Bar-C, the Why and How: A Focus On Rural Food Security
By: Kathy Webster
At the peak of its local meat supply industry, California once had more than 70 meat harvesting facilities. Today, that number is half what it once was and those that remain are strained to meet demand by high volume and the variability of custom processing requests of small producers.
Today, most small to mid-scale ranchers in the Bay Area travel approximately 250 miles—one way—to harvest livestock at one of the five USDA plants in the state that process multiple livestock species—beef, pork, lamb, and goat. Of those five, two do not offer ranchers the option of processing under their own label which further limits service to livestock sold by small- and medium-scale producers.
This reduction in meat harvesting options has created a bottleneck for local producers and resulted in a fragile supply chain that leaves small-scale regenerative ranchers and farmers scrambling. For people new to the ranching business, it’s even harder. In order to get into a crowded processing line, it may take a credible relationship with a processor to ‘write you in’, and relationships like this can take years to establish.
Processing congestion is not unique to California. It is the result of an industry that has become reliant on a few large processing plants that process approximately 1000 animals per day to sell to national and international markets. Meanwhile, small to mid-sized ranchers (processing 40 to 250 head per year) are left to find remaining availability at the very few small to mid-sized harvesting plants, often requiring ranchers to book harvest dates as much as a year in advance. In addition, the lack of local processing facilities means ranchers must haul their cattle hundreds of miles, adding cost, animal stress, and complexity to the local food movement and inhibiting the potential for success of local supply chains.
For those who aren’t familiar with how the meat industry works, here is a little background on the consolidated meat system and how the pandemic highlighted the need for regional meat processing solutions. Currently, the four largest cattle processors in the U.S. push 85% of the nation’s beef through 30 monstrous plants. (That’s more than 570,000 head per week, an average of 19,000 head per plant each week.) For pork, 4 national companies move 66% (1.7 million hogs per week) through 21 processing facilities. These companies not only set the prices paid to producers, but also the terms. When they close or slow production, as they have during the Covid pandemic, the whole nation feels the pinch.
The pandemic demonstrated how the centralized meat system—for all its success in efficiency and price savings—is susceptible to crisis and disruption. As the large national processing and supply chain slowed and even stopped during the early days of the Covid19 pandemic, hungry consumers sought out regional and ‘neighborhood’ meat producers to make their purchases. This shift created a renaissance of sorts for local food systems, providing consumers with transparency and security. It also highlighted the critical role that small-scale processors play in a healthy, functioning regional food system.
Seeing this increase in the demand for local food and the need for local processors, a small group of ranchers got together to try to address the processing bottleneck in the San Francisco Bay Area. Through this collaborative effort, the Bay Area Ranchers’ Coop (BAR-C) was formed. As I shared in a previous article, BAR-C is a co-op for ranchers and by ranchers whose mission is to serve its members by providing access to local processing with transparency, honesty, and dedication. This arrangement strengthens the efforts of small, local ranchers to ensure that consumers have access to quality, affordable, and stable regenerative meat sources.
Creating a regional meat processing facility also reduces ranchers’ carbon ‘hoof print’, saving members hundreds of miles of driving to find a processor. BAR-C estimates that a centralized Bay Area USDA harvest unit will lower greenhouse gas emissions by a whopping 78% from current levels. A local facility will also save animals from the stress of long travel which can negatively impact meat quality.
Having a truly local food system means raising, growing, harvesting, and distributing that food locally. Having that capacity in a regional meat supply chain allows consumers, through their purchasing power, to foster and sustain economic stability and food security in their communities.