New project aims to identify challenges in small-scale meat production and pave the way for equal access to GHG-reducing farming practices
Last fall, IonE hosted the Agricultural Climate Solutions Workshop, which culminated in participants co-creating meaningful grant proposals that aim to address common barriers to sustainable farming practices and thereby reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Minnesota’s agricultural sector. In addition, the proposed projects share the goal of creating a more inclusive and equitable agricultural sector in which farmers thrive. [Read a summary of the workshop grant process and proposals.]
Of the 11 proposals submitted, three were awarded $25,000 in seed funding from the McKnight Foundation, including the Grazing & Access to Meat Processing project, which aspires to increase access to slaughter facilities for Tribal and other small-to-medium-sized grass-fed livestock producers. Led by IonE Fellow Kathy Draeger, Statewide Director of the UMN Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, adjunct professor of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, and herself a sustainable farmer, a team of experts will work over the next six months toward identifying common barriers to accessing slaughter facility by conducting interviews, mapping the locations of slaughter facilities and their distances from Tribal livestock producers, and creating a guide to inform infrastructure-development supporting smaller scale grass-fed livestock producers.
Drager’s team includes Shirley Nordrum (UMN Extension Educator in the Center for Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources and Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe member), Marie Donahue (sustainability storyteller for Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) and Clean Energy Resource Teams), Wayne Martin (UMN Extension alternative livestock specialist), Hannah Bernhardt (Medicine Creek Farm), Swan Ray (Supply Chain Development Specialist for RSDP), and Eric Lonsdorf (Lead Scientist and Program Director for IonE).
Below, Draeger answers a few questions about how the project will support a more sustainable agriculture sector in Minnesota.
How did the idea for this project emerge from the Agricultural Climate Solutions Workshop?
At the workshop, there were a lot of discussions about land use, perenniality [the cultivation of crop species that live 2 or more years without the need of replanting], and the ability to capture carbon in soil. Soil organic matter has the capacity to be a substantial sink for atmospheric CO2. Tilling for row crops is the most significant agricultural practice that releases CO2 from the soil. So, the team discussed the advantages of practices that avoid tilling and favor permanent soil cover, like intensively managed grazing.
But for farmers interested in converting acres from row crops to paddock (enclosed area for pasturing animals), there’s a lack of access to meat processing facilities. Paying attention to such “pain points” in the supply chain led us to think about the need for meat processing in order to make changing the agricultural practice economically viable for farmers.
Why can it be challenging for smaller-scale meat producers to access slaughter facilities?
Between 1990 and 2016, the number of USDA-inspected meat processing facilities in the United States dropped from 1268 to 808. The decrease in facilities corresponded with the rise of vertical integration in the meat industry and the consolidation of meat processing into large industrial facilities. As a result, small- and medium-sized farms lost access to a significant amount of meat processing.
This issue came to the forefront in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the vulnerabilities of centralized and industrial-scale meatpacking. Hundreds of thousands of pigs grew out of the narrow size range that is accepted by large processing plants, resulting in the disposal of many animals. This resulted in a tragic, massive loss of food as well as a loss of the energy embedded in raising those animals.
What alternatives do farmers have when slaughter facilities are not easily accessible?
There are limited options. Some livestock, like cattle, can be scheduled out further – we’re hearing now of butchering dates set for 2022. However, other livestock, like lamb and pork, have a smaller window for slaughter. When a lamb passes one year in age, for example, its meat is labeled as “mutton” rather than “lamb,” a stigma that can impact [perception of] quality.
That’s why our team will look at a variety of avenues for meat processing, such as on-farm slaughter and processing, mobile meat-slaughter, and brick-and-mortar slaughter facilities owned by Tribal or community members. In order to expand grass-fed livestock production, farmers need to know that they have the resources to have animals legally and humanely slaughtered and processed.
Are there factors that make accessing and working with existing slaughter facilities particularly challenging for Native meat producers?
Tribal Nations are incorporating more buffalo into the landscape. Buffalo is a noble and dangerous animal. It is also more difficult to transport to a processing facility if that facility will even receive a live buffalo. For that reason, buffalo are often “field harvested,” meaning they are put down on a farm or ranch, then must be transported within 60 minutes to an inspected meat processor. Our team has identified the need to map the distances from Tribal land, where buffalo are raised, to butcher shops willing and able to process the meat. The mapping may show gaps where a 60-minute window is not possible.
How will connecting small-scale and Native farmers to more adaptable slaughter facilities aid in the transition to more pasture-raised livestock?
In addition to the benefits provided by perennial ground cover, which I mentioned previously, grass-fed livestock can eliminate the need for a portion of the corn and soybeans currently produced for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). This has multiple environmental benefits, including less tillage and reducing the usage of pesticides and fertilizers applied to these annual row crops. In addition, converting row crops to perennial grasslands that are grazed by animals has multiple environmental benefits such as carbon sequestration, reduced soil erosion, and improved water quality.
What are the tradeoffs between land use in CAFOs and grass-fed animal production? How would you respond to the argument that we do not have enough land to produce meat using this more sustainable option?
The current system of producing meat consumes many acres of land due to the production of row crops for animals in CAFOs. There may be a need for an analysis to evaluate the number of acres required to raise livestock on entirely grass-fed diets. However, we have conducted foodshed analysis and found that Minnesota has tremendous potential to produce all the foodstuff for a healthy diet (grains, oils, meat, nuts, dairy, produce, etc.) for the entire population – and more. If our focus was not on exporting corn and soybeans, perhaps the same land could be used for perennial, managed grazing in a way that would be environmentally beneficial and economically viable for farmers.
How else might supporting grass-fed livestock producers affect the farming industry?
There are advantages for emerging and beginning farmers to look to grass-fed livestock production. If a new farmer wants to get started in conventional farming, that person needs to have the capital to cover the cost of hundreds of acres of land, millions of dollars in equipment, and operating costs for seeds and inputs, which amounts to a multi-million dollar investment. Entering farming with grass-fed livestock is more accessible, requiring planting grasses and forbs, fencing, and the animals. However, we must have processing facilities in order for those farmers to get their “crop” to market. This project is working to see that meat processing is accessible to all.
Abby Hornberger is a senior at the University of Minnesota studying Environmental Science, Policy, and Management with a minor in Sustainability Studies.