How much meat processing does Massachusetts need?
by Courtney Llewellyn
The commonwealth of Massachusetts only has two USDA-inspected red meat processing facilities – and zero USDA-inspected poultry processing facilities. While it’s a small state, that’s not enough. That’s why Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF) is conducting a survey of the state’s farmers’ slaughter and processing needs through June 1.
In discussing rebuilding Massachusetts’ meat processing infrastructure, MFBF Deputy Executive Director Brad Mitchell spoke a bit about the commonwealth’s history of the industry. After World War II, meat processing in the U.S. became much more centralized for several reasons: It was cheaper to raise livestock near large-scale grain production than to ship grain across the country; larger farms were geared toward economy of scale production; there was increased meat consumption throughout America; and with population growth in places like Massachusetts, “noisome trades” like slaughter were pushed out of communities.
In addition, in the past several decades the Bay State has lost not only meat processing infrastructure but also related trades (like meat cutting), cold storage and aging facilities and a willing, skilled labor force.
Now, the shortage of facilities is “so acute some processors are booking slots before animals are even born,” Mitchell said.
That shortage is partially COVID-related and partially tied to increasing local demand as consumers opt to shop more at farmers markets and farm stands. Mitchell said the “Buy Local” movement has meant consumers are willing to pay a premium for freshness, support of local farms and “the farm experience” – if they can find local meat.
Current livestock producers, potential producers (who would be interested if processing were available or more convenient) and producers in both Massachusetts and contiguous states are therefore invited to participate in the MFBF survey. The purpose of the survey is to provide those who might be interested in creating new slaughter or processing facilities with current information on the needs, preferences and experiences of the farming community.
Specifically, the MFBF want to “look at costs and travel distance,” Mitchell noted. “We want to know producers’ satisfaction with current facilities, issues and what works and what doesn’t.”
The MFBF aren’t the only ones invested in this topic. There are currently three state bills filed to require the state’s Department of Health to enter into a cooperative agreement with the USDA to open up more possibilities for Massachusetts farmers: Sen. Bruce Tarr’s S. 1532 (an act to promote domestic meat and poultry production), Sen. Anne Gobi’s S. 1441 (an act relative to in-state meat inspection programs) and Rep. Natalie Blais’ H. 4085 (an act to support infrastructure needs for livestock farmers). The two senate bills are currently being reviewed by the Joint Committee on Public Health.
Senator Julian Cyr has also introduced S. 1400 (an act relative to supporting geographically isolated small farms), which would require the Department of Health to establish a pilot program for the state’s island communities – especially Martha’s Vineyard – to provide slaughter and processing facilities that will allow for the commercial sale of the products. It’s also being reviewed by the Joint Committee on Public Health.
In addition, there are budget amendments looking to add funding to the Department of Agriculture to upgrade smaller facilities to USDA-inspected facilities, as this would be the fastest means of increasing the state’s slaughter infrastructure, according to Mitchell. He said Maine used this approach and doubled their processing capabilities within five years.
Mitchell said ideally, the state would be looking for four red meat and two poultry facilities in the near future. “We need to be able to process small numbers over a long period of time,” he said, rather than simply providing large facilities for large producers. “This is not just a Massachusetts issue – it affects all of New England.”
The survey, which is open until June 1, can be found at tinyurl.com/MassProducers.