Liz and Nate Brownlee run Nightfall Farm in Crothersville, Indiana. They raise livestock on pasture, using rotational grazing and GMO-free feed, and sell chicken, pork, lamb, turkey, and eggs at area farmers markets, to chefs, and to 55 meat CSA members. They have just completed their fifth season farming. Before that, the Brownlee’s worked on farms for five years to gain experience. They bring two key skills to this project: (1) A basic understanding of what it's like to open an on-farm meat processing facility. While in Vermont, they worked in an on-farm, state-inspected poultry processing facility. The facility was in its first-year operating, so they gained a behind-the-scenes look at opening an on-farm meat processing facility. They have maintained ties with this mentor farm, and have relationships with two on-farm processing facilities in New York. (2) They regularly collaborate with other farmers, and have organizational skills that will be critical to opening our farmer-to-farmer butcher shop.
Dennis and Tricia Bowers and family, alongside Tricia’s parents, Kenneth and Mona Plumer own and operate Plumer & Bowers Farmstead. Without GMOs, hormones or antibiotics, they raise 100% grass-fed/grass-finished beef, grass-fed/grain-finished beef, pastured laying hens, small grains, popcorn, field corn, alfalfa and soybeans on their 1,000-acre farmstead. They sell beef, eggs, popcorn and whole-grain flours at the farm and farmer’s market. From the late 1940’s to the late 1980’s, Kenneth processed his family’s beef on-farm and processed pork on neighboring farms. Mona assisted in cutting and wrapping beef beginning in 1964. Tricia helped process beef in the 1980s. We are committed to responsibly and respectfully raising our animals from birth to slaughter on foods that we cultivate. A farmer-to-farmer butcher shop would extend this commitment from birth to beyond butchering.
Another collaborator is Max Joyner. Max is a chef in Columbus, Indiana. The Brownlee’s have been working with Max for four years (selling whole chicken, whole pigs, and whole lambs), and the Bowers have been working with Max for over a year now (selling their wheat). Max regularly butchers pork, lamb, and beef from local farmers, including the Brownlee’s, for his restaurant. Max is eager to collaborate on opening a farmer-to-farmer butcher shop. In the future, Max will provide butchering expertise and labor. During this project, Max will help assess materials needed, site plan, and labor costs. He may also provide the site for our butcher shop. His farmstead includes a 40x60’ pole barn with heated floors, drainage, and good lighting – and he bought the farmstead with the express hope of converting the pole barn into a meat cutting space.
Access to quality meat processing is a problem throughout our region. Problems include availability (schedules are so full that available butcher dates are 3-4+ months away); labelling and packaging (farmers selling directly to customers often have health department requirements or customer demands that are different from other farmers); and assurance that the meat you receive back is, in fact, your meat (farmers who sell directly to customers depend on this transparency). Fuel use and time off-farm are also problematic for farmers traveling hours to a trustworthy inspected facility.
We aim to increase the sustainability of our livestock operations by ensuring access to a red meat processing facility that meets our needs as small, direct market farmers. We will use SARE funds to plan a “farmer-to-farmer” butcher shop: a facility run by farmers, for farmers. Planning will include: detailed cash flow projections; business plan; regulatory planning; food safety and HACCP plans; and a site plan and list of materials needed.
We will gather other farmers who face butcher access and quality challenges, so that they can learn from our progress to make informed decisions about their own butchering options, especially if they are interested in opening their own farmer-to-farmer butcher shops.
- Create a “shovel-ready” plan for a farmer-to-farmer butcher shop, so that we are ready to begin creating our butcher shop – scheduling construction, ordering materials, scheduling processing, etc. Plan will include:
- Business plan, including budget and cash-flow analysis
- Resources for meeting regulatory requirements
- Resources for meeting food safety and HACCP planning needs
- Site plan and list of equipment needed
- Gather livestock farmers in Indiana to learn together about butchering options that accommodate farms selling in local and regional markets. Share our plans via this workshop and via our website.
- Partner with Indiana University to conduct a meat processing survey. The survey will gauge farmers’ sense of processing problems opportunities and in the state. Thanks to IU’s number crunching capacity, we will be able to share the results of this survey in an academically rigorous way, and share this data with decision-makers in the state. The results should help guide future conversations and progress on meat processing in Indiana.
Conducting the Feasibility Study
Our group (five farmers and one chef) has been meeting monthly to plan out a farmer-to-farmer butcher shop. Our feasibility study has involved two consultants and significant farmer time researching what our facility might include, price points, food safety regulations, and more. The monthly meetings (and a color-coded spreadsheet) have kept us moving forward and accountable to one another. At the meetings, we talk through detailed questions about the facility, divvy homework needed for the next steps, look at any new info from our consultants, and report in what we’ve learned or accomplished since the last meeting.
Another key piece of learning has been visiting existing processors. We’ve travelled to multiple processors that seem like they’re doing what we want to do, so that we can be in their space and get a sense of their scale, products, customers, and prospects. This has been fun and critical, because it let us ground-truth our ideas, as if we were Gold-i-locks. We can see something that looks good on paper (or on the web) but in person feels impersonal, or dirty, or fancy…or just right!
Working with Consultants
We hired two consultants to help make this feasibility study faster and more rigorous, so that it was valid and useful enough to share with other farmers. Everything they produced for us will be on our website, open source for farmers to utilize (some materials are already posted!). If we didn’t have a SARE grant, I’m sure I would not have hired consultants – and I’m sure it would have taken much longer and been much more daunting to compile the cash flow, equipment list, etc. Hopefully, other farmers can adapt the open source materials from this project, and save time, money, and stress.
Our consultants were:
Adam Moody is a farmer and meat processor here in Indiana. He has a working knowledge of the regulations, finances, and realities of small-scale meat processing in our state, which was invaluable. He drafted our equipment lists and floor plans, and provided financial numbers for our business consultant.
Nathan Boone is a farmer and business consultant here in Indiana. He created our cash flow projections, and challenged us to articulate our goals (How would this facility really fit into our lives? What does it need to look like and produce to be successful?).
Outreach – Surveying Other Farmers
We are in the midst of a statewide survey of livestock farmers, re: processing challenges and opportunities. We started with twelve questions that we thought we would distribute via Google forms. After drafting these questions, we asked three researchers at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs to provide feedback (so that the survey wouldn’t be too leading). They are focused on food policy, and were interested in some of the same data, and so offered to help us make the survey more robust, so that it captures all the information we were actually after, and so that decision-makers in the state will respect the findings as valid. Also, they ran it through their university ethics board. We also sought input for the survey from the Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network. They connected us with researchers and processors in other states that had completed similar surveys, so that we could learn from their questions and layout. This was invaluable!
Right now, we’re spreading the word via allies across the state (Purdue University Extension, SWCD, Farmers Union, Young Farmers Coalition, etc) and at grazing and farming conferences. The researchers will assess the survey results in mid-March. The survey is currently available here: https://iu.co1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_cB9UMtFzWVi1tdP
The Feasibility Study
This process has been invaluable. We’ve honed in on our business model (cut-and-wrap plus value added, but no slaughter) and scale (4.5 person is too big for us; 1-person might be just right). We’ve begun to really understand what equipment is necessary (and what would be nice), how we’ll lay out our floor plan, what regulations we must meet, and how much capital we’ll need to get started.
Outreach – Survey
We are gathering data now, and look forward to sharing the results of the survey with SARE and with decision makers in Indiana (from Purdue Extension agents, who can share info with existing processors, to Indiana State Department of Agriculture and the Board of Animal Health, who oversee processing in the state).
Educational & Outreach Activities
We are hosting a full day “Butcher Shop Tour and Panel Discussion” with Purdue University in a few weeks! The tour is part of the Indiana Small Farm Conference. We applied to host our tour as part of the Small Farm Conference, and Purdue was excited to partner. We will tour two successful inspected meat processing facilities in the Indianapolis area, including one farmer-run processor. At lunch, a panel of farmers (who also opened meat processing facilities!) will share with our group about their experiences, and we will get to share about our SARE grant project, examining the feasibility of opening a farmer-to-farmer processing facility to meet the needs of direct-sales farmers like us.
We’ve been promoting the event via Purdue Extension, the Indiana Young Farmers Coalition, and other allies in the state, as well as word-of-mouth.
We look forward to reporting in about turnout and if the day was useful to participants.
We’ll be eager to report in with our final learning outcomes, but for now, here are a few lessons learned:
- This feasibility study has taken far more work than we anticipated! There have definitely been times when we wondered why we weren’t outside, working on existing challenges on the farm (rather than at the computer or on the phone trying to project future realities). But then we would remember just how stressful it is not to have a solid meat processing option, and we’d regain focus on this project! I do wish we would have built in more labor cost for the farmers’ research.
- Working together with other farmers has been incredibly stimulating and rewarding. We’ve enjoyed the chance to spend time together and learn together. It was critical that we had built trust and friendship before this project!
We are very excited about the new collaboration with Indiana University Researchers (for the survey). They have been adamant that our views and needs as farmers must shine through the survey, and eager to add their expertise (with survey design, data assessment, report writing, outreach, etc.). We hope that the results of the survey are useful, and we look forward to sharing those results with SARE soon.