By Jim Davis The Herald Business Journal Editor
Almost all of the meat consumed in Snohomish County is produced outside of the Puget Sound region and most of it comes from just a handful of companies.
Now a cooperative representing farmers in Snohomish, Skagit, Island and Whatcom counties wants to do something about that.
They’ve pulled together to start producing and marketing a North Cascades Meat brand to be sold in grocery stores, restaurants and farmers markets.
The goal is to have the brand available to stores and restaurants by summer 2015.
“There’s a big local food movement that’s been going on for a decade or so and it’s not losing any steam,” said Jeff Voltz, project manager for the nonprofit Northwest Agriculture Business Center in Mount Vernon.
To help the farmers, the business center has received a $123,633 grant from the U.S.Department of Agriculture to pay for part of the costs of building a mobile processing unit to travel to the farms and slaughter livestock.
Del Fox Meats in Stanwood has agreed to operate the unit and build a USDA-inspected plant to process the meat. The cooperative includes about 27 farmers from around the four counties who have about 800 herd of cattle, 400 to 500 sheep and about 100 head of hogs.
Farmers usually sell their livestock at auction in Centralia, Everson or Toppenish. Or they sell their meat directly to customers under a state Department of Agriculture program called “custom exempt.”
What the cooperative is aiming to do is set up a way to produce enough meat to be sold on a scale that can compete with the larger companies.
North Cascades Meat Producer Cooperative member Sandra Matheson of Matheson Farms said they need to be able to produce enough beef, chicken and pork to keep a steady stream of products available.
“If we can have producers working together we can have enough animals and animals at different times of the year that we can go out to the stores and the restaurants and other institutions,” said Matheson, who has as many as 120 head of cattle a time at her farm north of Bellingham.
Individually, farmers don’t have the time or level of expertise to organize a multi-farmer owned organization or to figure out how to coordinate production and relationships with markets and institutions.
As a cooperative, they’re able to lean on the Northwest Agriculture Business Center to assist them.
There are more than a million people who reside in the counties covered by the cooperative.
National consumption data provided by the USDA showed that residents in the county consumed the equivalent of 140,000 beef cows, 300,000 hogs, and 28,000 lambs in 2012, Voltz said. Less than 2 percent of that meat is produced in the four counties.
The farmers in the cooperative figure that a North Cascades Meat brand ties neatly into the local food movement, Voltz said.
“The average item in a grocery store has traveled 1,500 miles,” Voltz said. “We can’t continue to go on with that model with the cost of oil and energy.”
The cooperative is seeking more farmers to participate. The only farm participating from Snohomish County has resigned from the cooperative.
“We know there’s a good level of interest in Snohomish County,” Voltz said.