Following on the success of the Island Grown Initiative’s mobile poultry processing unit, the organization has won a $40,000 federal grant to look at doing something similar with four-legged livestock.
The grant was announced on Friday, as officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture came to the Vineyard to school locals on how they might share in hundreds of millions of dollars available from the government.
All going well, by next year the Island Grown Initiative (IGI) will be able to do for farmers raising sheep, cattle and pigs what they have already done for poultry farmers.
And that had been pretty impressive. Before the IGI introduced its mobile unit some three years ago, there were maybe 200 meat chickens being raised on the Island. Now, there are about 5,000.
Previously, one of the major problems facing those who would produce meat on the Vineyard was killing and processing them. The Island’s 28 farms were at a significant disadvantage in competing with mass produced products from the mainland.
As the USDA release announcing the grant noted: “While there is high demand for locally raised meat, the economic impacts of taking livestock off-Island for slaughter creates an environment that makes locally grown meat economically unfeasible.”
But the pilot project processing chicken, said Ali Berlow, the executive director of IGI, showed the potential for growth in the Island’s meat production, given the right processing infrastructure, which in the case of poultry is a ten-by-five-foot trailer which can move among the seven farms now operating under IGI’s umbrella.
“It showed that if you build it, they will grow,” she said, slightly reworking the old cliche.
“We started with the poultry processing program, as a strategy so we could understand how farmers would respond, and how we would work with the regulatory agencies to do small scale infrastructure.”
Of course, killing and processing cattle is a much bigger undertaking than doing the same with a chicken. A small trailer is not going to do it. Indeed, a mobile unit might not even be the best way to go.
And that’s what the $40,000 is intended to establish.
“It’s to determine whether it should be mobile or a bricks and mortar facility,” said Ms. Berlow yesterday.
“The point of the feasibility study is to determine how big is small enough. How do we build for a future in animal production while still keeping it in relationship to the size of our community, making it economically feasible and environmentally sound.”
But whichever way they decide to go, they anticipate a significant increase in animal production on the Island. Not, however, a 25-fold increase, as was the case with the poultry.
“We are a very small community with a farmer base that is very diversified. I doubt that anybody is going to turn into — and nor would the community allow — a major McDonald’s supplier,” Mrs. Berlow said.
“Initial indications are that some farmers would triple the numbers of livestock they now raise.”
Beyond that, the IGI has hopes of bringing more Island land into livestock production. According to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, only 935 acres of Island land now are used for food production of all types. About 1.5 times as much land again is otherwise used on farms, or is simply cleared fields.
“The land conservation agencies, like the land bank and Sheriff’s Meadow, are very much interested in opening up some of their land so farmers can raise food on the properties. So connecting farmers to larger areas of land will be important,” said Mrs. Berlow.
Nonetheless, the economics of farming in an expensive place like the Vineyard mean the produce will never be cheap. The products of the poultry program sell for $3.50 to $4.50 a pound, and they are not the big-breasted, skinned and boned products consumers have become used to.
All the same, Mrs. Berlow said, demand outstrips supply. The indications are that there would be plenty of demand, too, for premium meats.
Increasingly, consumers consider factors other than dollar costs, such as environmental costs. The average food item in the U.S. now travels 1,500 miles from the point of production to the point of consumption. There are also concerns about how humanely animals are raised and slaughtered, and about meat pumped up with the aid of antibiotics and hormones.
And there are concerns about local employment.
The chicken project has created six part-time jobs; the IGI expects to generate 10 full-time jobs within the first three years of establishing its new facility.
“We’re looking to the highest standards of cleanliness and safety for the workers and animals and creating fair wage jobs,” said Mrs. Berlow, adding: “We’re very pleased to have received this grant. We got $40,000 out of an incredibly competitive [Rural Business Enterprise] grant program; there was only $200,000 allocated across the state. We’re really grateful to have the USDA with us.”
The fact is, the IGI proposal could not have been better timed to get the USDA’s attention. It just so happens the department is currently acutely aware of the need for more local meat processing facilities. Only last week, it released a preliminary report mapping for the first time the lack, nationwide, of availability of meat processing facilities for small farmers.
This fact was alluded to by the USDA’s rural development state director Jay Healy, who came to the Vineyard for a forum on Friday.
“This [IGI] project is of particular interest to our agency because it embodies many facets of the department’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, which aims to revitalize and provide greater access to local food systems,” he said.
And so the IGI got its $40,000.
But Mr. Healy and other regional staff also had a bigger general message to deliver. To a meeting of several dozen representatives of local and county government and community organizations, they outlined more than 40 housing, business and community programs through which grants, loans and loan guarantees were available.
Last year, they said, the USDA distributed almost $170 million in Massachusetts.