Is it Really Local?

The American Grass fed Association is having their big annual conference in San Diego this month.  The theme is now that the market for grass fed is becoming so large, how do we make sure people are getting what they ask for.

It is a concern.


I have an additional concern – is it local?


Here’s where I’m coming from – and allow me some metaphorical wandering!


I’ve already discussed the confusion over labeling.  It is the law of the land that products – including meats – are suppose to be labeled for origin.  Is it USA meat, or is it from Canada, Australia, Mexico?  Good luck finding out.  While it is the law, the big meat packers have fought it “tooth and nail”.  They argue – especially in the case of hamburger, where they may have meat from 200 different animals in the batch – that it just isn’t practical or possible to tell you where the meat came from.


So be it.  We’re all use to the big guys not telling us the truth.  I can live with it – I just don’t buy anything that doesn’t tell me where it came from.


But even if they were labeling for origin (possibly when hell freezes over!).  What does it tell you when it says “origin USA?  In Texas you can look for the Go Texan sticker.  Ok, now we’re down to it being “in state”.


But again, is that really local? 


An when we get to meat – beef in particular – you still have the confusion over “grass-fed”, “grass-finished”, “natural”, “organic”.


A quick primer:


Natural – no hormones, no antibiotics    but it can be corn/grain finished.


Organic – no hormones, no antibiotics, no GMO    but it can be finished on organic grain that is certified no GMO


Grass-finished – no hormones, no antibiotics, no GMO products.  The animal has been weaned (at approximately 6 to 10 months) and then moved onto a grass diet for another 12 to 18 months.


Grass-fed – no hormones, no antibiotics, no GMO products.  The animal has been killed at weaning, so its diet consists of mostly grass with some mother’s milk.


Now for the tricky part.

“Natural” is now carried by many of the grocery stores.  There are some major brands in this category – Nimans, Colemans – as well as store brands.  They tout that they are “hormone and antibiotic free”, they are a little quieter about the corn finished aspect.  It’s on the label.  It’s required, but you have to look.  Same with the “organic” label.  Again, they will make sure you know that there are no hormones or antibiotics, and, in this case, no GMO product of any kind going into the meat.  Still, it can be corn finished.


What does this mean?  Well, if you are interested in a grass fed or finished product, then this is not it.  The animals are still being feed lotted – a necessary requirement to get them to stuff up on grain.  And, let me point out that if you want to eat corn finished – that is your business.  It just would be nice if the labeling were a little clearer.


Here is the sneaky part.  Some of the big guys want to argue that they should be able to put “grass-fed or grass-finished” even if the animal is finished on grain.  Their reasoning is that if more than 85% to 90% of the nutrition is grass, then they should be able to say grass.


Well, look.  The animal lives 15 months.  The last 3 months it receives grain, that would represent 20% of its nutrition.  But lets leave the animal on grass a little longer and reduce the feed out time to less than 3 months – presto-chango - “grassfed”.  Or how about we shove the animal on grass for 1 week before we slaughter it.  That works too!




This is the big concern that the AGA has.  What will the USDA let the big boys get away with, and how do we alert the consumer to this kind of label adulteration?


Still, I think there is another more insidious problem.  If you look for local, often the above problems get smaller.


But now, you, the consumer, need to become more active. 


One of the big issues with “local, sustainable” around here is that we have a number of restaurants saying that they are using local, but are they really?


Bastrop Cattle Company keeps running into restaurants that say “local” – and are actually pretty good about the local label when it comes to pork, lamb and chicken.  But when it comes to beef, they are playing a fib.  The distributor that they get the beef from is local, but the beef is not.


Why is this?  Well, there are two reasons:


Restaurants – like all of us – have budgets.  Beef is a high ticket item, especially in comparison to pork and chicken.  Secondly, most of the beef being used is “natural” which means it is highly likely that it has been corn finished.  I will be the first to admit, grass-fed, and grass-finished beef is a little more delicate to cook with – when you have some corn finished fat in the beef, you have more “fudge” factor.  And, the corn finished is still slightly less expensive than the grass-fed.


If you find this a little hard to swallow – no pun intended – then ask before you order.  And make sure to specifically ask about the beef.  Again, many of the restaurants are carrying local pork, lamb and chicken.  Ask them specifically if the beef is local, and if it matters to you – is it grass fed or finished.


There are lots of really good “local” grass fed/finished providers out there.  We are only one.  Acquaint yourself with Windy Hill, Richardsons, Fredricksburg Beef, Burgandy Beef – there are even several new ones in the many Farmers Markets all over the Central Texas area.  And there are several restaurants that are trying hard to stick to local/sustainable “across the board”.  They deserve to be supported! 


If grass-fed/finished beef locally raised and sold is important to you, please send that message to the various restaurants in Austin and the surrounding areas. 


Let’s not let the “local” label be “mis”used like so many of the other labels that are showing up on our food products!



Good Food Costs More - and here's why

    Several of my long-time customers have recently expressed sticker shock over our prices.  I don't blame you - I'm having a problem with them as well! 

    So, unlike the “big boys,” I’d like to explain why our prices have gone up, and why, unfortunately, they may have to go up more before the end of the year.  I’m sorry.

    Yes, all food prices are going up.  If you’ve walked into any grocery store anywhere, you are well aware that the prices are climbing – no matter how much we’re told that inflation is under control.  Much of the food price increase in the grocery stores is going up because of:


  • Drought in the Midwest cutting the foundation crops – corn and soy – production this year
  • Drastic decreases in the number of animals available – especially beef and pork – for feed out and slaughter
  • Increasing demand worldwide for both of the above

    That’s somewhat simplistic.  I could go into the issue of ethanol, subsidies, distribution, and even regulation, but the truth is the conventional system is hitting its limits and the prices are headed up.

    So how come grass-fed, which doesn’t depend on any of the above, isn’t getting cheaper? The truth is that we are now starting to see the agro-industrial prices reflect the “real cost” of raising and growing food.  My prices are competitive with many of the prices in the grocery store --- mainly because they have gone up, not because mine have gone down.

    The issue is not corn-fed, feedlot driven versus grass-fed, free-range.  It is quantity versus quality.

    I like to tell people when you look at grocery store meat versus our meat think Budweiser versus Shiner.  Now let me apologize right now to anyone who likes to drink Budweiser – it is a beer liked by quite a few people – however, it is a mass produced beer.  Mass produced allows overhead costs to be spread over a large amount of product, and that allows costs to be kept down.

    It’s the same with animals.  Whether a big producer kills 100 head an hour or 400 head an hour, his overhead costs – electricity, water usage, financing, even labor to an extent – remain relatively the same.  The more head he kills and moves through the plant, the less his overhead is per carcass.  The big processors are very good at this.  By turning processing of meat into an assembly line production, they gain economy of scale.

    In a large plant, carcasses move through the whole process in 19 minutes.

In the process that I use, things are quite a bit different.  First, small processing is a much more labor-intensive operation.  There is no assembly line – each animal is killed one at a time.  This allows the State Inspector to literally inspect each and every animal – before it’s killed (to make sure it’s healthy and in good shape), and after it’s been killed to make sure the carcass is disease and contamination free.  This takes time.  Then the carcasses are hung to chill before they are moved to the aging cooler where they will hang several days before they are cut up, packaged, frozen and moved out. 


     Our “19 minutes” is more like 7 to 10 days.


    What does this mean for costs?  Well, the average cost for processing a carcass in a large plant is about $150.  Our costs average over $400.00 per carcass.

     Labor in a large plant starts at minimum wage and never really crawls much above that – turn over is often over 400%.  It’s hard, dangerous, repetitive work.  Most people don’t stay very long.

    The same people who worked on my beef six years ago are still working on my beef today.  They make well above minimum wage (though having watched them work, I think they deserve more! – until you’ve seen a Master Butcher reduce an entire carcass to it’s smallest parts in less than 45 minutes – you don’t really understand how beautiful meat can be!).  They work in conditions that are much better than anything in the big plants.  There is time to not only do the job at its best, but to make sure people don’t get hurt.  It’s still hard, dangerous work, but there is a sense of dignity and a sense of pride.

    But I still have to sell the finished product.  Processing costs have increased 30% since the beginning of 2012.  What we pay our ranchers has gone up as well.  And did I mention gasoline? 

    BCC has an additional problem – our meat is loved!  Demand is going up and I appreciate that both you our retail customer and all our wholesale customers are willing to pay us for our product – often even when you could buy a less expensive product.

    But here’s the problem.  Beef carcasses are not greater than their parts.  All parts are not equal – hamburger is one thing, and fillet mignon is another.  My wholesale customers have kept us going through the later part of the summer when retail usually drops off.  But wholesale has thinner margins and most wholesale is at the lower end of the cuts – hamburger, briskets, ribs, etc. 

    Now here is a secret that most grass-fed people either don’t want to admit (or they haven’t crunched the numbers to admit!).  I need to “average” between $8.50 and $9.00 a pound to make money on the meat we sell.

    This means that I need to sell all my high end cuts as fast as I’m selling the low end cuts.  I can sell the hamburger for below my “average need” because I sell the ribeyes above it. 

    And my wholesalers and grocery stores have their own overhead to cover.  Wholesale from me to them is below what I retail at – and I’m still charging premium prices in comparison to other choices.

   Why do my wholesalers pay as much as they do for our meat?  They – like you – recognize the quality.  Their customers pay for that quality – and in increasing enough demand that our wholesale orders have continued to grow over the summer!


But I can’t live on selling hamburger alone!


    Optimally, I can only take around 100 pounds of hamburger per carcass.  More than that and I start loosing money.  And don’t even suggest I ground up sirloin – you’ll just make me cry!

    To meet increasing wholesale demand I need to do two things; kill more calves per week, so I can take the quantities of lower cuts that are increasingly in demand AND sell more high end (both wholesale or retail), to make my required return per carcass.

    So that is where we are right now – stuck between needing more volume and dealing with increased overhead and limits on how many carcasses we can process.  Did I mention that the current processing plant that we use is at capacity?  As are all the small facilities in Central Texas.

    Demand – for everyone in this sector of the meat market – is growing at 30% to 40% per year.  But capacity is strained – processing costs are up – and good, skilled labor is in short supply.  And demand is not spread across the entire carcass – remember for every 100 pounds of ground, I need to move another 200 pounds of ribeyes, t-bones, sirloins, strip loins, roasts, and all manner of other cuts!

    The grass-fed/natural/organic meat industry is at a crossroads.  We don’t have the massive capacity of the big boys, or their economy of scale.  Moving over to a different method of processing meat (which emphasizes quality, hygiene, good work environments, humaneness to the animals – and workers – and transparency to the consumer) is taking time and financing.  It’s really painful – and costly.

    So please keep this in mind when you see our prices.  Again, I apologize for the sticker shock, and I hope that I’ve explained what is going on behind those rising prices.

    Please feel free to email me with your questions and comments.  I appreciate your commitment to high quality meat and to us, and I want to know what you think.  Thank you. Pati

Know Your Beef. Legs are for more than Walking!

So you find yourself looking at the chart on the blog wondering what can you do with that leg sticking out! Well, it's not to be overlooked for several fine meals. In fact, while many of the cuts from this section of the carcass are considered "cheap" cut -- their very tastiness turns them into "high-end" meals in some of the finest restaurants around. So let's get started . .

The Shank primal includes the leg and also the brisket. It also inclines itself to several wonderful recipes above and beyond bar-b-que! While all of the cuts coming from this area tend to be from well worked muscles - remember the calf is walking on these muscles! - the flavor is rich and savory.

Of course, the brisket is what many people in Central Texas love.  And when people think brisket they think smoked.  But briskets can be cooked several ways - visit our recipe section and look under roasts for additional ideas.  You can do a brisket in the oven just like any roast, or you can corned beef it. 

But let's think past the brisket when looking at this section of the carcass.  There is a lot of meat around bones rich with marrow and taste.

First, and foremost is the shank cut.  It is cut 2 inches in thickness and on our carcasses, because of their age and size, this cut is wonderful for Osso Bucco.  This is a famous dish from Italy that braises the meat and bone together for a dish that you will love to both serve and eat.  We have a great recipe for Osso Bucco under Red Veal Shank in our recipe section.

And speaking of marrow in bones - this is exactly where you want to come.  The marrow is full of taste.  After cooking marrow bones with the marrow inside, you can scoop out the marrow and spread on bread or toast as an appitizer.  This has become one of the fashion appitizers in many high end restaurants.  Once you taste it, you'll know why.

When the bones and meat surrounding them are cut down to 1 inch thick, they become the makings of a rich, meaty soup or stew.  Again, you want to cook the bones with the meat so that you capture all the taste out of the marrow and the bones.

Finally, these are the bones that can make the best broth.  Check out our Basic Support Recipe section for a really good broth recipe using chef bones (knuckle bones), marrow bones and soup bones. 

So when you look at that section of the carcass with the leg sticking out -- think flavor, texture, lots of taste and plenty of uses.

Know Your Beef - Know Your Cuts. Get the most out of what you buy.

In the last blog I talked about how the calf becomes a carcass.

In this blog, I'd like to talk about how the carcass is reduced to usable sections and cuts.  Let's start with the picture above.  This shows the eight basic primal sections to a beef carcass.  These sections are;

Chuck - upper left section,

Shank - lower left section - with the brisket as the back part of this primal

Ribs - second from left upper section

Loin - third from left upper section

Sirloin - fourth from left upper section

Plate - second from left lower section

Flank - third from left lower section

Round - back section

Always remember, the more a muscle or section is used, the tougher the meat (but also the most flavorful) the meat cut will be.

With that in mind.  I am going to take each section over the course of several blogs and talk about the various cuts that come out of each section, their tenderness and flavor and how best to prepare them.

Let's start at the beginning - the Chuck primal.

This is the largest of the primal sections and includes the shoulder and the first five ribs.  Several cuts come off of this sections - chuck roasts (bone in and out), shoulder roasts, chuck and shoulder steaks, Denver steaks, flat iron steaks, and ground beef. 

The majority of these cuts are considered "economy cuts".  They tend to be tougher - after all most of this meat is sitting on or around the shoulder and is being exercised by moving the animal around.  However, tougher cuts also tend to be the most flavorful - if cooked correctly.  Because of their "toughness" these cuts stand up well to marinades, heat, and length of cooking.  The roasts from this section are very good for "low and slow" cooking in a slow cooker, a dutch oven, or for several hours in an oven.  They are also good for braising.  The steaks can be grilled, broiled, and fried - but usually not without first marinating. 

The meat from the chuck primal has plenty of flavor and will stand up to spices, herbs and seasoning well. 

Because these are usually less expensive cuts, they are a good place to try out different recipes without worrying about the expensive "oops factor" that can intimidate beginning cooks on the more expensive cuts.  The chuck cuts are very forgiving and some really delicious meals (and extra meals, sandwiches, salads, ect.) can be had with realatively little effort and expense.  Good family meals can be had out of this section - cooking roasts whole, cutting them up to make stew meat, slicing the steaks into strips for stir fry or to go into hot salads. 

Here is a classic "pot-roast" recipe that can be used for any roasts coming out of this section of beef.  This is a "braising" recipe, and the tomato juice is used to break down the connective tissue in the roast and release its flavor.

Pot - roast with Onion Gravy

Chuck roast or shoulder roast approx. 3 to 4 lbs.

1 Tbsp. flour                                                                                 1 cup tomato juice    

4 Tbsp. vegetable or olive oil (depending on your taste)             1/2 tsp. dried thyme

4 onions, cut into rings                                                                 1/2 tsp. paprika

3 to 4 cloves of garlic finely chopped                                          1 bay leaf

4 to 6 carrots cut up.

Defrost roast in refrigerator overnight.  Remove from vacuum seal and pat dry with paper towels.  Some recipes suggest that you rinse the roast off with cold water, but I don't like to do this as it seems to me to blanch out the meat.  Often this is done to make sure there are no small chips of bone.  This is rare.  Just do a visual to make sure and don't "wash" the meat!

Dust the roast on both sides with the flour.  Heat a large skillet (preferably cast iron!) or dutch oven until the air feels hot above it.  Place 2 Tbsp. of oil in the skillet.  Let heat slightly, then add roast.  Brown roast on both sides 3 to 5 minutes per side.  Remove roast to a side dish. 

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In skillet add the remaining oil and stir in onions and cook until soft.  Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute, then add the tomato joice, scrap the bottom of the skillet gently as you cook to capture the "drippings" from the roast.  Add the thyme, paprika and bay leaf.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Return the roast to the skillet and add enough water to cover all the ingredients.  Bring mixture and beef to a boil, skimming off any foam that forms.  Cover tightly, and place in oven for 2 to 2 1/2 hour or until the beef is tender.  Add the carrots and cook for 30 minutes more or until the carrots are tender.

The sauce around the roast should have thickened over the cooking process.  If it is a bit thin, remove the roast and carrots to a serving platter and keep warm in oven.  Put the sauce on top of the stove and bubble until it reduces and thickens.  Carve the roast, then spoon on the sauce and serve.  

Should serve four to six.   

The ABC's of Good (No, Great!) Beef

I admit I eat too much meat.  One could say, an occupational hazard, but then that would sound like I don’t enjoy it!

I love beef.  I like cows, but I love beef.  I like the fragrance of good beef hanging in a dry aging cooler.  I like the texture, and the color.  I just love beef.  I guess that’s an occupational hazard as well.

I also admit that I am a lazy cook.  My recipes tend toward the practical and the utilitarian.  I never ruin a good cut of beef, but I could do so much better by it.

So over the next couple of blogs I’d like to share my love of beef and also explore some better ways to both cook and enjoy the finished product.  I figure this is a journey of exploration that we both can learn from!

First, let me share what makes good beef, so good.

Cows.  Well bred and well raised, cows are almost Zen.  I like haying them in the early hours, especially when it is cold.  The steam rises off of them while they are munching their hay.  They grab big mouthfuls and roll it around with their tongues as they swallow it whole.  Cows are delayed eaters.  They do a basic munch up front to get it down, but do a more thorough job later when they “chew their cud”.  There is nothing more satisfying than a field full of happy cows, usually laying down, chewing their cud.  It’s a sign that their tummies are full and they are not hungry.

Cows that are happy and not hungry produce great milk, which makes their calves happy and fat.  Happy cows.  Happy calves.  Good meat.  It’s a Zen thing.

The next thing is calm cows.  Calm cows make better mothers.  They make more milk and they make fat calves.  They also tend to make calm calves.  Again, Zen.

The trick is to keep them calm.

Now here is the part you may not want to think about, but it is important.  We want them calm all the way through to the end.  Yes, that is end with a capital E.  You know what I mean.  It’s got to be done.  However, the way it’s done affects the beef.  If the calf is calm right up to the end, then there is no release of adrenalin.  Adrenalin toughens meat and it means the calf has panicked.  We don’t want that!  We want a calm, swift, humane end.  It’s the best for everybody.

So, we’re now past the big E.

Do you ever wonder what’s next?  Well, you should.  Aside from curiosity, how beef carcasses are handled over the next hours determines quality, hygiene, taste, everything.

A carcass is hung and gutted.  It is also under the watchful eye of a State Meat Inspector (at least in the plant we use!).  A skilled butcher will swiftly remove the head and large leg bones, the hide, and internal parts.  Hygiene dictates that he makes sure there is no contamination from either the internal parts or from any outside material (fecal matter).  Once the Inspector is sure of this (and has inspected lymph nodes, heart and liver), the carcass is moved to a chilling cooler.

The reason for the chilling cooler is to let the carcass cool down and set.  The meat is still warm and too soft for cutting.  Rigor mortis needs to set in and then wear off – about 24 hours after the killing.  The carcass can then be moved into the dry aging cooler.  This will now allow a natural chemical process to take place.  Enzymes in the meat break down, this enhances both the tenderness of the meat and concentrates flavors.  Because of the young age of our carcasses – remember BCC processes calves under one year of age, effectively making it rose veal – we only dry age the whole carcass for a week.  Larger, older carcasses – both grass finished and grain fed -  can be hung for up to one month.

Note I said “dry aging”.  This is the time honored – going back thousands of years – way to age beef.  Dry aging works from the outside in.  I (personal opinion) consider it superior to “wet aging”.  Wet aging entails wrapping the carcass in cellophane or cutting the carcass immediately after the cooling period and vacuum packing cuts (you know the ones you see in grocery stores) making them ready for retail.  The “advantage” is wet aging loses no moisture (read weight) out of the cuts.  Its final weight (and retail value) remain unchanged.  This makes wet aging cheaper and the preferred option of many large retailers.  However, it can be argued that letting meat “age” in its own blood while sealed in packs is neither effective nor desirable.

Aging can be taken to another level as well.  Many chefs like to take large sections of the carcass (known as primals) and do additional dry and wet aging.  This is done in a temperature-controlled room (like the dry aging cooler) and allows the meat to concentrate its flavors.  Additional dry aging is an expensive process – as much as twenty percent of the original weight can be lost – but it produces more flavor and tenderness.

Dry aging can also be taken to one more level.  Certain primal cuts – the brisket, the round, the loin – can be hung for several months and turned into “cured” meats.  Bresaola is such a cured meat.

Over the next several blogs, I would like to discuss the various cuts of beef and all the various ways they can be cooked, cured, smoked, and dried.  Beef is amazing!

I guess its just a Zen thing with me.

Nutrition labeling coming to a store near you . . and to your dog.

As many of you know, I've been talking about how much our beef is inspected by the State of Texas, which under the guise of the USDA, is responsible for enforcing Federal regulation on the small processing plant that processes our beef.

Well, it’s just getting worse – and a bit surrealistic!

As I told many of you in my blog last year, beginning in 2012, all meat sold to consumers will have to be labeled for nutrition content.  This means that the sirloin Bastrop Cattle Company sells you must have a little list of how much cholesterol, saturated fats, unsaturated fats, calories, etc. the meat contains (in general) for a serving of four ounces.  Now, the big meatpacking corporation will proudly tell you they already have this done.  Of course, what they won’t tell you is that they have worked hand-in-hand with the USDA to come up with a generic label – based on feed lot, grain fed beef – that can be slapped on all their meat. (I wonder if the lists include the quantity of antibiotics and growth hormones in the meat?).

This leads me to two items:  One, when did beef become a box of cereal?  I mean, exactly how do you determine how much nutrition is contained in cells of protein?  And how do you say "in general" when every cut varies from animal to animal?
Better yet . . . how do you determine what is in the general population of feedlot animals versus grass fed, or organically raised animals?
Am I being paranoid to think that these kinds of labels will favor the big agroindustrial producers with their oh so homogenous “product”?

Even more troubling – and detrimental to grass-fed, free-range cattle operations like ours – is that we can either use this labeling, thus giving the “big boys” the opportunity to say, we’re selling the same thing they are.  Or, we can have every cut of our meat sent out for independent sampling (minimum $25.00 a sample), and have our own labels made up.  Oh, and by the way, since we’re NOT using the USDA label, we will be open to much more scrutiny and continued inspection by the USDA – of which we will have to pay for more sampling to prove that our labels are truthful.

But wait, it doesn’t stop there.

We have also been informed that we will need to start labeling and vacuum packing our bones for dogs!

Apparently, the fear is that some of you are snatching those oh-so-good bones away from Fido and using them yourself!  Since this meat is all State Inspected beef, the Texas Health Department has decided that we need to protect both you and Fido from unwanted pathogens, by wrapping all meat in vacuum-sealed packs, and labeling it!

Now, I just have one question – does Fido read?

I asked CiCi, our Quality Control Expert if she had been perusing nutrition labels lately.  From her seat of power on the office couch (where she was taking her late, mid-morning power nap), she opened one eye.

“No,” she answered.

“But aren’t you concerned about the nutritional content of your food?” I asked incredulously!

“About as much as how fat my ass looks in the mirror”.

“But you never look in the mirror”.

“I’m glad you’re following the drift of this conversation,” she muttered as she buried her head deeper into the pillow.

“But reading the labels would enlighten you”.

“Are the labels salient?”

“No, but that’s not the point.  If you read the labels you will become more aware of what you’re eating.  This will help you make better choices”.

“If the labels are gibberish, what’s the point?”

“Knowledge is a good thing”.

“There is a difference between information and knowledge.  Gibberish is not even information, it’s static,” her head popped up slightly to make a point, “if the labels are accurate, that’s one thing, but if the information is merely generalized data, has no context and I can’t relate it to my own life, how is it suppose to help?”

“It gives you a place to start,” I answered with a bit of condescension.

“No, it doesn’t.  It just acts to confuse me,” she answered, and shot me an evil sign with her paw.  “If you want to be helpful, just tell me the truth and let me make up my own mind,” she yawned, and closed her eyes, “I’m not stupid.  I can smell out a bad bone when I meet one”.

Dogs are such noble creatures!  And if you have a problem with me carrying on a conversation with CiCi, just remember I live in a world where the USDA and the Texas Health Department expect her to read!

Even Hovercraft Need Fuel! Part IV

Can smaller processing plants described in the previous blog actually work?  Can they make a profit?

The answer is yes.

Well how about all the concerns expressed by Jack, Jr. in his comments on that blog?

My answer is also yes.

Here's the deal.  I do think that small processing plants were profitable before the whole re-working of the meat processing system back beginning in the 70's.  And the ones that exist now are definitely profitable.  Certainly, over the last 40 years has seen the great demise of the smaller processing plants.  However, there are many variables that have reduced their numbers - profitability is only part of the bigger picture.

Right now, if you look at both the Custom Exempt and the State Inspected processing plants that exist in Texas, they are making a profit.  If they weren't, they wouldn't be in business.

How have they done it?

Well, they've adapted.  And, they have seen their boats rise along with the local/sustainable market.  My processor recently told me that his sales are up 15% this year - and it's almost exclusivelydue to the private lines - like our's - that he is now processing.

So profitabliity is there - for the current plants.

How about new plants? Yes, but . . . .

There are two immediate problems facing new plants; skilled workers and financing.  And the biggest elephant in this room is the financing.  A new plant - state of the art - USDA certified - is going to run north of $1 million dollars to build.  That's not including the property to build it on or all the equipment needed to run it well and efficiently.  Then figure overhead cost and operating costs.  So the barrier to more small processing plants is a fairly high financial investment.

Will that stop this idea moving forward?  No, because as the revenue streams increase and become more dependable, and as the market grows for the local/sustainable meats, investors will come forward (and are coming forward) to build these plants. 

What about some of the concerns that Jack, Jr. expresses about smaller getting bigger?

Sure.  There is going to be growth in this industry as the market increases.  There will be franchising.  There will be people who build one plant and only want one plant.  And there will be people who see this as an opportunity to do more; to grow bigger.

How do you make sure that we don't end up with bigger processing plants with all the current problems.  Well, the first way would be to enforce strict inspection.  If inspection of every animal and carcass were enforced now, the big plants that currently exist would have to slow down their processing lines - thus increasing the possibillity of humane killing, better work conditions and more hygienic handling of the meat.  It would also, drive up the price of their subsidized meat, thus making the smaller producers (who already have stricter inspection in place) more cost competitive.  While many people don't want to see more government regulation, these requirements are already on the books and should be enforced across the industry for the good of all.

The other governor on small processing plants progressing to larger plants is, you, the consumer.  Reliable labeling, telling the consumer where the meat comes from, how it is processed and, a commitment by the regulatory authorities to enforce the laws, allows you to decide with your dollars to support better run, smaller plants.

That is the fuel that drives this hovercraft.  If someone wants to build and run multiple processing plants, or just one, or if they want to franchise - let the consumer and the market decide.

Next: The ABCs of beef cuts and buying beef.

Comment on Previous Blog


I was going to comment back on your most recent blog post, but I could not find a comment section at the bottom of it....nor a link or way to jump to a facebook page wall to comment there had neither or I could not find either.... :((

I don't know if that is intentional.....but it seems in your arena/niche that you provide service and products to, that a dialogue feature would be highly beneficial to both you and the movement you seem to want to create.....otherwise, you seem to be a lone voice aching loudly in the forest.

My question/comment:

Overall, I like your logic and I think most regular people that hear that message, would like it. However, while the break up of the big daddy conglomerate idea sounds beneficial, my first thought would be as you even sort of alluded to....can it really make a profit with those volume parameters and growth limitations.

I think most growers and food providers at the local farmers markets do it for hobby and to get a small income to apply toward their massive expenditure of money and time.  I doubt that most of them are remotely profitable and I'd be interested to know what percentage of them are profitable if you know.  So on that premise of my own belief about them, I also wonder if a smaller meat processing plant would be too.  And if they could, it seems the ones we used to haul our animals to 20 years ago around here (Bastrop, Smithville, Rockne, Lockhart)......would still be in business, yet most or all of them are way long gone to the local history books and our dieing memories. 

So, since you have the most daily/weekly contact with meat processors of some (unknown to me) size, I'd be interested to know if you have had a dialogue with them on these concepts and what their response would be.  Would they do it and why would they do it and do they believe they could do it profitably without sacrificing quality and safety, etc.?

Also, it is odd thing to discuss a business system of any kind that from the get-go is designed with volume controls and limitations....the whole reason to be in business is to figure out how to make it profitable, keep it profitable through various market changes, political and legal changes, environmental changes, etc....and then from there, to grow it to be more profitable.  It is silly to be in a business with a plan to shrink or stay in a stalled growth plan on purpose. So if your smaller unit model system did work, it would never stay small, it would just grow back into another conglomerate big daddy operation again. 

One twist to your idea that may make it motivating for the owner/operator to remain local and limited in size would be to design the model from the get-go like a franchise.   So instead of smaller plants closing to build larger plants or adding on to become massive facilities handling greater volumes and animals from further distances, the incentives to promote owner/operators to expand another smaller systematized facility in a new area nearby that is not serviced well are in a area where the population is growing and will need to be you said, the population is growing and it will always be growing.  So the model could grow with the population growth and maybe could also be built to achieve the other goals in your concept of a localized processing plant.

Walgreens is a good example.  Rather than become a larger and larger box store and become the pharmacy depot of their niche, when they reached the size where that model was a possible direction path for their business, they did not take that path.  Instead, they took a turn into the cookie-cutter model and put a smaller store on almost every corner in the country....sometimes less than a mile apart.  Specifically designed to serve a small number of families per store.  They played with the footprint, product mix and product pricing to create a profitable unit.....then duplicated it accordingly into both older and newer markets of the size they had determined it could work profitably in.  They still are a larger corporate entity, but they serve the public on an extremely localized basis and they just grow along with the population and growth as it grows.

Now I know that does not erase the big daddy aspect....but in business, I don't think you can ever erase it....unless you use government and legal methods.  And when you go down that path, your moving away from the wonderful capitalist system toward a very disturbing socialist system.  I don't believe their is a middle ground that is appropriate.  In some ways we already have in our society these kind of attempts at middle ground and I have yet to see them really work out as intended.  So restrained/bridled/heavy regulated capitalism is just as bad as no capitalism.

Well that would be my .02 cents.  I'm certainly not nearly as passionate about this dynamic situation as you, but I think you can see how your thought process can get legs if a dialogue feature is available. And sometimes those extra legs become focus groups, action committees, votes, results, change.....

Best wishes.  :-)
Jack Jr.