Through the work completed under the USDA Rural Business Enterprise Grant (USDA-RBEG), we have made a number of key discoveries that we believe are important to share with anyone considering a similar process in their region or community.
1. Project Facilitator. Hiring a project facilitator with funds from USDA-RBEG has been critical to our progress. Without a paid facilitator, the volunteer committee members would have trouble keeping project momentum when more pressing obligations take priority.
2. Facility Scale. Developing anything smaller than a fully functional slaughter and cut and wrap facility is not likely to be profit generating. This means that we’ve ruled out a mobile unit as an option. Instead, we are looking at ways to maximize the capacity of the facility, especially through the production of value-added goods such as sausage, beef jerky, and pet treats.
3. Challenges of a Slaughter Facility. While slaughter is the most fundamental step in livestock processing, it is also the least likely to generate a profit and brings the most potential for community opposition.
4. Common Barriers. In the feasibility studies conducted elsewhere in California, the largest barriers to moving forward with facility development were ranchers’ aversion to risk as well as the difficulty in attracting qualified facility managers.
5. Committing Animals to a New Facility. It is hard for ranchers to commit to a certain number of animals that they will have slaughtered at a new facility. This is partly due to the high price that ranchers can get at auction for animals, especially beef, compared to the unknown demand and value of direct marketed products (those sold directly to consumers from farms or at farmers’ markets). Ranchers also can’t commit if they don’t know the price or the quality of the work of the yet-to-be-built facility.
6. Competition. There are other existing or new processors that could potentially compete with a new facility if developed. If we build a facility, we fear that we may not be able to keep costs as low as other processors outside of the region.
7. Relationships. Strong relationships have been key to gathering information and support. Various committee members have important relationships with elected officials, farmers’ market managers, other larger ranchers from outside the region, animal transport providers, and of course, with processors.
8. Local Officials. Part of what makes our region distinct from a more urban region, and a good place to do business, is the support we have from local officials. Because of the small population, there is also a sentiment that officials are more responsive than their counterparts in urban areas.
9. Regionalism. Acting as a region is seen as a benefit among the steering committee members. It is important for this project to serve the region as a whole, rather than focus on one community or county alone.
10. Community acceptance. Whatever site is chosen for the facility, the opinion of the community will play an essential role in ensuring its success. Providing education about the potential benefits to the economy is a way of encouraging support. However, it will be important not to exaggerate the benefits. For example, it is unlikely that a livestock processing facility will be a big jobs generator, and the community should know this, so that they are not surprised or disappointed once it is built and running.
11. Demand. The market for direct marketed meats is increasing steadily. Ranchers in our region that sell their product to Farmer’s Markets have experienced tremendous growth in their business size in the last two years, and they struggle to keep adequate supply to satisfy their customers.
12. Common Narrative. Finally, a community or region’s economic traits alone cannot explain its well-being. In fact, the creation of a “social infrastructure”, that is, building relationships of community members within the organizations or institutions to which they belong, is actually the precursor to creating physical infrastructure. An integral part of our creation of this social infrastructure has been the development of a common narrative, or way of telling the story about the potential of this facility. This narrative binds the group together and continues to motivate us when we have disputes or when the project seems infeasible. Despite the committee’s diversity in ideological backgrounds and varied reasons for being involved in the process of determining feasibility of developing a regional livestock processing facility, there are three common themes in our individual and group narratives.
- A livestock processing facility in our region can be a way to honor the practices of past generations.
- A livestock processing facility in our region can create opportunities for meaningful work for future generations.
- A livestock processing facility can reinvigorate the local rural economy through adding value to what the land produces, rather than relying on industrial or urban economic models.
With this common idea of success, we’ve started to create a vision to work toward, creating more opportunities for regional economic development and prosperity.
Click on the link if you are interested in reading the full evaluation of our process: Livestock Processing in the Mother Lode: Evaluable of a Rural Economic Development Project