Leaders craft strict set of guidelines for meat product

By STEVE BROWN

Capital Press

BELLINGHAM, Wash. -- Ranchers and farmers in northwestern Washington state are taking the next step toward developing a new brand of naturally raised meat

The North Cascades Meat Producers Cooperative will meet at 7 p.m. June 7 at St. Luke's Educational Center, 3333 Squalicum Parkway in Bellingham, Wash. Beef, pork and lamb producers from Island, Skagit and Whatcom counties are invited, according to the website.

The co-op intends to provide custom and USDA-inspected meat processing services, as well as a cooperative-owned wholesale distribution program. The board of directors has agreed on common production standards:

* Animals will be pasture- or grass-finished with no grains.

* No antibiotics or hormones will be used in feed.

* No petroleum-based fertilizers will be used on pastures.

* No detrimental impacts on riparian areas will be permitted.

Organizers have been working with the Northwest Agriculture Business Center since 2010.

Jeff Voltz, project manager at the business center, said Whatcom County alone has 25,000 beef cattle.

"This is a huge opportunity to eat from the land that supports us," he said. "The local food movement is here to stay."

The standards are modeled after the Eat Wild program on Vashon Island.

"There will be no feedlot," he said. "We'll develop our own system of sourcing inputs."

Voltz figured there are about 150 producers in the area, and about 90 are on the mailing list. At this point there are 10 members -- three from Skagit County and seven from Whatcom County.

He said they are getting "all kinds of response" from Facebook, posters in feedstores and other types of publicity.

Voltz said he expects the total investment to be about $375,000. A big part of that will be leasing a USDA-inspected mobile slaughter unit from the Pierce County Conservation District.

"Depending on level of interest (after the June 7 meeting), we'll raise the required capital from members, go out and get other capital to make the business plan work, and pitch the program to various lenders throughout the region and community institutions," he said.

The co-op will also seek grants, such as a USDA Rural Development Grant.

One of the businesses eager to get more local meat on its shelves is Bellingham's Community Food Co-op. General manager Jim Ashby said product from one meat co-op member is already on the shelves at his two stores, where meat represents 8 to 10 percent of sales.

"Being a co-op will help (producers) to have a common label and make them more visible," he said. "Customers will see that label in more than one place in the store. Plus, we'd love to support another co-op."

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