The case for local meat processing: Let’s opt out of industrial ag

by Nancy Deren 

There has been a lot of debate over the past few months about the proposed meat processing facility for Alachua County, with major concerns about perpetuating the horrors of the factory farming system that now comprises about 95 percent of U.S. meat production. 

Communities across the country are having this same conversation, recognizing the need to have a stronger, more secure local food system that gives farmers a way to sell outside the corporate monopolies, earn more than poverty wages, and create economic development opportunities that support them being good stewards of land, animals, and biodiversity. We want a way to opt out.

Covid was a giant wake up call that made that crystal clear. Think back to March 2020, when Covid first hit hard. Who fed us? It was our local farmers and ranchers who pivoted fast to provide food for drive through markets and prepared food deliveries, for all income levels, when grocery stores shut down. 

In order to reclaim food sovereignty and security, and have an alternative to the industrial food system, we must address the real challenge of the lack of infrastructure to process, distribute and sell that food. That infrastructure was dismantled over the past 50 years, as small farms, towns and local businesses got swallowed up by mergers and consolidations under the mantra of “Get Big, or Get Out!”  It’s past time to put our local economies and relationships back together.

It is actually not a story about animal vs. vegetable agriculture or the very personal and moral dietary choices around what to eat, but a much larger one about the dominant system of industrial factory farms and corporate control vs. regenerative agriculture and local control.  It’s not the Cow, it’s the How! 

Henry Kissinger said: Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people.”

Over the past few decades, industrial corporate agribusiness monopolies have seized on our entire food system an iron grip, decimating local and regional food systems, and rural communities in pursuit of get Big, get Fast, get Cheap. They are a major contributor to climate destabilization, loss of biodiversity, pollution and rise in chronic diseases like diabetes. 

Only four companies, two of them international, control over 85 percent of the beef industry and most of the pork and poultry industries. 

Just 4 corporations control 90% of the global grain trade. The same corporations have been buying up seed, chemicals, processing, packing, distribution and retail businesses, becoming giant monopolies of monocultures. 

A locally designed and controlled small scale meat processing facility is a key part of the infrastructure we need in order to break the stranglehold of those industrial scale agribusinessess. 

In addition to meat processing, we need investment in food hubs to expand aggregation, distribution and processing opportunities for our local veggie and fruit farmers, and entrepreneurship to craft new value added products. 

However, USDA certified processing facilities to accommodate smaller meat operations have been identified as one of the biggest, most critical bottlenecks of all of these needs, so money and programs at all levels of government  — local, state and national, are flooding in to address that problem. 

In addition to multiple sustainable agriculture organizations, a coalition of more than 50 animal welfare, public health, labor, environmental, and faith-based organizations have endorsed these local scale efforts around the country, and in Congress.  Senator Corey Booker, a staunch vegan, is a leader on this issue. 

Processing facilities are more than just a building. They include the physical space, skilled butchers, and inspectors to ensure the quality and cleanliness of the facility and the product before it reaches the market. 

The proposed facility would be focused on giving our small, family-owned ranches a way to process their meat locally, so they can access retail markets for beef, lamb, goat, and pork. It would be designed to humanely handle diverse animals, a few at a time, to meet the demands of our multi cultural community.  The operator would be hired under guidelines and policies that we design, congruent with our community standards and expectations.  

In conjunction with Santa Fe College and UF, the skilled craft of custom butchering would provide new jobs, and open opportunities for restaurants and other retail, boosting not only our food security,  sovereignty,  and resilience, but our economic vitality in an ever harsher world.  

If you do not eat meat, and wonder why you would ever support such a facility, a big reason is to keep vital grazing lands as working farms, and open spaces for wildlife, clean water and habitat protections.

We all know too well about potential for land use conversion if the family cannot make a living and sells their farm — the next crop grown is usually houses and concrete. 

Most of our farms in Alachua County have rural ag zoning, so can be converted to low-density residential housing, which is happening now at shockingly rapid rates.  To use just one example, if an area the size of the Hickory Sink Property that has been in the news lately (4000 acres) were to develop, that would result in more than 800 houses.

The argument that our ranchers should just stop ranching is not only short-sighted in terms of sensitivity to cultural considerations, and to the multigenerational families — including the Black ranching families here who care deeply about their lands — but also makes no sense in terms of the argument for climate. 

The IPPC report on Climate Change and Land speaks to the importance and necessity of sustainable land management and local control for climate and food security solutions. A majority of agricultural lands globally, are grasslands and unsuitable for growing crops.  

Having personally seen the seemingly magical power of regenerative, holistic grazing practices to heal degraded land in a variety of places, bringing back birds, bees and butterflies, native plants and diversity, and so much more, I now have optimism and energy knowing that change can be real and could happen here.  

Beyond being carbon sinks, our ranchlands provide mitigation and adaptation as water recharge areas. They decrease heat island effects and provide habitat for many species of wildlife and native plants. They are the essential backbone of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, as vividly shown in the beautiful new film, Path of the Panther

Without those working lands, there is no connectivity to make the corridor work. This really drives home how we need to keep those working lands economically viable so they don’t turn into houses and concrete.   

Agricultural easements are important — but there needs to also be demand for what is being raised or grown, and fair pricing, in order to make a livelihood.  

The Nature Conservancy, Audubon, Xerces, Sierra Club and other respected environmental organizations are working with ranchers who are the frontline of land management and stewardship to collaborate on ways to solve complex challenges together.  

A key component of that is ensuring that ranchers and farmers can make a living, and this requires investment not just in land protection and farming practices, but also in the infrastructure to process this food locally and get a fair price. 

The Audubon Conservation Ranching Program, for example, is doing just that, with habitat payments, technical assistance, and marketing support for premium pricing with the Audubon label. 

We eaters can create the demand for food that supports rebuilding our local and regional smaller scale food system infrastructure — so we can more easily opt out of Big Ag.  

I want to know where my food comes from, what it ate, and how it was treated. I want to see our local farmers and ranchers be able to not just struggle to stay afloat, but thrive and provide nutrient dense, safe, high quality meats, vegetables, fruits that I can buy in stores, as well as at the farmers market where I do most of my weekly grocery shopping. That means they have to be able to do well economically in order to afford to be the best stewards of not only their animals and crops, but of our soil, water, pollinators, birds and remaining open lands.  

Please join me in voicing your support to the commission,  for this important step in rebuilding a vibrant and resilient local food system.

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