WA co-op serves local ranchers, consumers

News
Sep 20, 2013
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Have you heard the word “locavore?” It’s a food movement where consumers want food raised locally. The thought is local food is fresher and comes with a reduced carbon footprint. One problem with local meat, however, is the limited availability of small, federally-inspected processing plants. Not only is this a problem for the consumers wanting local meat, it’s a big problem for the producers who want to supply those consumers’ needs.

A new processing plant in Washington, just south of Odessa, is trying to do address both issues. The Livestock Processors Cooperative Association (LPCA) plant is a member-owned custom plant which aims to serve not only the needs of local ranchers, but also local customers and the future of ranching in general.

“This is a custom plant to help ranchers market their own product,” Willard Wolf, President of the plant’s board of directors, told WLJ. He continued, including as a major goal of the plant “to provide the consumer with locally produced meat.”

The LPCA plant began operation late last month, processing its first livestock on Aug. 22. It is a multispecies plant is capable of processing cattle, hogs, goats and sheep. It began life with a 30 cattle (or equivalent) per day capacity.

“We’re in the infancy stages,” Wolf said. “We’re going slow.”

The USDA inspected plant is producer-run and producer-controlled co-op plant currently has 80 members. Wolf said the members represent a vast diversity of production in the Evergreen State.

“This group of ranchers and farmers not only have cattle, hogs, goats and sheep, they also have 27 other food crops that they grow and market.”

He estimated that the livestock numbers represented by the co-op’s membership amount to 26,000 beef cattle, 9,000 hogs, 5,000 sheep, 600 goats. Of the 80 producer members, he said three or four raise goats, four or five raise sheep, four raise hogs, and the balance are cattle producers of varying operation sizes.

Wolf also stressed the plant does not buy or own the livestock it processes. Rather, processing is a fee-based service provided to producers. Producers can then can either market their meats directly to consumers or utilize the plant’s marketing arm.

“There’s a marketing company that is entirely separate from the plant. It’s called Empire Ranches,” Wolf said. He said Empire Ranches has already been contacted by local consumers and businesses looking to buy locally-sourced meats. The Empire Ranches website features rancher profiles of members, recipes, and the ability to buy meats directly from the website. The website boasts that all products sold were raised within 200 miles of the plant, thereby reducing traveling stress on the animals and the carbon footprint of the meat.

But many of LPCA’s members already have marketing plans in place, many of which include direct marketing to consumers in the state’s big metropolitan centers. As with so many places in the country, the population of consumers wanting locally-produced, grass-fed meat and a relationship with “their rancher” is growing. LPCA’s membership aims to meet that developing market.

Challenges

This hopeful endeavor hasn’t been without its growing pains however.

“We still have some issues with the plant about the construction,” he said, explaining that that is to be expected with new construction. “And of course we’ve had a continual battle with the state and federal agencies.”

As one might expect, the weight of regulations and start-up costs have weighed on the new plant. Wolf explained that there are around 17 different federal, state, and local agencies that the plant has had to interact with during the construction and certification process. Because it was a new construction also added to the regulatory scrutiny rather than being “grandfathered in” as many plant remodels are.

The process behind the LPCA plant relatively recently.

“The process basically started about 16 months ago. That’s when the business plan was started and done and that kicked the ball off,” said Wolf.

He explained that in the business plan, all potential costs were included. Items in the business plan were purposefully overestimated by 20 percent to account for likely price increases between when the plan was made and when construction could begin.

This was a good idea, but did not cover the extreme price increases for certification fees, licensing, inspections and the like which occurred in Washington between 2012 and 2013. Wolf said the prices associated with many regulations doubled or even tripled in 2013, possibly due to the state’s economic situation.

Wolf gave an example related to the plant’s equipment. The co-op made a point to ensure all the equipment was American-made.

“We wanted to support the United States of America, you know?” However, due to a Washington state law which requires a different sort of safety certification than what the equipment came with, everything had to be recertified.

“It’s been a real struggle and has caused considerable overruns and delays to just meet those requirements,” he said of that example and others.

Goals and the future

But it’s not all difficulties. Wolf expressed considerable optimism for the future for all involved; the community, members, consumers, and the future of ranching in the area.

“This plant will create jobs and opportunities.”

He spoke at length of one of his personal hopes for the plant, namely that it will bring young people back to the ranches and farms by helping them meet the needs of a changing marketplace.

“We’re trying to encourage young people to look outside the box and look for some new marketing opportunities. But they need a federally inspected plant.”

Wolf also said that the plant can help existing producers. He explained that the producers have had to send their animals into other states, sometimes as far as the Midwest, because existing processing facilities either didn’t exist or were booked up over a month into the future. And without the ability to get their animals processed, producers couldn’t expand their operations.

“This plant was built to help these people expand their programs.”

When asked what producers elsewhere with a mind to start a similar processing co-op should know, he chuckled and immediately advised them to contact either LPCA or the Belcampo Meat Co. plant of Yreka, CA, another recently-built facility that the LPCA members contacted in their planning process.

“Experience gives you a lot of knowledge. Lack of experience leads you to make dumb mistakes.”

Laughing again, he said LPCA had made its share of dumb mistakes—though he attributed these to the turbulent federal regulations and the lack contractors with packing house experience rather than any lacking on LPCA’s due diligence—but that having a guide through the process would be invaluable.

“We could help you make better decisions about location, licenses, and regulations,” he added. “As well as construction considerations to meet all state and federal regulations.”

Wolf stressed that the decision on location is an important one. States have differing regulations and some states are more welcoming to new businesses like meat plants than others. Researching these differences is essential. He closed with inviting anyone or any group of producers interested in creating a similar co-op processing plant to contact LPCA.

The LPCA plant can be found online at livestockprocessors.com or by phone by calling 509/982-0115. Empire Ranches can be found online at empireranches. com. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor

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