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Kitsap-Raised Meats May Soon Be Sold Locally

By Chris Henry (Contact)

Article from The Kitsap Sun

SOUTH KITSAP —

Joe Keen of Farmer George Meats in Port Orchard cleans up his meat-processing truck. Keen does a thriving business on private sales and custom butchering, but USDA rules made it difficult for him to sell locally raised beef or other meat on the retail market. That should change when he and other members of the Puget Sound Meat Producers Co-Operative get a USDA-approved mobile meat processing facility. (LARRY STEAGALL | KITSAP SUN)
Joe Keen of Farmer George Meats in Port Orchard cleans up his meat-processing truck. Keen does a thriving business on private sales and custom butchering, but USDA rules made it difficult for him to sell locally raised beef or other meat on the retail market. That should change when he and other members of the Puget Sound Meat Producers Co-Operative get a USDA-approved mobile meat processing facility. (LARRY STEAGALL | KITSAP SUN)
Joe Keen of Farmer George Meats in Port Orchard says locally grown meat is just as cheap and tastes better than commercially sold meat. A grant from the Pierce County Conservation District will make it easier for he and other members of the Puget Sound Meat Producers Co-op to sell locally-grown meat on the retail market. (LARRY STEAGALL | KITSAP SUN)
Joe Keen of Farmer George Meats in Port Orchard says locally grown meat is just as cheap and tastes better than commercially sold meat. A grant from the Pierce County Conservation District will make it easier for he and other members of the Puget Sound Meat Producers Co-op to sell locally-grown meat on the retail market. (LARRY STEAGALL | KITSAP SUN)

Joe Keehn, owner of Farmer George Meats, spent last week on farms in South Kitsap slaughtering cattle the old-fashioned way — out in the field where they were raised.

The beef from these cattle, much of it organically grown, would be considered a prime commodity in most grocery stores. But USDA rules limit it to private consumption.

Soon, however, Kitsap residents will have greater access to locally raised beef, pork, lamb and poultry.

The recently formed Puget Sound Meat Producers Co-op — of which Keehn is a charter member — has received a grant from the Pierce Conservation District for a USDA-approved mobile meat processing facility. The meat plant on wheels will make the rounds of six counties, including Kitsap, starting in June. That opens the door for local meat sales in restaurants and grocery stores, as well as farmer's markets and through community-supported agriculture cooperatives.

That day can't come soon enough for Keehn and other members of the co-op. Right now, if they want to sell meat retail, they must travel long distances to get their animals slaughtered in USDA-certified facilities. The logistics have made it cost-prohibitive, Keehn said, and many small farmers who once raised livestock in Kitsap County have thrown in the towel.

"The facility is much needed because in the entire Western Washington, we have nothing," Keehn said. "It's going to help me. It'll be a lot more convenient for me to get my meat butchered under USDA inspection."

The mobile meat facility was shepherded into existence by Cheryl Oulette, a farmer from Summit in East King County, who grows "breakfast, lunch and dinner, and we're working on dessert." Oulette, like Keehn, found getting her meat to market an unsustainable "rat race." The beef had to be shipped to Eastern Washington and back, the pigs to Kapowsin in Pierce County, the poultry another place.

At meetings with other farmers, Oulette realized everyone was having he same problem, but building a slaughterhouse was cost-prohibitive to folks barely making enough to keep their farms and families going.

Instead, she borrowed the idea of a mobile facility from one operating in San Juan County.

With the blessing of the Puget Sound Meat Producers Co-op, Oulette applied to the Pierce County Conservation District for a $500,000 grant to fund the $250,000 facility and startup costs. The grant was covered by a $5 fee charged on all parcels in Pierce County to support its mission of helping small farmer's stay on their land. The district also encourages nonpolluting best practices for agricultural land.

The facility is a 45-foot semitrailer with an 11-foot clearance to allow for hanging sides of meat. The trailer will have a freezer compartment and a complete processing facility inside. The custom-designed vehicle will be completed the first week of June and fully operational by early July, Oulette says.

"We're hoping everyone can have local meat for their barbecue for the Fourth of July," she said.

That's how things were not too long ago in Kitsap County. Before World War II, a large farmer's market operated in Bremerton, where one could get locally grown meat, along with poultry, eggs, milk and produce.

According Keehn, the county once supported several meat shops supplied by local farms. And up until the 1970s, there was a USDA-approved meat plant, Foss Meat Packing Company, operating in the north end of the county.

But federal regulations gradually became increasingly stringent, and many smaller meat plants like Foss closed up shop — and with them butchers like Farmer George.

"We're some of the last guys around," Keehn said.

Minder Meats, family owned in Kitsap for 66 years, is another remnant of earlier times. Owner Jim Carlson, like Keehn, is excited to begin distributing locally grown USDA-approved meat.

Minder, which is USDA-approved for processing but not slaughtering, currently gets most of its meat from large-scale packing plants.

Carlson believes there is a large untapped appetite for local meat in Kitsap County.

Until recently, the bulk of Minder's business was wholesale distribution to restaurants. Amid the recession, their restaurant business is down about 15 percent, but retail sales are up 50 to 60 percent.

Keehn also sees huge potential in the resurrection of local meat production. Right now, his business is thriving on private sales and custom butchering. He has as much work as he can handle from people who are willing and able to buy a side of beef or half a pig at a time.

Keehn and Carlson — both of whom raise their own cattle — eagerly sing the praises of locally grown meat.

"The thing about buying from a local farmer, you can see what they've got," Keehn said. "You can see where the calves have been born. You can see where they've been fed. Pork and lamb the same thing."

Carlson points out the ecological advantages of local meat production.

"It's a smaller carbon footprint, that's for sure," said Carlson. "(Currently) an animal has a lot of miles on it by the time it gets here."

Both say their costs are competitive with higher-end products found in grocery stores. Keehn, for example, sells sides of meat for about $2.79 per pound. After butchering, the cost for a variety of cuts, from hamburger to filet mignon, comes in at about $4.50 a pound.

Then there's the taste.

"Our quality is superb," said Keehn, a plainspoken man, not given to hyperbole.

Consumer can locate outlets for local meat — and a host of other locally grown food — through the Kitsap Community & Agricultural Alliance Web site. Jim Freeman, who hosts a blog at the Web site says the shift toward consumption of local food is happening slowly. Consumers need to make the investment of time and money in order for local commodities to once again become readily available.

"Isn't that funny how things change?" Carlson said. "Nobody thought it would ever change and go back the other way. Used to be you'd buy everything locally, now it's coming full circle."

 

 

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