Long before the days of fast-food chains and big-box supermarkets, many people raised their own meat or purchased it from a local farmer. They stocked their freezers with packages wrapped in white butcher paper. The meat was often free of hormones and antibiotics; the cows grazed on grassy pastures; the pigs rooted in roomy pens; and the chickens chased insects in the backyard. The animals had names.
Those days aren’t necessarily gone. Relatives of Colin—the hazelnut-fed, free-range chicken from TV’s “Portlandia”—can be found at restaurants and markets that offer local meat that wasn’t cut, ground, or packaged by large, out-of-state commercial operations. But locally raised and processed meat is still far from being commonplace.
Oregon is home to two dozen slaughterhouses, 59 slaughter trucks, and 87 custom meat processors, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s database of licensed businesses. They are part of a closely regulated industry with policies to assure, among other things, food safety. To help ranchers and processors understand policies that affect them, Lauren Gwin and her colleagues with the Oregon State University small farms program offer workshops and one-on-one consultations for people interested in starting or expanding their business. Gwin, a food systems specialist with OSU Extension, is the expert to whom the U.S. Department of Agriculture refers meat processors in Oregon when they have questions about safe production practices.
“My OSU colleagues and I provide the industry with technical assistance and applied research that helps them make decisions about their business,” Gwin says. “When they have an idea, they invite me in and I help them think it through. I ask questions and provide information that will turn their big ideas into something that will work. If they say, ‘Could we do this with the regulations?’ I say, ‘Let’s look.’ We give them the rules of the road, translate them, and let them test out their idea on us.”
Lately she has been helping farmers and processors decide what’s appropriate for the supply chain. “People often choose an approach that doesn’t fit the scale of their operation,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘I want to start a dry-cured salami business and I have six pigs.’ But that isn’t enough volume to do dry-curing profitably.”
When Bob and Lori Mehan, the owners of Cinder Butte Meat Co. in Redmond, wanted their business to become a USDA-inspected butcher shop, Gwin put them in contact with others who had gone that route so they could learn from their experience. And Gwin connected the couple with a computer systems consultant to update their pen-and-paper record-keeping system. “She’s a wealth of knowledge and contacts. And she’s always asking, ‘What can I do to help you?’” Bob says.
To engage more of the community, Gwin co-founded the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network, which now connects more than 1,000 members. She introduced the network to Cory Carman, who sells about 400 grass-fed cows a year on her century-old ranch in northeastern Oregon. Carman posted a question about beef patty production on the network’s listserv. “I got some great responses from people who had similar situations,” she says. When Carman wanted to become a wholesale distributor, Gwin wrote a feasibility study that Carman later used to obtain a $200,000 USDA grant to develop marketing materials to expand her customer base.
“She has gone through so many of the ups and downs and provided technical perspective or big-picture brainstorming,” Carman says; and adds, “Everywhere you go in the specialty meat world, people are familiar with her work.”
In Oregon, the Department of Agriculture knows Gwin’s work. She attended hearings and provided technical expertise to lawmakers and the agency when the Legislature considered a bill to exempt people from ODA license requirements who raise and butcher no more than 1,000 birds a year that are sold to consumers at the farm. Once it became law, she wrote a guide on best practices for open-air poultry slaughtering and conducted workshops on the topic. She also helped the ODA’s food safety division adopt federal regulations that make it easier for small-scale farmers to process poultry in licensed facilities.
Through her work with consumers and producers, Gwin senses that interest in locally grown and processed meat is increasing. “The question we all ask,” she says, “is how do we get this meat into the mainstream and get the right price points?” And that is exactly what Gwin is trying to do—one butcher-paper package at a time.