Farm to Table

Meat is on display on a store shelf. Meat processing in the U.P. is currently relegated to one facility. A recent study was conducted to discover the feasibility of building a second facility at KI Sawyer. (Photo courtesy of USDA)

By Sam Henke, Marquette Food Co-op

One can conceive of a local food movement as being driven by production and demand—but this is only half the story.

If you were creating a photo slideshow of a food system, you would likely include some images that focus on these two aspects of the food system: a group of farmhands plodding out to the field as the sun rises, rows of turnips and collard greens reaching neatly out of the soil, a farmers market table filled with bulbs of red onions and cabbage heads, a fresh spinach salad with slices of strawberries, a bubbling pot of golden beet stew being ladled into a bowl in an airy, mellow bistro. What you’ve left out is what most people do when envisioning a food system: everything that happens in between.

The unsexy “-to-” of the farm-to-table is where most of the complex, contingent, bureaucratic and underappreciated work of a food system happens. Veggies must be processed, food safety regulations observed and tracked, transportation routed and scheduled, drop-off and pick-up points optimized, invoices signed, copied and inputted, quality control assured, refrigeration secured and temperatures checked and logged at multiple points and with dozens of stakeholders consulted and considered along the way. Local meat presents a whole other set of logistical and regulatory challenges. These are the least glamorous facets of food systems, but are often the choke points preventing a local food economy from growing and thriving.

Communities large and small across the United States have been toiling for years to increase the availability as well as reliability of their local food systems. Here in the U.P., our struggle is often against space—not a lack of, but an excess of space between. A common solution to the issue of logistics is some version of what is known generally as a “Food Hub.” Non-profit, municipally supported, or for-profit, a food hub takes whatever form its stakeholders are able to support. The lack of a major urban center is an advantage in the eyes of many Yoopers, but our sparse and dispersed population is an impediment for building a more effective local food network. Take for example the structure of the U.P. Food Exchange, the U.P.’s premier food hub. The relevant point here is that this “hub” is actually a partnership of three distinct agencies and geographic sectors, each with their own aggregation center: in the west, the Western U.P. Health Department in Hancock; in the east, the Michigan State University Extension offices in Sault Ste. Marie; and in the central region, anchoring UPFE operations, the Marquette Food Co-op in Marquette.

This food hub-trinity allows most U.P. residents to be close to one of these centers of aggregation and distribution, but clearly belies the notion of a single centralized hub for services and food distribution. UPFE has done great things in leveling this wrinkle through its Online Marketplace, but the ground-level physical realities of food logistics persist. This does not mean they are insurmountable however. Take the recent work being done in one U.P. food sector—meat.

There is currently only one USDA certified meat-processing facility in the Upper Peninsula and no poultry processing. The U.P. Multi-species Processing Feasibility Study Project Advisory Committee was formed in 2015 to address this lack of meat processing in our largely rural Peninsula. The committee first came about as a result of interagency dialogue. UPFE had identified many restaurants and institutions that expressed interest in purchasing more local meat and farmers who expressed interest in supplying this market if they had better access to processing.

In addition to UPFE, this issue was identified by several regional Farm Bureau chapters, MSU Extension and Marquette County’s Local Food Supply Plan as an issue that needed further investigation. The committee concluded that if an additional processing plant was needed, Marquette County had an interest in determining if the former K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base was a suitable location. Sawyer is geographically centered in the U.P., has access to multimodal transportation, infrastructure in place, and buildings waiting to be reinvented. It could also be an employment opportunity for Sawyer locals.

Funding and building a USDA certified meat-processing facility is no small undertaking, and in order to make such a large investment, the committee prudently opted to get experienced food systems experts involved. Enter Karen Karp and Partners (KK&P), a New York-based food systems consulting agency. KK&P have decades of experience advising food and agriculture ventures and have worked with a diversity of big names in food, including Sysco, Slow Food USA, James Beard Foundation, and the American Dairy Association to name just a few.

In order to assess the current state of local meat production, processing and distribution, and to address the feasibility of a new facility in the U.P., KK&P brought in one of their expert collaborators, John-Mark Hack. According to the KK&P study, Hack is “recognized as a national leader in the area of small meat processor development and operations” and was co-founder of Marksbury Farm Market, a vertically integrated grass-based farm-to-table operation with its own 12,000-square foot USDA inspected processing facility along with a grocery store and restaurant, located in Kentucky.

Starting in 2016, Hack, along with a host of KK&P consultants and researchers, set to the task of evaluating the U.P.’s meat industry. The study included extensive primary research, surveying of local producers, several listening sessions with local farmers, consumers and agriculture advocacy groups, as well as a detailed tour and assessment of the U.P.’s sole existing processing facility. Part two of this article will explain in detail the KK&P feasibility assessment process as well the results of their study and what that means for the future of meat production and local agriculture here in the U.P.

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