard complaints from farmers requesting a more custom-cut product. Wagner said his only complaint is customer's wait time.
"We're busy," Wagner said. "It's a good problem to have."
Stoner said that some slaughterhouses do offer custom cuts, but the cut-and-wrap facility and a mobile slaughterhouse would offer farmers greater flexibility. Farms would be able to request custom cuts at any time during the weeks their meat is cooling at the cut-and-wrap, rather than having to give a slaughterhouse the order upfront.
"It allows meat farmers to cut the product in the way the final customer wants it," he said.
In June, the USDA sponsored a public meeting in Washington County proposing the mobile slaughtering unit for Montgomery, Fredrick and Washington counties. It would be the second in the Northeast, with one in New York's Hudson Valley, and the 10th in the nation.
While mobile slaughtering may come to the area eventually, Stoner and other local farmers agree a unit is not now feasible due to the cost (from $250,000 to $300,000), required manpower and inability to quickly staff such an operation.
Maryland Policy Choices surveys, conducted annually by the University of Baltimore Schaefer Center, report consumers' growing interest in buying locally-produced foods and preserving farmland.
In 2010, 78 percent of Marylanders said they were more likely to buy produce identified as having been grown by a Maryland farmer, 21 percent more than those surveyed in 2006. Marylanders are now also 8 percent more likely to believe it is very important to preserve farmland, up to 61 percent from 53 percent, in 2010 and 2006, respectively.
Taylor, of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance, said there is a growing appetite for locally-raised meat as families realize the benefits of sustainable farming practices.
From 2002 to 2007, the number of cattle farms in Montgomery County decreased by more than 30 percent, from 154 to 102, according to the 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture.
Kristin Fisher, an agricultural programs specialist with the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development, said the co-op's solutions might increase the number of meat producers in the area, and help supply the more than 15 farmer's markets in the county.
"It is a welcome development," Fisher said. "It would help and would encourage more people to go into [the agricultural] business or expand their business."
Taylor said she knows customer demand will be there when farmers are ready.
"People have increasing awareness that is a benefit to their family's health and the environment to grow the food in a sustainable way whether it is certified organic or using best practices," she said.