Growing a Market for Our Mountain Ranchers and Farmers
By Briana Olson
Angus on the range of Angus Cimarron Ranch in northern New Mexico. Photo by Stephanie Cameron.
“There is no market,” Mike Callicrate tells me. “The market died; it’s gone. The government didn’t support competition in the marketplace.” A longtime rancher and family farm advocate, Callicrate is explaining why he believes we need to bring back year-round, publicly owned markets. He cites Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market as a model for a market that enables ranchers and farmers to reach consumers year-round without having to step away from what they do best: ranching and farming. “In my vision, there would be full meat-processing, a hundred carcasses hanging, a full meat counter with people buying that fresh meat right there, knowing where the meat comes from.”
A couple weeks earlier, driving the highways of northern New Mexico, I tuned into the Angus and Herefords grazing the pastures along the roadside. It was late spring, and soft black calves bobbled between their mothers’ legs. Raising cattle for beef is second to dairy in leading agricultural production in the state, a fact easier to believe, driving through ranch land, than another statistic I’d recently come across: between ninety-one and ninety-nine percent of cows raised for beef in New Mexico are exported. I wanted to find out why, and I wanted to know where the beef on local supermarket shelves is coming from instead. As it turns out, the first question, complex as it is, can be answered far more easily than the second.
“Cedar River Farms,” offers a clerk at one meat counter, “up in Greeley, Colorado.” Not long after talking to Callicrate, I stop in at a store in Albuquerque that bills its products as natural to ask if they have any locally raised beef (not that they know of) and if they can tell me where they source their tri-tips and sirloins and rib eyes. It does not take much sleuthing to learn that Cedar River Farms is not a farm at all; it’s a brand owned by JBS, the largest meat processing company in the world. The company’s US division is headquartered in Greeley, where JBS runs a beef packing plant that processes about five thousand animals each day. (Until recently, JBS also owned Five Rivers Cattle, a conglomeration of eleven feedlots in six states, including four Colorado feedlots with a combined capacity of 338,000 head. They sold Five Rivers after agreeing to a $3.2 billion fine for involvement in a bribery scandal in Brazil, their global headquarters.) This means that it’s probably impossible to identify the origins of any steak, much less any package of ground beef, bearing the Cedar River Farms trademark. It also means that claims on the Cedar River Farms website—that the brand represents meat from cows born in the United States and raised without hormones—are difficult to evaluate. Several attempts to call the number listed under “contact us” yielded no response.
This is the kind of high-tech, concentrated, efficiency-driven operation that dominates industrial meat production. Four beef-packing companies—Cargill, Tyson, JBS, and National Beef Packing Co—control eighty-five percent of the US market. “There’s so much challenge in trying to access the consumer,” Callicrate says. “The big meatpackers and food companies are a big part of the problem in their ability to predatory price smaller companies out of business.”
Over the past thirty years, small, family-owned feedlots and meatpacking plants have shuttered, one after another, leaving small-scale producers with limited options and long drives to reach slaughter and processing facilities that can grant the USDA mark of inspection, required for all retail sales of beef and pork, whether to local restaurants or international suppliers. The surviving small-scale processors are typically booked six months out, and there are so few USDA inspected facilities in New Mexico that many ranchers and farmers who want to sell locally must first drive their animals to Arizona or Colorado. Others opt to sell their animals at auction, where they disappear into the industrial cycle.
“From a purely economic standpoint,” says Susann Mikkelson, director of the Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance (SWGLA), “the state is losing out.” Calves often leave at nine months old, explains Mikkelson, and “once they leave, they come back as a retail product—if it is our product. We don’t know if it ever comes back.” SWGLA is working to change this, in part by connecting producers with retailers and consumers. Through their website, consumers can find and buy directly from producers. Buying whole animals, or “cowpooling” with friends and family, allows customers to have beef (and pork) custom-processed, in a facility approved for meat for personal consumption. Mikkelson says even custom processors can be hard to access during hunting season, when they can make easier money processing wild game (which, unlike beef, does not need to age before being cut). Echoing every rancher I’ve spoken to, she cites the shortage of USDA inspected processors as a major barrier to getting more locally raised meat into the retail market.
Why the shortage? For one, to write a simple sentence describing the USDA system for inspections is impossible. In theory, the rules are the same for a Tyson plant that slaughters a million chickens a day as for a family-owned processor that harvests twelve cattle on Tuesday and twenty pigs on Wednesday. Even if inspections are executed fairly (and there’s a widespread perception among small-scale producers that they are not) this puts smaller processors at a disadvantage. If their approach to harvesting animals doesn’t match the increasingly mechanized, high-capacity production model, implementing what the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service calls a HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) plan is labor-intensive, which is probably one reason, Mikkelson says, that so many New Mexico plants choose to operate as custom.
“In a big plant,” explains Michael Fisher, a trained veterinarian who worked for USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) for thirty years, “the inspectors are pretty busy. In a little bitty place where there’s probably about two hours of work for eight hours, instructors get bored, so they’re looking for something to inspect. It looks like they’re being inspected to death. And sometimes they probably are.” Fisher also cites the cost and logistics of staffing rural, low-capacity plants with USDA inspectors, who must be onsite to evaluate the health of live animals and the plant’s HACCP compliance. “When you’ve got to do all this surveillance, with limited resources,” Fisher says, well, “if there are less of them, better for you. If there’s a reason, any reason to shut it down—there’s a temptation to take it.” And for a small business with limited financial and legal resources, where even a brief suspension can be catastrophic, it might not seem worth the risk.
Beef aging in the brick and mortar cut-and-wrap at the TCEDC. Photo courtesy of TCEDC.
If there’s an antithesis to the JBS plant in Greeley, it’s the mobile matanza, run by the nonprofit Taos County Economic Development Corporation (TCEDC) from 2007 to 2014. When I sit down with Pati Martinson, the TCEDC’s director, and ask why the mobile matanza went out of service, she doesn’t blame FSIS or the USDA; but she does mention lapses in USDA funding and the cost of having a staff person manage the required HACCP plan.
The Taos group launched the mobile slaughter unit, or mobile matanza, to extend their mission of supporting the traditional foodways and preserving the land-based lifestyles of the peoples of northern New Mexico. “The honor of feeding people is still in our DNA,” says Martinson, adding that the TCEDC was founded in response to a 1980s crackdown on the region’s historic, informal food trade. One of the nonprofit’s core projects is incubating small businesses, and the afternoon I’m there, we meet bakers prepping to make a batch of scones for the next day’s farmers market. In the office, two young employees discuss what beans to plant in the community garden. The mobile matanza, a huge trailer with a custom-designed space for harvesting animals from bison and yak to pigs and cattle, is pulled up alongside the brick-and-mortar cut-and-wrap where, when the unit was in operation, beef carcasses would hang to age until the butcher broke them down according to a rancher’s or customer’s specifications.
“I’m a firm believer that you can’t abuse your animals,” says David Griego of D&R Ranch, who made regular use of the mobile matanza, not just because it was cheaper and more convenient, but because he considered it more humane. Travel is stressful for animals. By coming directly to ranches or nearby staging areas, the mobile matanza provided an alternative for family farms and ranches—people who love their animals, resist the use of feedlots and antibiotics, and have a tradition of harvesting their own animals and providing meat to others. Now, Griego says, “so many people in the area [around Mora] don’t have a way to slaughter their animals.” The mobile matanza, essentially a microprocessor, might not have a dramatic impact on the percentage of New Mexico–raised beef sold within the state; but its reboot could help more New Mexicans access healthier, sustainably raised meat.
“At this point,” says Daniel Unruh of Red Barn Ranch, “we need to develop more markets.” Unruh sells his grassfed beef at small Las Vegas venues, like Semilla Natural Foods, and is a member of the Sweetgrass Co-op, which sells to the one store where someone involved in distribution was willing (and able) to talk to me about both the sourcing and slaughter of animals: La Montañita Co-op. “Their procurement man,” Unruh says, “has a really strict regimen as far as qualifying those cattle.” George Whitten, president of the Sweetgrass Co-op and owner of Blue Range Ranch (based in the San Luis Valley, which Whitten jokes is “the only part of New Mexico that’s in Colorado”), speaks so warmly of the relationship they’ve developed with La Montañita that I feel like we’re talking about a different industry than the corrupt, predatory one Callicrate describes. But La Montañita, though growing, is a relatively small supplier, and both Whitten and Unruh agree that the shortage of processing facilities is linked to the challenge of reaching consumers.
Taos County Economic Development Corporation’s Mobile Matanza unit. Photo by Briana Olson.
That brings us back to labeling, which many shoppers rely on when buying meat. On any given day, looking over the supermarket cuts on display, you’re likely to see lamb chops tagged “New Zealand” alongside unmarked filet mignons, skirt steaks, tenderloins, and sausages. The steaks and sausages are not usually labeled by country, not because none of the beef or pork is imported, but because in 2015, Congress repealed country-of-origin labeling for beef and pork. So long as they’re processed in a USDA-inspected plant—which imports have to be—beef and pork can be labeled products of the USA. About seventy-five percent of grassfed beef sold in this country is imported from countries in the Southern hemisphere such as Argentina and Uruguay. So a product that consumers perceive as a sustainable choice, one tied to local producers and healthier practices for both humans and animals, in many cases actually has a significant travel footprint, and, because it’s cheaper, is contributing to the plummet in what a US rancher can earn for grassfed or pasture raised cattle.
“Consumers want to do the right thing,” says SWGLA’s Mikkelson, and statistics suggest she’s correct. More and more, consumers care whether animals are raised healthfully, humanely, and sustainably, and the growing demand for grassfed beef is further evidence of that. But what, faced with misleading brands and confusing labels, is the right thing to do? How can you, as an eater and citizen, support local markets for sustainably raised meat?
1. Buy meat directly from ranchers and farmers. If you can’t afford farmers market prices, pool with friends and family to buy in bulk.
2. Support stores, markets, and restaurants that source their meat from local ranchers and farmers. When you walk into a restaurant or a supermarket, ask for locally raised meat.
3 Research brands before you buy. Don’t take brand names or claims that meat is “all-natural” at face value.
4 Invest or volunteer with organizations, like SWGLA and the TCEDC, that are working to expand local markets and/or can help you stay informed about upcoming legislation.
5. Call your US representatives and senators and ask them to enhance antitrust enforcement and support real competition in food and agriculture. Tell them you support country-of-origin labeling for pork and beef.
Senator Tom Udall: 202-224-6621
Senator Martin Heinrich: 505-242-0210
Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham (First District): 202-225-6316
Representative Steve Pearce (Second District): 202-225-2365
Representative Ben Luján (Third District): 202-225-6190