GRASS VALLEY –  This holiday season, many families will enjoy a meal that includes locally raised meat. Nevada County has a longstanding community of farmers and ranchers, and is home to 151 farms with cattle, 45 with pigs, 77 with sheep and 70 with meat goats.

But that holiday ham, chuck roast or leg of lamb almost didn’t make it to the dinner table. For small-scale ranchers in Nevada County, getting meat slaughtered and butchered is a “circus” that grows more difficult each year. The businesses required to turn an animal into a meal – that slaughter, butcher, transport and store meat – are rare and growing rarer. Those missing links in the supply chain make local meat harder to raise and more expensive to buy.

For this month’s column from the Nevada County Food Policy Council, several ranchers shared their challenges with the current supply chain and their hopes for the future. They explained that even people who don’t eat meat have a stake in this issue: The viability of holistic animal agriculture is important for our local economy, land conservation and fire mitigation.

Small-scale meat processing is a wicked problem across California

Once an animal is ready to become dinner, farmers have a couple of options to get that meat into the hands of customers. If farmers want to sell their meat in a store like SPD Markets or BriarPatch Food Co-op, their animals must be killed, butchered and packaged at USDA-inspected facilities. Those last two steps are called “cut and wrap” in industry slang, and often take place at a separate facility from where animals are harvested.

Just 10 USDA-inspected facilities will slaughter beef north of Sacramento County. This kind of centralization makes the meat supply chain particularly vulnerable to shocks and disruptions such as COVID-19. Source: UC Davis Meat Lab

Ranchers say both kinds of facilities are few and far between in California. A 2021 UC Davis study found just 46 USDA-inspected slaughter plants in California. Of these, 32 only handle livestock (as opposed to poultry), and at least 11 only process for their own brands. Options for USDA-inspected slaughter are particularly sparse in the Sierra Foothills, where one of the closest shops — Wolf Pack Meats in Reno — closed on Oct. 31. The nearest facilities for Nevada County ranchers are now in Orland, Modesto or Sonoma County.

For Ronda Applegarth of Yuba River Ranch, it’s worth the 90-minute drive to have her Wagyu beef slaughtered, cut and wrapped at a USDA-inspected facility; her business relies on restaurant and retail sales that require it. But depending on one, in-demand facility makes her nervous: other regional slaughterhouses have increased the minimum number of animals needed to book an appointment, squeezing out smaller ranchers like her.

“I only have one [slaughter] spot a month, and if I give up a spot, I’m not sure I’ll maintain my relationship with that slaughterhouse,” Applegarth said. “The demand for those spots is ridiculous right now.”

A helpful workaround still has flaws

Rancher Elizabeth Strong [updated to correct name on Dec. 16], who operates Rafter 5S Livestock in Smartsville with her husband Grant, takes advantage of an exemption called “Custom Exempt Slaughter and Processing.” She sells a whole or partial steer to her customers months before the animals are ready to be slaughtered. When the steers are ready, a registered mobile slaughter operator comes to their ranch, harvests the animal and transports the carcass to an approved butcher. The customer then pays the butcher for their work, and can pay extra for more finished cuts.

This system only works if there’s a group of dedicated, flexible customers and only then on a small scale: on a given ranch, five head of cattle or 35 head of sheep, goats or swine can be slaughtered this way in a month. [Updated on Jan. 4, 2023 to reflect new AB 888 regs]

“Without the availability of [a nearby] USDA plant or a USDA cut-and-wrap, it limits all small farmers,” said Strong. “People see the beef in the county, they see that cow on the other side of the fence, but we’re limited in the audience we can sell to.”

Strong appreciates that custom exempt processing allows her animals to complete their lives on the farm where they were born, instead of stressing them with an hours-long trailer ride to a USDA-inspected slaughter facility.

However, mobile slaughter operators and approved butchers are still few and far between. Strong has to book at least six months in advance with her preferred harvester and attempt to match those dates with her butcher. She also has to hope that her steers will be in the right condition – not too thin or too fat – on the day she picked. Animals’ body condition has become harder to predict six months out, given increasing periods of drought and climate-related environmental changes.

Alana Fowler, who runs Fowler Family Farm in Grass Valley with her husband Brad, uses custom exempt processing to sell her beef, too. She said the small number of mobile slaughter operators and approved butchers means ranching communities are dangerously reliant on a handful of businesses for survival.

“That’s the bottleneck for raising animals in this county: places to take them [to be slaughtered], and then to trust that the place you’re getting cuts from will give you a good yield back,” Fowler said. “Without the competitive factor, the price we’re getting charged for that piece of meat – and what the customer is paying – is a huge issue.”

Processing infrastructure matters beyond ranching

Fowler and Strong emphasized that the lack of meat processing infrastructure creates ripples beyond the ranching community. It’s bad for the county’s economy. The growing demand for high-value, local meat should support the livelihoods of Nevada County ranchers, slaughterhouse workers, butchers, refrigerated truck operators, community market employees and more. But the lack of nearby processing facilities – on top of the other hurdles ranchers face – makes it hard to bring those products to market and realize economic benefits locally.

These supply chain issues also imperil an important tool for fire mitigation: grazing. Targeted grazing of sheep, goats and cattle reduces fuel loads and creates firebreaks. Grazed land can serve as staging areas for firefighters, too. As opposed to mowers, grazing is a safe way to manage vegetation on steep slopes and avoid dangerous sparks from mower blades. Nevada County herds and flocks need a functioning supply chain to stay in business and continue providing grazing benefits.

Past efforts stall, concerns remain over new facility

A promising effort to launch a USDA-inspected slaughter facility in Placer County stalled in 2017 after several years of development. The business, Sierra Foothills Meat Company, was recommended by a 2016 feasibility study funded by the USDA and Placer County. People involved with the project say a lack of capital was the primary reason it did not succeed, but that the absence of a willing operator and suitable location with amenable neighbors also contributed to its failure. Several more efforts to open a slaughterhouse in northern Nevada also were also blocked.  

Dan Macon, the UC Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor for Placer, Nevada, Sutter and Yuba counties, cautioned that building one local facility is unlikely to solve the bottleneck ranchers experience. A single new plant would likely experience the same problems as other regional slaughterhouses – high demand, little flexibility in scheduling and preference for clients with more animals. “It’s far more complicated to work with 300 producers who bring 5 animals each than with 5 producers who bring 300 animals each.”

“In my mind, the only way to address this need for scheduling flexibility for the producer would be to build a plant with excess capacity, which is not economically efficient,” Macon said.

He pointed to the challenge of attracting private investment to a low-return, small-scale service business. But there may be signs of hope in this respect. In 2020, a mobile USDA-inspected slaughter business launched in Sonoma County with the support of private and producer investment. The Bay Area Ranchers Cooperative raised $1.2 million from private sources; one pitch suggests investors could expect returns of 2 to 4 percent. Whether these returns can be realized remains to be seen.

Macon explained another wrinkle: Most ranches in Nevada County don’t sell meat at all. Instead, they sell weaned calves or lambs to other operators that bring them up to finished weight before slaughter. This system allows ranchers to stock more animals seasonally and avoid the significant time commitment necessary for direct marketing. These ranchers would need to overhaul their business and production models to take advantage of a USDA slaughter facility in the neighborhood. Macon isn’t sure how many ranchers would make the switch.

“These are complex issues,” Macon said. “Additional processing capacity is just one piece of the puzzle.”

What community members can do

While there are no active proposals for new USDA-inspected slaughter or cut-and-wrap facilities in Nevada County, ranchers like Fowler, Strong and Applegarth hope the public will support a project if and when the right one emerges. Before that time comes, they want to educate the public about the “invisible middle” links in the supply chain that connect them and their customers. In the meantime, they recommend people support local ranchers with their dollars. The Nevada County Food & Farm Directory has a producer list and buying guide. They also recommend staying in touch with the processing issue by becoming a part of the Nevada County Food Policy Council or attending Nevada County Agricultural Advisory Commission meetings