May, 2019: We have some really big news at the Methow Conservancy! Our work to support a bright future for working farms and ranches of the Methow Valley has led us to an exciting, but unusual collaboration.
For decades, farmers and ranchers of the Methow Valley and Okanogan County have struggled with access to livestock processing, a critical step in the production of farm-to-table meats. Many farms in our region have growing market opportunities for humanely and sustainably-raised meats. However, our farms can’t access the vast majority of these opportunities unless their animals are processed at a USDA-inspected facility. There are no USDA facilities in Okanogan County, and the closest USDA plant is a 200-300 mile roundtrip. These long travel distances cause undue stress to the livestock, and also take a toll on the farmer, the farm’s bottom line, and the product’s carbon footprint.
If the experiences of other rural farming communities across the West are any indication, limited access to livestock processing is often coupled with a decline in working agricultural lands. Here in Okanogan County, this is a trend we must buck. Farming and ranching are core to the ethos, economy, and cherished rural character of this place. And from the perspective of a land trust, successful working farms and ranches are critical for protecting valuable agricultural soils from development and also for maintaining the open spaces that are so beneficial to diverse wildlife.
To better understand how we might avoid the pitfalls of declining access to livestock processing, we spent the better part of 2018 leading a grant-funded study with the Okanogan Conservation District and the Twispworks Foundation. Our goal was to collect data about the need for better access to USDA processing in Okanogan County. We surveyed 95 livestock producers across the county, and found significant demand. We also evaluated diverse options to bring USDA processing to Okanogan County, and identified a very promising opportunity for an existing, custom-exempt butcher shop in Tonasket to expand to offer USDA-inspected processing. We carefully evaluated the financial and technical feasibility of such an expansion, and we explored a variety of possible approaches for implementation. LEARN MORE ABOUT THE STUDY.
A unique opportunity for collaboration has emerged from this work. The Methow Conservancy is teaming up with DOUBLE S MEATS of Tonasket to bring USDA-inspected processing to livestock producers in Okanogan County. The Methow Conservancy just purchased a USDA-approved, modular slaughter unit and will be leasing it to Double S Meats for the next 5 years. Yes, you read that correctly! This unit will make it possible for Double S Meats to add USDA-inspected slaughter services at their facility, and will vastly expand the opportunities for small farms and ranches to access growing niche market opportunities. Even though the facility is located Tonasket, it will make a significant positive impact for small farms in the Methow Valley.
We will continue to work with a team of advisory livestock producers during the course of this effort, to ensure that farmers and ranchers have a voice and a vested interest in the success of the project. We’ll also work to ensure that best practices are used for humane and low-stress handling of livestock. Thanks to a generous grant from the HumanLinks Foundation and Tilth Alliance, we’ll be able to support Double S Meats in designing low-stress animal handling infrastructure for diverse species.
While this project is a highly unusual collaboration for a land trust like the Methow Conservancy, it’s not the first time a group like ours has stepped in to serve the chronically-unmet need for better access to USDA-inspected livestock processing. In Washington State alone, the Lopez Community Land Trust, the Community Agriculture Development Center of Colville, and the Pierce County Conservation District have all purchased USDA-approved mobile slaughter units, and leased them to processors or producers groups. We are very fortunate to be able to draw on their experiences and expertise to guide us forward.
We are also very fortunate, as an organization, to be in a position to take on a unique project like this. We are a community with deep roots in agriculture and a particularly rich ranching heritage. A bright future for our farms is going to take unusual collaborations and a community willing to take risks for the sake of our farms and ranches.
Update, June, 2019
We have been truly blown away by the positive response and encouragement we have received about this project! We’ve also received several questions about how this project might affect the climate or encourage additional grazing on native ecosystems. We thought we’d share a bit more of our organization’s motivation behind this project:
Successful working farms and ranches protect land from development, keeping land in open space and greatly benefiting wildlife.
Much of the soil in our region is not suitable for intensive cropping systems. Research shows that perennial grass systems, coupled with managed grazing can actually have a positive impact on soil health and carbon sequestration, especially for sandy soils with low organic matter (see the Savory Institute’s Science Library). We hope this project will open a door for us to be involved in future conversations about sustainable grazing practices in our region. We hope that by playing a constructive role in helping solve an issue that many local farmers and ranchers have long held as a concern, we will have the credibility to be engaged in those conversations. Ranching is core to the Methow Valley’s character and heritage, and we see a bright future for conservation and ranching here.
Most of Okanogan County’s cattle operations raise calves, rather than finished beef. We don’t expect this project to increase the number of cattle raised on the landscape, but rather to give existing ranches a tool to diversify by being able to explore marketing some of their beef to local grocery stores, restaurants, and directly to consumers. This project will increase access to the growing market opportunities for sustainably-raised farm meats.
Based on our extensive feasibility study, the primary beneficiaries of this particular project will be small local farms producing diverse farm-to-table meats on private land, including sustainable pork, lamb, goat, and grass-fed beef. Because of the scale of this project, it will not result in the creation of large-scale, feed-lot style ranching.
Given the reality of climate change, we believe that we all have to carefully weigh the impacts of our choices. This project will offer our community the choice to source meat products from local farms, to learn about their farming practices and then choose to support farms with good management practices, and to reduce the fossil fuels needed to put meat on the table. We recognize and respect that some have chosen to be vegetarian, but we also acknowledge that many people have not made that choice, and we believe this project has the potential to provide our community with more sustainable options.
For more information about this project, please contact Agricultural Programs Coordinator, email@example.com