Don’t Mix Apples and Oranges When Designing a Local Food System

On Monday, 24 November 2008, I attended a Poultry Processing Working Group meeting convened by Megan Schoenfelt at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) in Wooster, OH with a video link to the main campus for The Ohio State University in Columbus, OH. Over 20 interested individuals and key representatives from various agencies, institutions, and businesses gave thoughtful consideration to the feasibility of designing, developing, manufacturing, operating, and maintaining mobile poultry processing units, e.g., slaughterhouse or abattoir, in support of small to medium sized poultry production enterprises throughout Ohio. At the conclusion, commitments were made by several to develop plans further, put them into action, and move the concept forward. Megan’s minutes will provide you with an excellent overview of the session.

Although the meeting achieved its objectives and assured progress to goals, one topic that surfaced frequently during the session concerned the design criteria for local food systems versus those for a global food system. The difficulty arises when elements of a global food system are mixed into the specification for a local / regional food system. The two systems have unique organizing principles. The business model / value proposition for one is fundamentally different than the other. For this reason, comparing the two haphazardly or indiscriminately blending elements from both into a hybrid is the equivalent of mixing apples and oranges — doing so puts subsequent plans at risk for unsuccessful implementation.

So what are the main characteristics of a global food system versus a local food system?

Characteristics of a Global Food System

Below is a diagram that illustrates the flow of food from production to consumption in a global food system. Key points include the following:

  • Producers have a narrow portfolio often consisting of a near monoculture of crops, e.g., corn and soybeans, animals for meat, e.g., cattle and hogs, or dairy and poultry. Their objective is to produce as much as possible of one item for the least unit cost.
  • Aggregators and distributors span significant geographic distances in support of the overall system as it relentlessly pursues lowest cost labor, easiest access to natural resources, and highest performance of technology wherever that may be in the world. Their objective is to optimize transportation payloads from one value-add stage to another.
  • Value-add processors and packagers make major investments in capital equipment and facilities to increase capacity and automate operations. Their objective is to appropriate technological innovation that facilitates economies of scale in their operations, amortizes investments across high volume runs, provides consumers with an array of choices within discrete product groups and reduces dependency on human labor.

To quickly summarize, global food systems prompt producers to focus on growing / raising a limited portfolio, logistics and distribution become big ticket items due to the global reach of the system, and value-add processors centralize their operations to command as much margin as possible.

Characteristics of a Local Food System

The diagram below depicts the flow of food from production to consumption in a local food system. The main elements include the following:

  • Producers have a diverse portfolio of crops grown and animals raised. Many of the entries in such a portfolio are indigenous, have mixed use applications, and are interspersed / intercropped. The objective is to optimize the portfolio to include as wide a selection of offerings as possible and effectively leverage assets. This combination provides a hedge to protect revenue and cap costs despite unexpected swings in supply and demand for particular products or failures due to unexpected conditions.
  • Food processing, preparation, and retail occur within a contained geographic space – 1-100 mile radius – so that as food is produced it travels a short distance for just-in-time delivery to the next step in the value chain. The objective is to place the sale of fresh food in close proximity to food preparation and processing so that quality, taste, freshness, ripeness, and appearance are maximized and waste and spoilage are minimized. What doesn’t get sold as retail or is used in preparation moves immediately to value-add processing. This type of highly-integrated stacking of functions assures the highest return on investment of time and resources.
  • The dynamics of a local / regional market create a situation where the community or cluster of communities participating in the local / regional food system impart a “brand” on the food produced, processed, prepared, and sold within it while consumers enjoy a wide variety of locally-produced foodstuffs. The objective is to draw upon the virtues of economies of scope, leverage brand recognition within the community, and establish sufficient market participation due to ample selection to drive the emergence of a local economy. And as widespread participation persists, the local economy is sustained and the community is stabilized.

As a recap, local food systems encourage participants to diversify their portfolios, leverage investments, take advantage of integrated food processing, preparation, and retail operations within a 10 – 100 mile radius, and utilize economies of scope to lay the groundwork for local economies to be established.

Beware Mixing Global and Local Food Systems

As is obvious by their definitions, the differences in organizing principles and business models between global and local food systems are significant. While both certainly can and must co-exist within the total food system, an indiscriminate mix of one with the other almost always disadvantages the local food system. In many instances it will prevent such a system from forming or becoming sustainable.

So, what about that mobile poultry processing unit? How would a local food system work with poultry?

  1. Diversify the production portfolio by including as many different kinds of domesticated birds, waterfowl, game birds, and exotic / specialty species as possible distributed across a wide range of small-scale producers.
  2. Keep the processing unit in close proximity to clusters of food retail, preparation, and value-add processing facilities to assure quality, timeliness, variety, and price advantages in local markets.
  3. Develop a strong brand identity in the local / regional market for the complete package of locally produced, processed, and prepared poultry products which obviously includes the mobile poultry processing unit.

Of course, attempting to operate as a global food system would be fraught with danger. Three actions to avoid:

  1. Limit producers’ portfolios to one of two kinds of birds. Worse yet, consolidate the number of producers into one or two large-scale producers.
  2. Distance the mobile poultry processing unit from the producers or those in downstream food preparation and value-add processing.
  3. Target consumer markets that are far afield from the point of production and processing so that local branding is difficult. Worse yet is to limit the range of product offerings so severely that sustainability is at risk due to lack of market exposure and penetration.

While this example of sorting through local and global food systems characteristics concerns poultry operations, it applies to all other food products. Perhaps you will find this checklist a useful guide when developing such food systems.

Originally posted to Local Food Systems by Steve Bosserman on Saturday, November 29, 2008 09:59

Mobile Slaughterhouses (Abattoirs) as a Solution to Meet the Demand for Blessed Meats in Central Ohio?

Recently, I have had several conversations about local foods with refugee-immigrants from a wide range of African nations who are currently living in the central Ohio area. Whether from the Horn of Africa in the east to Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon in the west, they show a keen interest in locally produced, processed, and prepared foods, especially those that come from or are closely akin to what they had available in their native lands. No where is this interest more evident than in “blessed meats” such as “halal” and “kidus” as evidenced in an article by Sherri Williams entitled, “Growing Immigrant Communities Seek Blessed Meat” published in the November 19, 2004 edition of the The Columbus Dispatch.

Over the past four years since this article was written, production output of blessed meats has increased in the Columbus area. However, market demand for locally produced and processed meats continues to exceed supply. This suggests a wide range of business opportunities in response. For the purpose of this posting those opportunities are centered on the construction, operation, and maintenance of mobile slaughterhouses (abattoirs) that are licensable by the USDA.


Excerpts below from an article in the January 10, 2008 issue of Sheep and Goat Notes published by the Kentucky Sheep and Goat Development Office entitled, “Sheep Farmers Feeding Rising Appetite for Lamb” by Gail Martineau for The Columbus Dispatch offer more details on the current situation:

Katherine Harrison Haley, manager of Blystone Farms…said her business has boomed since the farm’s slaughterhouse opened in 2004. On average, the company slaughters 50 to 75 animals a week to meet the demand for lamb in central Ohio, particularly among the growing Muslim population.

Joe Blystone, owner of the Blystone Farms, said he sells meat to Columbus’ Somali immigrants, who visit the farm, choose an animal and wait for it to be processed in the slaughterhouse.

“We knew we had a market even before we started,” Blystone said. Harrison Haley said the flavor of hair sheep is similar to that of their African relatives.

Blystone Farms also adheres to Islamic slaughtering practices, which call for the animal to suffer as little as possible.

“We do employ two butchers who are Muslim,” Harrison Haley said. “The kill is done in a very quick and humane manner.”

Osama Saleh, a Muslim and owner of two local Mediterranean markets that carry sheep meat, said he thinks the flavor of locally produced lamb is much better than that of imported meat. “I’ve tasted the Australian and New Zealand meat, and it tastes like it was in the freezer,” Saleh said.

He also said he hopes to get a piece of the growing market. “I wish I had extra cash to open a slaughterhouse,” Saleh said.


The answer may be a mobile slaughterhouse. A Chowhound blog posting by Jason Krause on October 31, 2006 entitled, “I’ll Pay You to Kill My Steer: It’s Not So Easy for Small Farmers to Get Their Animals Slaughtered,” focuses on the disappearance of smaller meat processing facilities:

According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the number of federally inspected meat-processing plants fell by about 200 between 2001 and 2005. About half that disappeared were very small plants, or businesses with ten or fewer employees and no more than $2.5 million in annual sales. The smaller guys simply couldn’t compete due to labor costs and stringent new food safety regulations. At the same time, big slaughterhouses consolidated into just 366 giant centers across the country. Small ranchers often are far from these centers. Besides having too few animals for large slaughterhouses to care about, sometimes the animals themselves present a nuisance.

Mr. Krause goes onto offer a solution put into play in Washington State:

A group of farmers in Washington state has developed a novel solution: a mobile slaughterhouse. Pulled by a diesel truck, the refrigerated car is equipped to kill and process everything from birds to cows. It’s USDA approved and can meet small farmers at their doorsteps. It can handle only five to nine steers a day, but its small size is seen as a virtue by its farmer customers.

The farmers built their mobile slaughterhouse after trying to build a permanent one in the area and getting shut down by their neighbors.

On the outside, it looks like a large horse trailer. Inside, it has three sections for processing, refrigeration, and storage. One person can run the whole operation, and farmers pay $75 per animal. The carcasses are then taken to a facility where they’re cut into portions. Farmer Bruce Dunlop, who helped spearhead the cooperative of Washington farmers that built the slaughterhouse, says it cost about $150,000, versus the $400,000 he says a small permanent facility would have cost to build.

After three and a half years of operation, the cooperative now works with about 45 farms in a four-county, hundred-mile area. The mobile slaughterhouse is available all year, but June to December is the busiest time. “It’s a tiny percentage of what the big slaughterhouses do, but for small and medium-sized farms, it’s significant,” says Dunlop. “It’s not a get-rich-quick operation for anybody, but there is enough demand for locally grown meat to keep it going.”


This same solution is being implemented in Vermont as indicated in an article by Peter Hirschfeld in the January 14, 2008 issue of the Vermont Press Bureau entitled, “Mobile Slaughterhouse Coming to Vermont,” which is copied below for your convenience:

MONTPELIER – A mobile slaughterhouse will likely be on the move in Vermont by spring, allowing small Vermont poultry farmers to reap increased profits in new retail markets.

The 32-foot trailer, with a killing room, scalding pot and processing area, will offer small and mid-size farmers the state inspection credentials needed to sell their birds in local cooperatives and grocery stores.

“The plan right now is to have it operational by spring time,” said Anson Tebbetts, deputy secretary for the Agency of Agriculture.

The Legislature approved funding for the approximately $80,000 slaughterhouse last year. The move is part of a larger plan to augment agricultural infrastructure in the state and capitalize on the ever-growing “Buy Local” movement.

For most farmers, trucking live poultry to the nearest USDA facility in southern Vermont is cost prohibitive, rendering their uninspected birds illegal for sale in cooperatives and other retail outlets. The mobile slaughterhouse, which officials say will process up to 200 birds a day, will offer the state-inspection stickers that have thus far kept small farmers out of nearby food stores.

“The key part is inspection, so it opens up every market you can imagine,” Tebbetts said. “(Poultry) could be sold at schools, restaurants, hospitals, back to the state government. That’s sort of where we’re heading with this.”

Neither the Agency of Agriculture nor Rural Vermont, an advocacy group that lobbies on behalf of the state farmers, tracks the number of small poultry farmers in Vermont.

“I don’t think there’s a clear understanding of how many folks are out there that might take advantage of this,” Tebbetts said. “The initial plan is to run 8,000 birds through the unit in the first year, but we really don’t know how many folks are out there.” The availability of the new slaughterhouse may compel new farmers to enter the wholesale and retail bird market and allow existing farmers to expand their flocks, Tebbetts said. John Clark operates Applecheek Farm in Hyde Park. He and his wife raise free-range boilers, stewing hens and heritage turkeys on their McFarlane Road operation. Clark benefited from a key agriculture bill passed last year that allows poultry farmers with up to 1,000 birds to sell their meat at farmers markets and restaurants. He said the mobile slaughterhouse will further expand the opportunities. “In my situation, it’ll be really helpful because I’ll be able to sell in more markets and not be limited by the 1,000-bird limit,” Clark said.

“Right now you can’t sell to a co-op unless you bring it to a USDA facility, which is really limiting for small-scale farmers.”

The mobile slaughterhouse will be leased, sold or rented to an independent operator who will have to offer services at an “affordable” cost, though details are still sketchy. Tebbetts said the state may fund the construction of more mobile units as demand warrants. The mobile slaughterhouse may well provide federal inspection as well, allowing Vermont farmers to sell in national chains like Whole Foods Market, which, according to Tebbetts, has already expressed interest in sourcing whole birds from Vermont. The mobile slaughterhouse will on occasion travel to fairs and field days around the state, where farmers will be able to bring their birds for slaughter on the premises.

A push is now under way to offer similar services for red-meat farmers seeking similar accommodations for their hogs, lamb, goat and beef, though mobile facilities for those products cost about double the poultry unit.

“It’s part of the whole strategy,” Tebbetts said. “We’ve worked on promotion and marketing, but we also have to keep an eye on infrastructure needs and give farmers another option, another convenience, to potentially grow their markets.”


Rebecca Ransom writes an article in the March 01, 2007 edition of the Litchfield County Times entitled, “Where Flowers and Beef Meet-a Slaughterhouse?”

LITCHFIELD-Eliot Wadsworth has an idea that might help slow the erosion of working farmland in the region, provide a valuable resource for those raising animals for the marketplace and help meet the growing demand for local meat products.


Ken Simon, in his article posted on the Working the Land website entitled, “Is a Mobile Slaughterhouse Coming to Connecticut? Cutting-Edge Process Could Benefit State Farmers and Consumers,” refers to goals set out by the Washington State farmers who spearheaded the mobile slaughterhouse in their area as applicable in Connecticut:


  • Become less dependent on imported food.
  • Support a stronger local food system with a quality, safe and healthy product.
  • Help small and limited-resource producers to gain revenues and profits.
  • Make local food production a vital part of the food economy.
  • Create a direct link between consumers and Farmers
  • Increase opportunities for organic and naturally raised beef.


Jane Morrigan posted a two-part article for the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada wherein she describes the pros and cons of mobile abattoirs.1

Part 1 is entitled, “Will Mobile Abattoirs Help Small-Scale Livestock Farmers?”

Part 2 is entitled, “Mobile Abattoirs: Benefits and Challenges”

Her conclusions, while in a Canadian context, relate well to circumstances in Ohio:

The success or failure of a Canadian prototype of a mobile abattoir will be watched with interest by small-scale producers, ranchers in remote locations, game farm operators, and government agencies alike. Benefits must outweigh the cost of meeting stringent new food-safety standards. The success of such a venture will integrate producer/consumer demand, cooperation among stakeholders, entrepreneurship, innovation, political will and a supportive bureaucracy.

This is a great opportunity for government regulators and niche marketers of value-added meat products to develop a new model of cooperation and innovation. Training, licensing and monitoring of abattoir operators, internet-assisted inspection technologies and proactive practices such as BSE-testing every carcass could be incorporated into the model. A state-of-the-art, multi-species, multi-use mobile abattoir that is federally inspected offers the most flexible service to producers. At the same time, it ensures more uniformly applied sanitation standards to on-farm killing than exists today in Canada. In addition, it offers the most humane method of commercial slaughter.

Originally posted to Local Food Systems by Steve Bosserman on Sunday, April 13, 2008

  1. See also Jane Morrigan, Mobile abattoirs may help small-scale livestock farmers – Organic Matters, The Western Producer, January 27, 2005