cattle
Stemple Creek Ranch in Tomales raises livestock on organic pasture, but just 30% of its beef is marketed as organic, while pork and lamb are not because they don’t go through organic slaughter (Photo: Paolo Vescia)

By Ching Lee, Assistant Editor, Ag Alert

Reprinted with Permission from California Farm Bureau Federation

Despite rising demand for organic meat, some California ranchers face roadblocks that prevent them from being able to market their meat as organic because of limited certified-organic slaughter and processing facilities.

Meat processing bottlenecks have affected all small and mid-sized ranchers, said Laetitia Benador, policy research specialist for California Certified Organic Farmers. But the problem has been especially tough for organic producers, she said, because only a handful of the state’s 32 federally inspected slaughter plants carry organic certification.

For meat products to be marketed and sold using the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic label, the animals must be raised according to federal organic standards, and they must be slaughtered and the meat processed at a certified organic plant.

Benador noted that from 1970 to 2018, California lost more than half of its federally inspected slaughterhouses, and the remaining facilities operate at capacity or are located too far away to be cost-effective for ranchers. Because slaughterhouses have such high demand as it is, she said, there’s not much incentive for them to take on organic certification.

With limited access to organic facilities, Benador said many ranchers must use noncertified organic facilities and therefore cannot label their meat organic, potentially losing out on the full value of their products through organic premium prices.

“(Organic meat) is a rapidly growing market, and we would really love to have the infrastructure in place to enable ranchers to take advantage of those opportunities,” she said.

With demand for organic meat growing and more producers “hopping on the game,” Siskiyou County rancher Jason Walker of StarWalker Ranch said the state’s processing infrastructure lacks capacity to handle the increased production of organic livestock.

For his beef and pork to be certified organic, he said he makes a four-hour drive to a slaughter facility in Oregon because the closest California facility, Redwood Meat Co. in Humboldt County, is so booked it has no openings for new customers. The carcasses then make a seven-hour trip to Certified Meat Products in Fresno to be cut and wrapped.

Walker said he’s able to use the Fresno facility because he produces enough volume to ship 15 to 20 hogs and 10 to 15 cattle at a time.

“If you’re a small producer and you’re just starting out, you’re going to have a heck of a time getting in any of these places,” he said.

Because he sells most of his meat online, Walker said his organic certification represents an important tool when marketing to people who only know his website. Some ranchers, he noted, have moved away from certifying their animals because of processing constraints.

San Benito County rancher Julie Morris of Morris Grassfed said she’s “completely transparent” with her customers about why her farm’s meat is not certified organic, even though she maintains organic certification on her pasture. The company’s website features a detailed graphic that shows the journey her cattle must travel from the farm to her customers. It also explains how the farm is forced to drive hundreds of miles to its slaughter and processing facilities due to the lack of small-scale meat processors in the state.

“It kind of takes away from the ecological footprint that we like to think our product creates,” she said. “We put all this time into regenerative agriculture and creating healthy rangelands, and then we have to drive so far to get our meat processed.”

Even though Stemple Creek Ranch in Tomales raises its cattle, hogs and lambs on organic pasture, rancher Loren Poncia said he cannot market his pork and lamb as organic because they do not go through organic slaughter. He certifies only 30% of his beef as organic because “we have a niche market where people do want to pay more for it, so we’re willing to raise the product organically and make it work,” he said.

Poncia sells his meat through his website, at farmers markets and to grocery stores, butcher shops and restaurants. Because of his direct relationships with his customers, he said, the lack of organic certification hasn’t been a problem.

For producers who want to sell to bigger retailers, Poncia said, certification is much more important. He said he also thinks there would be more organic meat available, especially pork and lamb, if slaughter and processing were not such a problem for small producers.

Humboldt County rancher Michael Evenson said the problem forced him six years ago to change his business to selling his animals live to customers, then using a custom-exempt mobile facility for on-farm slaughter. Meat from these animals cannot be sold to the public and is intended for the owners’ consumption. The meat is also not certified organic, even though Evenson said he retains certification on his pasture and the herd.

He said he thinks legislation such as the PRIME Act would “go a long way to take the pressure off” the state’s meatpackers and butchers. The bill would change federal law to allow ranchers to slaughter and process their livestock at custom-exempt mobile facilities, which are not USDA inspected, and be able to sell the meat.

Benador of CCOF said the certifier, working with a coalition of ranchers and others, has identified policy solutions that could help alleviate the current organic meat processing bottleneck. They include upgrading older facilities and building new ones; expanding options for on-farm slaughter; revamping a state inspection program; and investing in workforce development to grow meat processing capacity.

Kevin Maloney, president of the Bay Area Ranchers Cooperative, which has purchased a mobile unit that it expects to open in May, said the group plans to certify the unit organic. He said BAR-C has already determined that infrastructure cost for organic certification would be “negligible,” but it would require record keeping and “a lot of paper pushing.” Noting cooperative members are a mix of ranchers who are certified organic and not certified, he said its board of directors will ultimately make the decision on whether the mobile unit will go through organic certification.