Farming issues

Don Green, owner of Crabapple Hollow Farm, and his son Don Jr., 8, stand near a herd of their Black Angus beef cattle in Cambridge Springs.

While it's only been two years since he got back into the business, Cambridge Springs farmer Don Green of Crabapple Hollow Farm already has noticed a few inefficiencies with the meat industry. Now he and other local farmers and farming organizations are seeking to do something about it.

Green helped lead the way in the founding of a working group looking to explore ways to cut down on the long wait times that northwestern Pennsylvania beef and poultry farmers face in getting their animals processed. The working group covers Crawford, Erie, Mercer, Venango and Warren counties, and has involvement from the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, Penn State Extension and Pennsylvania Veteran Farming Project.

Green grew up on his family's farm, but left the industry for some time before returning in 2018. The experience has been an enlightening one.

"It's challenging, but it's an eye-opener for how our supply chain works and how fragile our supply system is and how inflexible our meat industry seems to be on the local level," he said.

Of particular note was how long it took to get some animals processed by a butcher. Green said he's had to be put on a year-and-a-half waiting list for some of his beef cows.

"You're locked into whatever slots you can get from the butcher," he said.

A member of the Pennsylvania Veteran Farming Project, Green reached out to the group for ideas on how to deal with this issue. It was from that contact that the idea of the working group was formed.

Currently the group is working on conducting a feasibility study later this fall with assistance from Penn State Extension educators. Several options are being examined, including forming a co-op of farmers and ranchers to seek funding, creating a United States Department of Agriculture-certified slaughter and/or processing facility, seeking out butchers able to expand their work load, and forming buyers clubs among consumers.

Another idea that has been suggested is creating a "mobile slaughter unit" that would travel from farm to farm, processing any animals as needed.

The group also launched a survey that asked asking farmers to fill out to help gauge interest. However, Green said the group hasn't received many responses to the survey, though he hopes to still hear from local people involved in the industry. He said the group needs to generate a lot of interest to be able to move forward on its planned solutions. 

Green also encourages any farmers or butchers interested in getting involved to contact him directly. He can be reached by phone at (814) 573-6490 or by email at farmcrabapplehollow@outlook.com.

Seeking these kinds of solutions may be more important now than ever. According to Green, the COVID-19 pandemic has been something of a double-edged sword for meat producers, with more people than ever wanting locally made food.

"The butchers are over-booked, I believe, and COVID actually increased the demand for locally produced meat and food products," he said.

A press release from Pennsylvania Veteran Farming Project about the working group's formation expressed similar sentiments, calling COVID-19 a "mixed blessing."

"Due to safety issues in the meat packing industry in the Midwest, local farmers throughout the state have seen greater opportunity to connect with consumers," Mimi Thomas-Booker of Pennsylvania Veteran Farming Project is quoted as saying. "Unfortunately, the situation has negatively impacted small meat processors who were often already over capacity."

The organization believes that the working group will have wide-ranging benefits if it is able to implement changes.

"This project will be a boon not only to local producers and buyers, but will have a positive economic impact in the region, helping small farms thrive," Thomas-Booker said.

Sean P. Ray can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at sray@meadvilletribune.com.

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