Producers: Md. needs more meat processors
(March 27, 2018) David Feeser has been cutting meat since the early 1970s. He’s 64 years old and slaughters beef, swine, lambs and goats every other week at his business, A&W Country Meats, in Taneytown, Md.
It’s a difficult job, and it doesn’t pay much — a frequent subject of frustration for his wife, he said, chuckling. He’s slowed down a little since a shoulder surgery two years ago, and he’s more than willing to sell the business for the right price. ($425,000 to be exact.)
If he couldn’t find a buyer and had to close, he’d put more pressure on an already over-booked meat processing industry across the state.
But he’s still open for business — for now.
“I got to keep going. I haven’t found a rich woman to keep me yet,” he joked.
A&W Country Meats is one of just a handful of USDA-certified meat processors in Maryland. It’s part of an aging industry; many regional processors, like its farmers, are approaching retirement. Many of them also have long waiting lists — up to a year in some cases — to process animals.
Which begs the question: With demand growing for local meat, why aren’t there more processors?
“I think that’s a question a lot of people are asking,” said Craig Sewell, marketing and livestock specialist at the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission.
As Baby Boomers enter retirement, younger generations haven’t moved in to replace them, several processors said. When George Maurer, co-owner of the popular Carroll County processor M&M Meats, announced recently that it will close this year, he lamented the lack of younger processors.
“It used to be that you had farm boys that grew up working on the farm and got a job working around animals, who are used to the manure, the kills, the smells,” Maurer told The Delmarva Farmer. “Well, those family farms have died off. Those farms are now housing developments, and it’s more of a, ‘You’ve got to go to college. You’ve got to be a computer guru.’”
He said there were two impediments to selling his business: He leases the building that houses his operation, and he simply wasn’t aware of any buyers.
Purchasing or starting a new slaughterhouse and processing business from scratch can be costly. Alleghany Meats, which opened in Monterey, Va., in 2012, was only made possible through a heavy fundraising effort and a $480,000 rural development grant from the USDA in partnership with — oddly — a local telephone cooperative. It’s a good example of the kind of concerted, local effort required to get a new processor off the ground, said Susan McQuilkin, a marketing executive with the Southern Maryland commission. Processors need value-added equipment and capability as well as the time and money to navigate the maze of building and USDA regulations required to open a new facility.
“It needs to be more than just a family effort,” McQuilkin said.
Her commission is in the process of working with local farmers to build a much-needed facility in Southern Maryland that could process several thousand animals a year. It would ease the pain of many farmers in the area who have complained that they have to travel up to two hours or more to have their animals processed.
But the commission also recently closed the book on a disappointing three-year effort to build a $1.5 million processing facility with outside bidders. It received just one bid for the project, which it unanimously rejected.
Meat producers across the state also aren’t always the easiest to schedule for slaughtering, said Paul Spies, program manager for agribusiness and energy at the Maryland Department of Commerce. Farmers often want animals slaughtered and processed at the same time as other farmers, leading to large seasonal waiting lists and headaches for processors who need a few large customers who provide a steady supply of animals year-round.
“An even supply of animals to processors is the key,” he said. “Certain portions of the year, there’s a lack of supply. … It’s difficult, and the companies I’ve talked to have told us that.”
A large cooperative or an association might be a good way to create a more even supply, he said.
Until then, farmers may continue to struggle with the lack of processing capacity in the state. Lynn Roberts, for instance, was one of many farmers who panicked after M&M Meats announced its closure. Roberts, a professor in the geography and environmental engineering department at Johns Hopkins University, has raised grass-fed sheep for the past two years on her property in White Hall, Md.
She said she relied on Maurer’s custom processing skills, which included saving perfectly cut, unblemished lamb pelts that she occasionally sells to customers. Now, with M&M closing, she said she’s unsure where she will take her animals. All of her options are at least double the travel distance, and she said she’s unsure whether she can pass the related cost onto her customers.
“I was thrilled when (Maurer) was willing to take me on as a producer,” she said. At another processor, “I’ll pay double the price for hauling. They will pull the pelts for me, but I’ll have to pay for each pelt, and they will charge more for processing each lamb, so, you know, it’s going to add a significant fraction to my total cost of processing.”
If anyone wants to buy Feeser’s processing business, it’s expandable. Since his helper retired, he said he’s worked by himself, cutting meat just twice a month. A new owner could run animals through his facility each week. The business would likely turn a profit, which it failed to do last year.
It would also, he said, satisfy his wife’s wish that he “get a real paying job.”
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