Opinion

Local farmers, local meat keep our dollars local

Over the years, more and more of the meat Washington residents consume is traveling further and further to reach our plates.

Small farms have great difficulties getting their meat processed locally. They hit a barrier to market entry because only a few big processors now dominate. Also, they are located a considerable distance away from local consumers. As a result, the meats that most local retailers and restaurants offer are not locally grown.

The consequence of economies of scale and increased regulation to meet food safety requirements pose a greater challenge for small meat operations than for large operations. These are two factors that have led to an increase in the concentration of the meat processing industry and the loss of smaller, local meat processors.

In a time where 'buy local, think global' is becoming a way of life for many Washingtonians, there has been an effort to expose and re-examine how 'local' our industries really are.

Local chefs such as Tom Douglas, with restaurants in Seattle area, are strong supporters of this buy local concept and are trying to understand how to bridge the gap between local meat processors and buyers such as themselves.

Some consumers are even going right to the source by buying shares of a farm's production. This idea of community supported agriculture was imported from Europe and Asia in the 1980s as an alternative marketing and financing arrangement to help combat the often prohibitive costs of small-scale farming. In essence, consumers hire personal farmers, turning the old notion of sharecropping on its head.

Last session, the Legislature took a great stride in passing the 'Local Farms Healthy Kids' bill which put steps in place to make Washington home grown fruits and produce accessible to school children. Not only will this bill support local agriculture, it creates the opportunity to reduce the carbon footprint of food distribution.

I believe the same stride should be taken regarding buying meat from local sources. This is why I introduced Senate Bill 6954, which establishes a state meat and poultry inspection program that enforces requirements that are at least equal to those imposed under federal law. This bill provides that products inspected may be sold in intrastate commerce and in interstate commerce when allowed by federal law.

Local retailers such as PCC Natural Markets are also making strong efforts to offer Washington grown meat with the focus of preserving farmland from development, supporting rural economies and individual family ranchers. Their customers are asking for locally processed specialty meats, but they are unable to offer these products because of a high level of consolidation of the market and restrictions that work against small ranchers.

One of the main dilemmas small farmers run up against is not having access to mobile meat processing units. That is why I introduced Senate Bill 6955. This legislation calls for the test and design of a mobile livestock processing unit that could be used in various geographic areas of the state. By reducing the number of miles farmers have to travel, we could reduce costs and stimulate competition.

I also believe building the bridge between local farms and local buyers is a priority. This is why, last session, I introduced Senate Bill 6956 which authorizes Washington State University, in cooperation with the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development, to host a working conference to explore the opportunities and impediments to increasing local markets for locally produced food products and local agricultural producers. This will streamline the process for restaurants such at Tom Douglas' to buy locally whenever possible.

By passing legislation that promotes the success of small meat processors, the buy local concept is supported; thus, local farm land is preserved and distribution time and transportation costs are reduced. This is the best way to keep our dollars local, supporting our state's economy and farmers.

Sen. Ken Jacobsen first served in the House of Representatives starting in 1983 and was then elected to the Senate in 1998. He is currently the Chair of the Natural Resources, Ocean & Recreation Committee and also serves on the Agriculture & Rural Economic Development, Consumer Protection & Housing and Transportation Committees.

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