The following story was written by a University of Missouri student as part of the 2010 Sonja Hillgren/Farm Journal Ag Journalism Field Reporting Institute. Learn more.
By Daniel Beerman
At Sappington Farmers’ Market in St. Louis, business manager Randy Wood discusses how customer demand for small-farm and local produce has increased in Missouri urban areas. In fact, demand outstrips the supply of some products on the store’s shelves, Wood says.
"Stock is a huge difficulty," he said.
Some 25 miles to the northwest in St. Charles, small farmers Ron and Jolene Benne describe how their sales to local customers are hampered by lack of access to a chicken-processing facility. The Bennes drive three hours to a processor in Illinois, a time-consuming and costly effort.
"We had to say no to a restaurant last week," said Ron Benne, who with his wife owns Benne’s Best Meats. "They asked for 90 birds."
Wood, the Bennes and others say a mobile processing unit could provide a solution.
The units provide sites for animal slaughter and processing to small operations in rural areas or places without access to state or federal plants. They may be outfitted for poultry, beef, fish and aquaculture or other agricultural products that require processing.
Mobile processing units are commonly designed as large trailers pulled by a truck. According to the Kentucky State University manual, trailers are equipped with propane-powered sinks, chilling units and livestock processing tools.
Researchers from the University of Wyoming found significant interest in mobile units from rural red meat producers in areas with no access to U.S. Department of Agriculture facilities.
According to a 2010 USDA compliance guide, processing units create sources of new business in rural areas. This allows small producers to expand production and meet their communities’ needs for forage-fed, natural and organic meats.
Beth Ewers, deputy director of the Meat and Poultry Inspection Program at the Missouri Department of Agriculture, said interest is especially high in Missouri poultry production because only three inspected processing plants exist in the state.
Seven states have USDA-approved units. According to the University of Iowa Extension website, mobile processing units are in operation for poultry or red meat in 11 states.
Bryan Trout of the Kansas and Missouri USDA field office said that logistics are the biggest challenge.
Getting a USDA inspector to slaughter locations is not the issue, Trout said. The compliance guide says an "operations schedule needs to be provided" to any district in which the unit operates. The difficulty lies in establishing sites for the units to use in each town, he said.
According to the Meat and Poultry Products Inspection Acts, the USDA is obligated to ensure food is "wholesome, unadulterated, and properly labeled."
If a unit is to become a federally approved processing facility, it will be subject to the same sanitary standards as fixed locations. This includes approved labeling, county-approved water and office space for inspectors.
Mobile units require electricity and have to be equipped to keep meat cold to and from rural processing locations, according to the USDA guide. More challenges to processing beef and other livestock include finding access to humane corrals and waste disposal. Someone has to pay for these services to be made accessible to mobile units before it can visit a rural location.
Trout said USDA units would probably have to be semi-permanent to ensure mobile processing sites have all the required amenities.
Someone or a group will have to establish an infrastructure and method for selling the products in a profitable way, said Kevin Moore, associate professor of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri. Finding local sources willing to pay premium prices for produce is crucial.
"It’s a question of chicken and the egg," said Moore.
According to the University of Iowa Extension website, a mobile processing unit that operates in Kentucky cost $70,000 to plan and build. The unit coordinator is a university employee. Customers cover other expenses.
"It is a lesson in economies of scale," Moore said. "Someone has to make the investment viable."
In other words, someone must find the right counties in Missouri, the farmers and producers interested in the service, locations with the appropriate amenities and the money to get it started.
Demand for locally grown and processed foods has gone up, Wood said. Sappington Farmers’ Market has trouble keeping the shelves stocked because supply is occasionally unreliable.
"We are desperately looking for local chicken," Wood said. He has seen the demand increase, and mobile processing could fill the gap.
Mobile units might increase the number of small producers, said Wood. According to the USDA compliance guide, using mobile units can provide small landowners with sources of supplemental income.
Changing norms is not simple. From the regulations in place to the financial risk, mobile processing units may not be the best solution. That doesn’t change the fact that rural landowners need additional ways to get food and income.
"If you build it they will come," Wood said.
Small farmers, like Ron and Jolene Benne, will use it to increase profits and grow their operations, Wood said.
"The goal is to improve the quality of the community-based economy," he said.