Infrastructure is the broken link for market access

The New York Times this week cast a spotlight on one of the critical challenges to restructuring our food system: “Push to Eat Local is Hampered by Shortage.”

Not a shortage of product, mind you, but a dire shortage of infrastructure to get products from the farm gate to the customer’s plate. Small-scale agriculture is resurging as some city dwellers strive to get back to the land, while a growing number of existing farmers look at alternative agriculture as a ticket to get off the commodity production treadmill.

These producers too often hit a brick wall when attempting to get their products to the marketplace. It’s particularly difficult for livestock producers. The Times targets the precipitous drop in the number of slaughterhouses across the country as a key part of the problem. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of federally-inspected slaughter plants dropped from 1,252 in 1998 to 630 in 2008. But that only tells part of the story. The massive plants now dominating the meat business slaughter thousands of head of livestock per day. A packing processing 4,000 head of cattle per day is not going to slow down the line to segregate 50 head of grass-finished animals from a local rancher.

This consolidation has largely occurred under the guise of efficiency. A business model utilizing low-paid “unskilled” labor to process 4,000 head per day is a major contributor to low-priced beef in the retail case. It’s also one of the major factors behind widespread beef recalls, raids by immigration authorities, and the lack of access by small producers to the retail marketplace.

Small-scale processing plants simply cannot compete in the arena of cheap, generic commodity products. Those plants though, are a critical link in the chain that brings organic beef, bison, free-range pork and other specialized products to the marketplace. Without that link, producers of natural and organic meat will continue to be disconnected from the retail marketplace.

Dave Carter is the executive director of the National Bison Association and principal of Crystal Springs Consulting Inc. He maintains a small herd of buffalo in Colorado.

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