EXPOSING the FDA and the USDA - Broad Casting here the things that they would prefer us NOT to know about our FOOD & DRUGS & Farming.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Future of Meat

A fourth-generation farmer from Walla Walla is bringing the sustainable future of agriculture to life — and bringing locally raised meat to Spokane David Blaine

Joel Huesby’s grease-stained cowboy hat and frayed Carhart jacket make him the portrait of a modern American farmer, but when he talks, he quickly leaves stereotypes behind. While he stands in his self-constructed slaughterhouse trailer, the conversation wanders from Richard Nixon’s former Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, to The Andy Griffith Show. But no matter the topic, the point is always the same: Modern agriculture is not working, and Huesby wants a role in creating the farm system of the future. I came to see cattle, but what Huesby wants to show me is the totality of his vision.

Huesby is a fourth-generation farmer, and he knows the ins and outs of the commodity business as well as he knows every one of his cattle. He knows that the modern farm is in deep trouble: The companies that produce farm equipment, fertilizers, pesticides and seed are all making money. The farm hands are making money, and so is the cannery that bought his lima beans. But the three traditional components of agriculture — the farmer, the land and the customer — are the last to be factored in the current equation of agricultural math.

The family farm he inherited — 400 acres of rolling land in the shadow of the Blue Mountains near Walla Walla — is located off a long stretch of highway lined with wineries such as L’Ecole and Woodward Canyon. In 1994, while the Walla Walla region was gaining national prominence for award-winning wines, Huesby was struggling to keep the 110-year-old family business going. Influenced by a growing movement within the farming industry, he began looking at where things had gone wrong with the business model and why he had to fight so much harder than his forbears.

Starting in the 1950s, traditional practices started to be replaced by “modern” methods. Tractors and fertilizers expanded production, but at a price, enslaving the farmer to the industrial food infrastructure.

Over the last 10 years, Huesby has constructed a livestock operation that he believes represents the future of farming. Keeping modern notions of branding, he named his business Thundering Hooves, and his system is almost entirely self-contained. Cattle graze on organic pastures with no supplemental grain, which means no need to buy fertilizer or feed. Animals are slaughtered in the USDA-certified mobile abattoir, which he built himself. The meat is driven into town and processed at his own butchering facility, which also acts as his retail front. And every two weeks his brother-in-law drives a 1,000-mile delivery route that services 30 buying clubs and more than a dozen restaurants in the Seattle and Portland area. The upshot is that Huesby is writing fewer checks to suppliers, he receives the full retail price for his product, and he is able to produce a better product because he has total control over production.

Emphasizing one of his core beliefs, Huesby says, “Anonymity is one of the problems of modern farming.” Modern mass-market meat production has numerous firewalls built in that serve to disconnect the farmer from the consumer. By funneling the nation’s food through corporate processing, the individual pieces of the supply chain can be switched in and out as economic forces dictate. When crisis strikes the system, such as outbreaks of Mad Cow Disease, they are dealt with behind this very same veil of anonymity. In contrast, everyone involved in the Thundering Hooves system is tied to the happiness of the end user, Huesby explains. His method is “direct, transparent and accountable,” he says. “Why would I sell a mad cow?”

His assertion that his methods provide a safer alternative received a cosmic endorsement on March 4, 2007, when the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin ran a cover story about Thundering Hooves’ mobile slaughterhouse. Sharing the front page above the fold was an article about an E. coli recall that had been issued at the Tyson processing plant just down the road. Huesby keeps a laminated copy of this article next to his cash register. The point is clear: His success will not be created by cutting corners but by ensuring quality.

As Thundering Hooves has gained praise from consumers and environmental groups, Huesby is still wondering about the future of his operation. As he has worked to overcome the disadvantages of his ideology, he has inched closer to profitability. His biggest concern is that, just as it all starts to pay off for him, he will find himself in direct competition with other farmers who shorten, and cheapen, the innovation curve by copying his model.

“The price of innovation is high,” he says. “The price of replication is low.”

This prospect leaves Huesby with a lot of questions: Should he look to franchise his concept? Should he operate closed-system processing and distribution for more farmers across the state? Should he move away from buying clubs in favor of distribution deals with Whole Foods?

The answers won’t come easy. As we watch the bulls munching on leftover pumpkins, Huesby admits, “I only slept two hours last night thinking about all of this.”

The issues are pressing. Whole Foods and PCC Markets have already inspected his farm. He will only be able to sell so much to the big chain stores before he has to limit or end the direct-to-consumer business plan that has built this company.

The only thing Huesby knows for sure is that growing the operation is necessary. He says, “I am still operating under the Earl Butz theory: Get big or get out!” Ever since Butz implemented programs during the Nixon administration to drive down food costs with greater and greater harvests, the individual farmer has been forced to expand his operation in order to survive on smaller and smaller margins. If Thundering Hooves is going to compete side-by-side with signature brands from large corporations like ConAgra, Huesby believes he will need the same economy of scale as the big boys.

“When you balance the ecological, social and financial impacts of each decision,” he says, “it becomes much more difficult to know what is the right thing to do is.”

Huesby feels the weight of the world on his shoulders, and that weight is real because he has chosen to hold his business decisions accountable to every component of the food chain: from the soil to the animals, to the workers and ultimately to the people eating his products. He wants to find a solution that benefits everyone, including the farmer.

By controlling everything from grazing to slaughtering to distribution, and offering cut meat direct to consumers, the Thundering Hooves system answers the sustainability problems of modern farming while feeding more people than traditional farm-direct beef sales, which only sell beef in bulk. Because his system spans this gap, Huesby has a rightful claim to being part of the postmodern agricultural movement. Still, there are a lot of factors that could affect Thundering Hooves’ success. USDA regulations, economic recessions and increased competition will all be keeping him up at night. Regardless, he has found one answer to the problem of feeding this nation, and he has provided a starting point for understanding the future of meat.

David Blaine is the executive chef at Latah Bistro. He blogs about the food scene at thebackkitchen.blogspot.com.

Thundering Hooves will begin delivering to the Spokane area this summer. A description of how their direct-sales system works can be found at thunderinghooves.net. For information on how you can form a buying club, contact Keith Swanson at (866) 350-9400 or info@thunderinghooves.net. The Main Market Co-op will be retailing Thundering Hooves products when they open in late 2009.


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