Nationwide, the number of federally approved slaughtering facilities has declined by almost 20 percent in the past five years. When local slaughterhouses close, small farmers are often hit hardest. But farmers on the San Juan Islands have come up with their own solution a mobile slaughtering service.
The 35 hectare farm of Katherine Thomas and her husband Ken Akopiantz is located down a narrow road a few kilometers from the Lopez Island ferry terminal. The couple raises market crops, a few head of cattle, and sheep.
"They're Coupeworth and Coupeworth crosses, which is a New Zealand breed. Today we are going to do 15. There are about 60 to slaughter this spring," she explained. In past years, Ms. Thomas has trucked her lambs to a slaughterhouse in Chehalis, 270 kilometers away.
"Last year I put 50 animals in the truck and trailer and drove down, so that took a day. I spent another two days between setting up with a butcher and picking up my products, so all told, it took me about four days," she said.
This year, Ms. Thomas didn't haul her lambs anywhere. They were slaughtered right at her farm. She and her husband were among the first island farmers to make use of the only mobile slaughtering unit in the United States to be approved thus far by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Bruce Dunlop also farms on Lopez and helped to design the mobile unit. "A couple of the unique features of this unit, compared to other custom on-farm operations the sink, the sterilizer for your knives and equipment, and the fact that all of the opening up of the animal is done inside a closed system. As you can see, the inside is all lined with stainless steel, which is very easy to clean," Mr. Dunlop said.
A generator hums in the background to provide power for a meat cooler and hot water for sterilization. Over the course of six hours, Mr. Dunlop and butcher Jim Weiringa will complete the processing of Ms. Thomas's lambs in a space measuring roughly three by four meters.
It's tight quarters, which concerns U.S. Department of Agriculture supervisor Greg Sherman. He said recent changes in how the USDA monitors operations allow the mobile slaughtering unit to meet federal standards. But, Mr. Sherman said, the unit is still in a test phase and most animals slaughtered have been pigs, goats and sheep.
"They have done one beef so far, and it was… they did it but they could have done it better. They had some equipment problems, some oversight, some things they did not think about," he said.
A lot is riding on the ability of the mobile unit to process beef cattle as well as smaller livestock. A broad appeal to as many livestock farmers as possible will make the unit more viable, said Mr. Dunlop. But he said he's already encouraged by how the unit has helped one farmer who raises goats. She used to sell kid goats at an auction, he explains, because it wasn't worth the effort to travel far to a slaughterhouse.
"This year, we slaughtered those animals and she is now selling whole goat kid as a delicacy to restaurants and farmers' markets at five dollars a pound instead of selling it at 50 cents a pound live weight at the auction," Mr. Dunlop said.
Mr. Dunlop estimates the unit will give farmers using it an additional $1.2 million of income a year.
But it is not just economics that got the idea started five years ago, according to Sandy Wood. She's the executive director of the Lopez Community Land Trust, a non-profit group that received government grants to build the mobile slaughter unit.
"We are working a lot on developing what's called food security here on the island, so that there is adequate healthy food for everybody, and part of that means having as much of the food produced on the islands stay here and be consumed locally," Ms. Wood said.
Ms. Wood hopes people on Lopez Island will soon be able to buy locally raised hamburger and steak at the island's food markets. She also believes the local meat processing will help to ensure that more agricultural land remains in farming. The Land Trust is now working with farmers to develop a retail brand for marketing their locally slaughtered meats.