Delaware Farm Bureau angling to answer demand for slaughterhouses
CAMDEN, Del. — A Delaware Farm Bureau committee wants to help build a new slaughterhouse — or expand an existing one — in the Delmarva region, the Farm Bureau’s president said last week.
A committee of roughly 30 farmers, launched in January, has been investigating options to grow the peninsula’s slaughterhouse capacity as its livestock industry struggles with a swelling demand for locally raised meat and a shortage of processors, said Richard Wilkins, Farm Bureau president.
The Farm Bureau does not intend to manage the project itself but is working to produce a series of recommendations that could guide interested governments across the region. There are just two USDA-certified slaughterhouses on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and Delaware.
“The Farm Bureau recognizes that many of our members are constrained by this lack of capacity, and so we are trying to advocate for several things,” Wilkins said. “Part of the reason why we’re down to only two (slaughterhouses) is because of the restrictions and regulatory framework that has grown over the past two decades and basically has caused operations that used to be USDA-inspected to say, ‘We don’t want these hassles any more. It’s just not worth it.’”
The committee, whose subcommittees are examining different aspects of a potential project including financing, marketing and regulatory reform, has met monthly via video conference since February. It is comprised mostly of livestock producers and those interested in moving into the industry, he said.
Issues related to the region’s shortage of processors, including long waiting lists and hours-long drives for appointments, have been a common gripe among farmers for decades. Different parties have tried expanding the region’s capacity with little success. The Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission has been working to acquire USDA-certification for a new Amish slaughterhouse in St. Mary’s County for more than two years. The certification would allow farmers to legally sell the meat from animals slaughtered there.
A prospective processor faces a regulatory morass. The last time someone tried to open a processor in Delaware they discovered more than 80 required permits, Wilkins said. Even a pamphlet created by, say, the Delaware Department of Agriculture, detailing the regulatory process would help, he said.
“There’s an extreme lack of assistance there,” he said.
Issues such as new, costly fire-code requirements can stymie existing operations that want to expand. Financing is another major hurdle. Even a small-scale facility could cost as much $5 million to build, he said. But the federal government has created grants and loans to reinforce the resiliency of the U.S. food system in the wake of the coronavirus, and money is available for entities hoping to build a new processor or expand one, Wilkins said. A recent federal relief package included $100,000 grants to custom-exempt slaughterhouses seeking USDA certification, he said.
In addition to those issues, prospective processors also face a daunting shortage of skilled and unskilled labor and the biases of consumers who prefer fashionable cuts such as filet mignon and rib eye at the expense of cheaper cuts that help boost an animal’s profitability. Wilkins said marketing may help improve that.
Less than 5 percent of all meat sold regionally is produced here, Wilkins said. Just by satisfying the existing demand among regional consumers, producers could double or triple that percentage if they had more access to processing.
“The consumers are wanting locally raised protein,” Wilkins said. “Let’s figure out how we can help them rather than finding out reasons why it won’t work.”