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Mobile Slaughterhouse Helps Wash. State Farmers Meet Demand for Local Food

August 10, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
With the popularity of local food on the rise, Washington state farmer Cheryl Ouellette raises pigs to meet the demand. However, small farmers often can't process their own meat. A mobile slaughterhouse program brings a USDA-licensed facility to farms to benefit farmers, animals and "locavores." Sabrina Register of KCTS reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For those stations not taking a pledge break, a look at the local food movement and a butcher on wheels.

The reporter is Sabrina Register of KCTS Seattle.

CHERYL OUELLETTE: Good girl, Tilley.

Come on, Tom.

SABRINA REGISTER: Cheryl Willette raises a menagerie of animals on her five acre Pierce County farm. There are turkeys, chickens, ducks, goats, rabbits, sheep and cows.

But Cheryl is known for her pigs.

In fact, she takes great pride in how she has run her farm over the past 20 years.

CHERYL OUELLETTE: You want to rub it?

Number one, the animals deserve to have — to be able to be pigs, to be able to play in the mud and to — to enjoy their life. What you feed them and how they live affects the taste and the flavor of the meat. We work very hard to make sure that the food that they eat is food that we would eat. It’s all — it smells good, it looks good, it’s fresh, it’s tasty and it makes very, very good — very, very good meat.

Ebony, come back.

SABRINA REGISTER: Free range farming, where animals are allowed to roam the property, takes a lot of time and energy. But Cheryl says raising the animals is not the hard part. Finding someone to slaughter them with a USDA inspector present is the real challenge.

CHERYL OUELLETTE: How you doing?

SABRINA REGISTER: For years, Cheryl’s pigs were taken to Kapowsin, in rural Pierce County, for slaughter. Some 45 minutes from her farm, but her cows had a much longer trip.

CHERYL OUELLETTE: I know what you want.

SABRINA REGISTER: They were packed into a trailer for a three hour trip to a slaughter facility in Sandy, Ore.

CHERYL OUELLETTE: Sustainable agriculture, as far as I’m concerned, is only sustainable if the farmer can continue to do it. So it can’t be one of those things that, you know, you’re burning yourself out and you’re — you’re not making enough money to — to survive.

SABRINA REGISTER: Cheryl was not the only one burning out, trying to get her meat to market. Organic beef farmer Lee Markholdt was making a six hour round trip to Oregon every week.

LEE MARKHOLT: I was driving to Sandy every week, every other week. And it — and it was two trips, because you had to get the carcass back to my shop, you know. So it was a trip down with a live animal. Days later, the trip back with the carcass.

I had wear and tear on my body, on my vehicle, you know.

SABRINA REGISTER: Not to mention all that diesel smoke and the stress the long haul was putting on the animals.

LEE MARKHOLT: The driver doesn’t like to haul. But besides that, the animal doesn’t care for it, either.

SABRINA REGISTER: But local meat farmers had few choices. If they opted not to sell their animals at auction, where they would be shipped to a feed lot and mixed in with other cows and pigs, they had to deal with the long commutes, only to have the slaughtered animals sometimes sent to another facility for butchering and packaging.

But a farming conference in Enumclaw that Willette attended a few years ago literally set the wheels in motion for change.

WOMAN: What we’re trying to accomplish is keeping the animals calm.

SABRINA REGISTER: This mobile slaughterhouse purchased by the Pierce County Conservation District last summer is designed to preserve local farmland. The 45-foot stainless steel trailer, complete with a USDA inspector and organic certification, travels from farm to farm eliminating the need to drive local animals out of state.

WOMAN: I have grown my industry and I’ve got lots and lots of customers, but I can’t grow any more product. So now, this time, I have to start growing more farmers.

SABRINA REGISTER: Willette champions the mobile slaughterhouse concept to other local farmers interested in learning more about the unit.

MAN: My goal today was just to see what your operation is down here.

SABRINA REGISTER: With about 40 meat producers on board right now, she hopes the number of farmers utilizing it will continue to grow.

MAN: We use pork and beef. And we’re here to — to see if this facility is truly mobile.

WOMAN: Watch your step around here.

SABRINA REGISTER: As the group tours the trailer, she explains how the process works.

WOMAN: The animals need to be chilled down before they can go to most of the meat shops that out…

SABRINA REGISTER: Meat farmers from Ferndale to Union like what they hear and see.

WOMAN: No anxiety for the farmer or for the animals.

WOMAN: For ethical reasons, I like this method. The animals are happy and they’re in the sunshine and out of doors until the last minute of their lives.

And in others, Capos, the other way of processing meat that, you know, it’s like a cow concentration camp.

MAN: The mobile slaughter unit itself is the closest thing we can have in this country to an old world practice, where it’s still done on the farm where it’s been raised. And so that alone is such an impact on everything, you know, stress, which relates to flavor. You know, and it’s all that hard work leading up to that.

SABRINA REGISTER: Local restaurants and their chefs also see this as a tasty idea. It means feeling good about the product they’re preparing.

Primo Grill owner and chef, Charlie McManus, couldn’t agree more.

MAN: Good to see you.

WOMAN: Thank you.

MAN: Some delicious pork products here.

WOMAN: Yes.

SABRINA REGISTER: He’s been purchasing pork from Willette for the last five years.

MAN: I’m going to put these right into the walk-in.

When you get a local pig grown with care that is slaughtered the day that you receive it, it is unlike any other commodity pork product.

SABRINA REGISTER: McManus says anything supplied by Willette, whether it’s a pork chop or a whole pig roasted to make pulled pork, is a top seller at the restaurant. He says customers are hungry for local, free-range meat.

MAN: There’s a real burgeoning, local, sustainable scene here. And I think it’s happening all over the West Coast. But Cheryl, with the mobile slaughtering unit, she has really blazed a trail for other farmers and small farmers and wannabe farmers to actually get into the business and be successful.

SABRINA REGISTER: Success to Willette does not mean growing bigger to be better.

So, Cheryl, will you ever be a big threat to some of the bigger companies?

CHERYL OUELLETTE: We’re never going to replace the big deal. We’re no threat to them. We are more of a way to — to help build a community and to help plant seeds for new farmers.

SABRINA REGISTER: New meat farmers and long time farmers alike believe the mobile unit can help them end the long commutes and keep their meat where it was raised — locally.

MAN: I’m so happy to be in the organic beef business and be able to do it all right here within a block from my farm.

CHERYL OUELLETTE: I can spend more time concentrating on my product, my marketing and my customers so that I can make sure they’re getting the best of everything. And I can spend more time on the farm, with the animals, where I need to be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The mobile slaughterhouse costs more per animal, but farmers say they make that up by saving time and transportation costs.