I’ve written before about the pleasures of buying meat by the share. This year, we bought a whole pig and a whole lamb from our local packer, Pioneer Meats in Big Timber, Montana. This is about half the pig (the other half is at the Sweetheart’s house) and all of the lamb. Plus cider from my trees in the backyard (although we made hard cider out of most of it) and some other random items.
These are 4-H animals that Pioneer bought after the county fair — nice clean livestock that never lived in a CAFO. The thing is, we’re only able to buy local animals because Montana is one of the few states left that still has local packing houses. As this article in USA Today notes,
According to a 2009 report by the consumer rights advocacy group Food & Water Watch, the number of state and federally inspected facilities nationwide shrank 20% from 2002 through 2007.
The decline of small-scale USDA-inspected slaughterhouses comes as the demand for pasture-raised niche meats is soaring, thanks in large part to the local foods movement, the concern over food-borne outbreaks and media focus such as the Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc., says Jim Ochterski, agriculture economic development specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ontario County, N.Y.
There are many small livestock farmers, such as Bermon, ready to meet that demand. “The bottleneck in the process is the lack of USDA slaughter facilities,” Ochterski says.
The meat packing industry has become increasingly centralized over the past couple of decades, and for most people, it just isn’t possible to buy an individual animal and have it butchered. An editorial in the New York Times this week, entitled Reforming Meat, notes that:
An even bigger problem is increasing concentration and vertical control. The number of hog farms in the country has declined by 89 percent in the past 30 years, the number of cattle ranches by 40 percent. Just as alarming is the decline in open, cash markets for livestock. Only 4 percent of the hogs in this country were sold in an open market in 2009, down from 62 percent in 1994. The rest were sold under advance contracts to the major meatpackers, making the meatpackers the owners. The cattle market is headed in the same direction.
We’re lucky here. We can still buy a single pig and a single lamb from someone who raised them, but in most of the country, this is becoming increasingly impossible. And it’s too bad, because being able to buy a single animal like this means that kids in Park County can still do 4H and that small-scale agricultural skills are being passed on. It means that I can buy a clean animal that I know was raised in humane circumstances. And it means that when the economy and everything else starts feeling a little scary, I can go downstairs and look in my freezer and know that come what may, we’ll eat this winter. I’m glad to see from articles like the one in the New York Times and the coverage over at Daily Yonder, that Tom Vlisak, despite his ties to Big Ag, seems to be working with the Justice Department to address the monopolization of the meat industry, an industry that’s bad for animals, bad for workers, and one that is making us all sick.