Ed Gross thinks connoisseurs of the “Eat Local” movement would jump at the chance to buy his beef.
He manages about 300 head of Black Angus cattle for Spokane Hutterian Brethren, a Hutterite community west of Airway Heights. The cattle eat forage raised on the ranch, which practices environmental stewardship as a core value.
“We’d like to promote our beef locally,” Gross said.
But the lack of a U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected slaughterhouse for small producers has stood in his way. Without the inspection, Gross and other Eastern Washington ranchers can’t sell steaks, hamburgers and other cuts directly to consumers, restaurants or grocery stores.
A new plant in Odessa, Wash., aims to fill the void. The 7,000-square-foot slaughterhouse is a cooperative venture of local ranchers. Through the slaughterhouse and a parallel marketing effort, the ranchers plan to capitalize on interest in regional foods by providing discerning consumers with locally raised beef, pork, lamb and goat.
Outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, including mad cow disease, are driving people’s desire to know where their meat comes from. Savvy consumers want more information about where and how their food was raised, said Willard Wolf, a rancher from Valleyford and board president for the livestock processors cooperative that built the Odessa plant.
“If you walk into some grocery stores or fast-food chains, your hamburger could have up to 600 DNAs in it from imported trimmings from Australia or Canada or wherever,” Wolf said. “You don’t know how it was raised.”
But if you buy meat from a local rancher, he said, “you would know exactly how it was raised, how it was treated, what it was fed. You would know that it was creating revenue for the state of Washington and a fellow American taxpayer.”
The effort to build the Odessa slaughterhouse started four years ago. It followed decades of consolidation in the meat processing industry.
More than 80 percent of U.S. livestock is now butchered by four large corporations, said Joel Huesby, a consultant for the Odessa facility. The near-monopoly means fewer choices for small livestock producers, who have a harder time finding slaughterhouses that will take small batches of animals.
Industry officials said only a handful of Washington slaughterhouses still cater to small producers.
Gross, the Hutterite rancher, currently raises his steers and heifers to about 750 pounds before selling them to the highest bidder, who finishes raising them to an average of 1,250 pounds before slaughtering them.
“Right now I wean and precondition them,” Gross said. But he’d prefer to keep them on the ranch and send them to a local slaughterhouse.
The Odessa slaughterhouse will also benefit Sue Lani Madsen, an Edwall rancher who raises goats.
Most of her herd is rented out to eat invasive plants, such as blackberries. But when Madsen and her husband, Craig, wanted to expand their revenue stream by selling goat meat at farmers markets and grocery stores, they couldn’t find a slaughterhouse to butcher their animals.
“Because it’s not common, it’s difficult to be taken seriously or not get overcharged,” Sue Lani Madsen said.
The couple have been selling their goats to another rancher, who gathers up a truckload and ships them to slaughterhouses in Chicago or Los Angeles.
Ranchers do have the option of taking their animals to one of Washington’s 17 custom slaughterhouses, which aren’t USDA-inspected. But there are limitations on how meat from a custom facility can be marketed, state officials said.
To meet legal requirements, the animal must be sold to the consumer before it is butchered. Since a steer yields about 400 pounds of meat, that’s often too much for a single family. Several families can go together to purchase an animal, but that’s more hassle for the rancher. And it doesn’t address the needs of individuals who just want to purchase a few steaks or some ground chuck.
The Odessa facility will give ranchers the option of having an animal butchered and selling individual cuts of meat fresh or from a freezer, Huesby said. And it will accommodate a variety of livestock, instead of specializing in beef.
“You can bring a semitruck load of cows – 40 head of cattle. You can do one goat,” Huesby said.
Graduate students from Whitworth University wrote the business plan for the Odessa slaughterhouse, which could benefit about 200 of the region’s small ranchers. Livestock producers and investors put up about $900,000 for the project and the state provided a $1.2 million loan.
A separate marketing company, Empire Ranches, will work with ranchers to find outlets for their meat.
David Pendergraft, the marketing firm’s president, envisions selling the meat within a 150-mile radius of the plant, with the goal of returning more revenue to the producers. Talks are in the works with local and regional grocery stores about featuring local meats. He’s also working on direct sales to consumers and local restaurants.
One of the trends in the food industry is “local, traceable, sustainably raised products,” Pendergraft said. “The mini-slogan we’ve been running with is, ‘Raised by your neighbor, enjoyed by you.’ ”
He’s also working on videos of the individual ranches, which will be displayed on the marketing company’s website, empireranches.com.
Rancher Randy Emtman and his wife, Lisa, embraced direct sales of beef to consumers about 20 years ago. The couple are part of Emtman Brothers, a family-run ranch in Valleyford.
The ranch trucks its cattle 80 miles north to a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse in Sandpoint, and the Emtmans anticipate that they’ll make use of the new facility in Odessa, too.
The Dockside Restaurant at the Coeur d’Alene Resort serves Emtman Brothers beef in its grass-fed burgers. The ranch also sells to other restaurants and directly to consumers who want all-natural beef, with no added hormones or antibiotics. Each packet of hamburger can be traced back to the individual cow, Randy Emtman said.
There’s more work involved in direct sales, but the ranch keeps more of the profit. “We went from being a price-taker to a price-maker,” Randy Emtman said.
Customers also like knowing that the cows are treated well, Lisa Emtman said. Some want to see the ranch and the herd before they make their purchases.
“They ask, ‘Are they happy cows?’ The cows are lying in the pasture, chewing their cud. They look pretty happy,” she said.