Older dairy cows could become steady source of local beef

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Written By

Elizabeth Ferry

Written on

December 01 , 2009

It all starts with a single surprising statistic: 40,000 mature dairy cows leave the state each year. They are so-called “market cows”—dairy cattle who have stopped producing milk at an economically viable rate. They are culled from their herds and trucked primarily to Pennsylvania, where they and other cows from the Northeast are slaughtered and processed. Their meat then enters the industrial food distribution system.

Forty thousand is a big number. It might make you wonder, “Who is thinking about this in terms of local food production?”

Actually, many people are. Dairy farmers, beef processors and distributors, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, nonprofit organizations, public school lunch programs, the Vermont legislature, and students attending at least two Vermont colleges are among the diverse groups looking at that number—40,000—and considering alternatives.

What if we could devise a way to keep some of those animals in-state? The potential benefits are numerous and are being voiced by a diverse number of (pun intended) “steakholders.”

For the cows, getting processed in Vermont would mean a shorter, presumably less stressful ride, which would contribute to a higher-quality final product. And Vermont farmers might receive a higher price for these cows if less were spent on their transportation. Driving a trailer load of 1,000-lb. animals doesn’t come cheap, and creates an unnecessarily largecarbon footprint.

For the Vermont economy, there would be new jobs and a potential expansion of livestock infrastructure. That could strengthen Vermont’s overall ability to produce more of its own food. And protein is an expensive and highly sought-after nutrient. Why send it out of state when there are so many potential benefits to raising, slaughtering, processing, distributing, and eating it right here? What are we waiting for?

Ed Jackson, agriculture development coordinator at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets, puts the idea in perspective. “It has some significant challenges but also huge potential for Vermont agriculture and its citizenship.”

This past fall, representatives from Vermont FEED, the Vermont Foodbank’s Gleaning Program, and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture met to start a discussion of this topic. The purpose was to share perspectives and to see where areas for potential collaboration exist. Here is a look at how these groups are contemplating the benefits—and pondering the practicality—of turning local dairy cows into local beef.

Vermont FEED: School Food that is Safe, Affordable, Healthy, Nutritious
FEED, an acronym for Food Education Every Day, is a collaborative project of three non-profit organizations: Food Works at Two Rivers Center, theNortheast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, and Shelburne Farms. Staff from these organizations work with school communities to increase awareness about healthy food, good nutrition, and the availability of Vermont-grown food for local schools.

Since its founding in 1999, FEED has facilitated connections between school lunch programs and farmers, producers, and distributors statewide. That includes getting local beef into about 50 schools. “It used to be just produce,” says Abbie Nelson, director of FEED. “Now, increasingly, it is meat and dairy, too.”

In addition to participating in the emerging statewide conversation about market cows and local beef, FEED is poised to get ideas from its network of supporters throughout Vermont. Julie Wolcott of Green Winds Farms, a dairy farm in Fairfield, is involved in her local school food program through FEED. She has noticed that most of the beef served in the Fairfield schools is from market cows—though not local ones. The Fairfield school system, like many in Vermont, gets beef through the USDA commodity program.

Wolcott’s interest in the current conversation is to explore the “ultra-local” solution. This would replace commodity market-cow beef with beef from market cows. Wolcott raises the question: What if regulations could be amended to allow this cow from this farm to be processed and delivered to this local school?

Wolcott, says that market cow meat is “satisfactory” in hamburger patties or an ingredient in tacos—common dishes in school lunch programs. “It’s not suitable for the finer cuts of beef,” she notes, “but for burgers, it’s fine.” Her family regularly eats beef from their own herd.

Action at the Agency of Agriculture and the Vermont Legislature

State government, too, sees a potential synergy between schools and locally raised beef. The Agency of Agriculture and Vermont legislators have been exploring the topic in different, though complementary, ways.
One of the Agency’s activities in 2008 was to survey school food service directors throughout the state. The goal was to gain insight into how to make it easier for schools to acquire and use local beef. The Agency also initiated a one-month pilot program in which local beef was served in 10 schools around the state.

Ed Jackson and Koi Boynton of the Agency of Agriculture worked with Benjamin King, a student in the Community Development and Applied Economics program at the University of Vermont, to analyze the survey’s findings. Of the 44 schools that responded, about one-quarter were currently buying local beef. Referring to the 10-school pilot program, King wrote that “satisfaction with the beef itself received mostly excellent ratings” and that “no food safety concerns were reported.” He noted that widespread use of locally produced ground beef in Vermont schools “is a potential boon for the state’s agricultural economy.”

Jackson and others at the Agency are studying numbers to make this possible. The facilities in Pennsylvania that currently receive Vermont’s market cows are able to process 2,000 to 3,000 cattle per day, and they only handle cattle. Vermont’s slaughterhouses typically process fewer than 50 cattle per week, along with other kinds of animals. According to one study, processing 13 cows per week in-state would meet the needs of the schools with which Vermont FEED currently works. Finding or creating the infrastructure to slaughter 600 to 700 cows per year may therefore be a feasible direction in which to head.

Expanding processing capacity is only one piece of the puzzle, though. “Market cows also tend to be variable in quality grade,” Jackson notes. Accommodating that range of variety requires a more complex business plan.
During the 2009 legislature, State Rep. Will Stevens, an Addison County farmer, and other members of the Vermont House of Representatives introduced H.192, a bill to promote Vermont’s local food system. It includes a directive to “test the feasibility of centralized statewide purchasing of milk and meat for school meals and to offer technical assistance to schools regarding the use of local foods.”

H.192 was passed by the legislature and signed into law by Governor Douglas in May. The bill requires a working group to report back to the 2010 legislature early in its session.

Jackson sees many changes that would have to take place before the infrastructure necessary for greater local beef production is created.
“First and foremost, there would need to be significant demonstration of consumer demand—the household shopper, institutional buyers, as well as commercial accounts,” he says. “And there would need to be public and government buy-in to such a project—meaning that we would need a host community that would welcome this industry.” He adds, “It’s not easy to find an entrepreneur with the necessary capital and the intestinal fortitude for such a challenging, competitive project.”

The Vermont Foodbank: Rescue and Gleaning

Since 2004, the Foodbank has had a very active “meat rescue” program that gathers unsold meat of all kinds from Hannaford and Shaw’s supermarkets. The meat—which is perfectly good, just approaching its due date—is sorted to determine its appropriate use; unusable portions are eliminated from the production cycle. The remaining meat may be frozen or used as an ingredient in prepared meals created in the Foodbank’s commercial kitchen. It is then distributed through a network of 280 sites including senior centers, after-school programs, shelters, and food pantries offering emergency food assistance.

The Foodbank has been creative in its rescue efforts. Beyond the beef, chicken, pork (and occasional ostrich meat) that comes from supermarkets, it periodically receives brood trout and salmon from the state’s five fish hatcheries. “I don’t think anything would surprise us,” says John Sayles, CEO of the Foodbank. He adds that “Protein is vital to rounding out our distributions. We are always looking for new opportunities.”

Theresa Snow, the Foodbank’s program director of Agricultural Resources, sees market cows as a new opportunity—much as she once viewed uncollected fresh produce. In 2004, Snow and her colleague Jen O’Donnell co-founded a gleaning operation called Salvation Farms, so named “for the salvation that farms offer to their communities.” Snow and O’Donnell and countless volunteers were highly successful in gathering vegetables that were no longer economically viable for farmers to harvest—so successful that the project is now the Vermont Foodbank’s Gleaning Program.

Snow is a passionate and experienced advocate for locating food resources that are “right in front of us. It’s a matter of perspective and opening our eyes,” says the Morrisville native. And local market cows fit that description. Snow contends that they are going out of state in part because that is the route by which farmers are paid. “It’s my gut instinct that farmers would love to keep [market cows] in-state to feed Vermonters,” she asserts.

Snow is therefore looking for ways to create economic alternatives for farmers who have market cows to sell—alternatives that could, in part, benefit Vermonters accessing the charitable food system that serves the state. “What do the farmers need?” she asks. “How can we make available quality food that is the most economically and environmentally sound?” Sterling College senior Katie Rumley is researching these questions and developing possible scenarios for the Foodbank’s consideration.

The Emerging Group Conversation

If ever there is a “slow” time in farming, time for reflecting and planning, it is winter. That time is upon us. How might the conversation about keeping market cows in-state develop in the coming months?

There certainly are further angles to explore in this complex picture. The conversation is in its preliminary stages. Other players may come on board. Significant forward movement may be months or years away. We do know that it is possible to market dairy cows in-state. Although they are currently booked to capacity, local slaughterhouses are processing some of these animals for local farmers, and the beef is being sold through food co-ops and to some local schools.

At this point, we can take stock in the fact that people from many walks of life are putting their minds to the task of retaining, rather than shipping, Vermont’s market cows. Their collective progress may become one more link in the local food chain—one more way to beef up the availability of accessible, nutritious, and locally produced food.

Photo courtesy of Vermont FEED

About the Author

Elizabeth Ferry

Elizabeth Ferry

Elizabeth Ferry is a writer and photographer in South Royalton who values local and sustainable agriculture. Her photographs and articles can be viewed on her website. The Food Works root cellar is named in honor of her parents, Ronald and the late Sylvia Ferry, for their support of the organization over many years.

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