Solving the Meat-to-Market Riddle
THIS IS THE SORT OF CONUNDRUM that regularly presents itself to consumers in search of local food products: There are more beef cattle in Kentucky than any other state east of the Mississippi, yet unless you know a farmer, access to locally raised beef is mostly limited to farmers’ markets and some restaurants.
The truth about meat is the truth about all local food: Although there are farmers who grow it and consumers who want it, there have been relatively few ways to get the product from one to the other.
Until recently, the hunt for local meat—for consumers, restaurants, schools and others—was erratic and unsatisfying. There are 62 slaughter plants in the state, according to a 2007 University of Kentucky study. Only 43 of those provide USDA inspection of the process. The other 19 cannot sell the meat to the public, only to the owner of the animal. If you buy a cow from a farmer, you can get it processed at non-USDA plant.
The 43 USDA-inspected plants are used by farmers who sell meat by the piece at farmers’ markets. If a chef wanted local meat, he or she would need to be visited by the farmer. Or sometimes a chef like Mayan Café’s Bruce Ucan would visit the farmers’ markets. Boone’s Butcher Shop in Bardstown, and Memphis Meat in Southern Indiana, process virtually all the meat (and no poultry) available locally. Both are relatively small butcher shops that have waiting lists for farmers who want to bring animals to them. Boone closes to farmers during deer season.
There are few poultry processing plants and, as a result, local chicken is difficult to find, relatively expensive and virtually unavailable to any but the single end user.
A partial solution to this lack of beef distribution came last year, when the Kentucky Department of Agriculture forged a deal that saw an Midwest meat company buying cows from Kentucky farmers, shipping them to the Midwest for finishing and processing, then shipping them back to Kentucky as a “Kentucky Proud” product. This meat guarantees a small premium to Kentucky cattle farmers and provides traceability for its beef. But it’s an imperfect solution, with little additional benefit to the local economy, a disturbing carbon footprint and a continuation of dubious finishing practices (grain feeding, antibiotics, etc).
ENTER MARKSBURY MEAT COMPANY AND BLUEGRASS LAMB AND GOAT, two separate operations, both in Garrard County, changing consumer access to meat. Bluegrass Lamb and Goat handles lamb, mutton and goat and has halal capabilities. Marksbury processes beef, pork and chicken in facilities modeled on some of Temple Grandin’s recommendations.
The implications of these relatively new facilities are promising for Kentucky farmers, Kentucky users and the Kentucky small-farm economy. Both add processing facilities, long acknowledged as a bottleneck for the thriving local meat industry (Kentucky could use more).
A more dramatic benefit to those in search of local food: Both Bluegrass and Marksbury buy animals from farmers and provide them to restaurants and retail stores, allowing the farmer to go home and farm and allowing larger-volume consumers greater access to a predictable supply of meat.
With these additional sales, a farmers’ market farmer might be able to double his capacity — selling one lamb, for instance, to Bluegrass Lamb and Goat while keeping a second lamb to sell himself. These processing plants extend sales seasons for farmers’ market farmers whose markets typically open only four or five months. And by providing marketing and delivery, these plants provide an option for farmers uninterested in sales, marketing, added insurance and inspection responsibilities.
Bluegrass Lamb and Goat currently markets mostly in the Lexington area, but processes meat for Four Hills Lamb. Four Hills contracts with several small Kentucky farms that raise Katahdin sheep, which require no shearing, thrive during our hot summers and whose meat has a milder flavor than wool sheep. Four Hills sells meat in Louisville to several East End Kroger stores and to Whole Foods, making it available to at least some supermarket shoppers. Bluegrass Lamb and Goat was built in 1978 to process deer, pork and beef. Gil Myer, past president of the Kentucky Goat Association, bought the plant with two partners in 2007 as more farmers became interested in raising meat goats for ethnic markets. Currently, it processes up to 35 animals a day, three days a week.
Marksbury is a brand new facility built by four partners, one of whom, Preston Correll, farms a variety of animals and has marketed them directly from his farm for more than five years. He and his partners — cousin Greg Correll, Richard McAlister and John Mark Hack — sought a way to improve the local food system by making meat and chicken more available more predictably, while increasing the sales opportunities for farmers in the Central Kentucky region. Marksbury buys animals raised according to specifications (marksburyfarm.com). The partners have opened a retail shop in Garrard County but also have a growing group of restaurant clients in Louisville (including Mozz).