Bruce Dunlop was an engineer before he became a farmer on a picturesque island off the coast of Washington in 2002. This technical background turned out to serve him well in producing pork and lamb to sell from Lopez Island Farm. Faced with the financial and logistical difficulty of transporting his live animals 200 miles to the closest USDA-permitted slaughterhouse on the mainland -- a trip that included a 45-minute ferry ride -- he began designing the nation's first mobile slaughterhouse, in cooperation with Washington State University extension and Lopez Community Land Trust.
A 50-something Steve Martin look-alike with a cheery, relaxed manner, Dunlop is an unassuming pioneer. But his problem-solving engineer's perspective and the single-minded dedication of a true agriculturalist make him the perfect candidate to reimagine the logistics of small-scale meat production. And this particular corner of U.S. food production is desperately in need of some reimagining.
The meat industry, like much else in U.S. agriculture, has consolidated rapidly over the last half-century. According to researchers at the University of Missouri, four giant companies -- Tyson, Cargill, Swift and Co., and National Beef Packing Co. -- produced 83.5 percent of U.S. beef as of 2007. Meanwhile, four companies -- Smithfield, Tyson, Cargill, and Swift & Co. -- controlled 66 percent of the pork industry, almost double the 34 percent market share they had in 1989. Likewise, the top four chicken and turkey producers controlled 58.5 percent and 55 percent of those markets, respectively.
The rising dominance of large, national-scale meat producers has made it increasingly difficult for operators serving local markets with meat produced on small and mid-sized farms to stay in business. High-volume production using industrial methods -- the disturbing, inhumane nature of which has been widely chronicled -- means that smaller meat producers cannot compete on price with the big guys.
Beyond price, small-scale operations also find themselves stymied by logistical hurdles created by the consolidated meat-production infrastructure. Any meat destined for sale must, by law, be slaughtered at a USDA-inspected facility -- a requirement that can be prohibitively costly for small producers. Many independent slaughterhouses have therefore been forced to close, leaving mom-and-pop livestock farmers with few if any options for turning their animals into legal-to-sell meat.
It is in this context that the mobile slaughterhouse on Lopez Island makes local slaughter available and affordable to small farmers. On this gorgeous, evergreen-covered island and its sister islands in the San Juan chain, a consortium of meat farmers formed the Island Grown Farmers Cooperative to organize the building of the mobile slaughterhouse; they also pooled resources to rent a central facility on the mainland for the final butchering and packing. The slaughterhouse, which looks from the outside like an average tractor-trailer, travels among the farms; farmers pay a fee for each animal they slaughter. A USDA inspector travels with the abattoir to certify that the meat it processes can be sold on the open market.
In the process of researching my new book about positive action in sustainable food, I found myself stationed alongside this unusual vehicle on the green lawn of Lopez Island Farm, watching as the slaughterhouse's manager and head butcher, Jim Wieringa, and his partner slaughtered and butchered one cow, four pigs, and 14 lambs. USDA inspector Jim Donaldson, a jolly bear of a man with a white beard, made notations on his clipboard, and meanwhile Dunlop loaded the discarded viscera into his front-end loader for transport to his increasingly fertile compost heap.
I'll spare you the gory details here (though they're included in the book), but I can say that as a former vegetarian I was surprised to find that watching the slaughter was minimally traumatic. It was all so routine -- so organized, controlled and exact -- and designed to include as little mess and suffering as possible. After finishing with each animal, the butchers sprayed the hanging carcass with a vinegar solution to kill bacteria and then attached it to special hooks that ran along a track in the ceiling into the truck's refrigerated portion. The truck was then ferried to the cooperative's processing facility in Bow, Washington, where the meat was further butchered and packed.
Dunlop's loyal customers pay a premium for his high-quality meat; even though a mobile facility is significantly less expensive to purchase and operate than an individual stationary slaughter facility for every farm, its low-volume processing of animals raised on pasture still means higher prices. The facility can process relatively few animals -- ten cows per day, for instance, compared to several hundred per hour in an industrial facility.
Despite such systematic limitations, the mobile slaughter concept is a rare remedy to the increasingly difficult situation small-scale meat producers face, and the concept has rapidly gained traction since Dunlop designed the first roving abattoir. He now sidelines as "a mobile slaughter engineering consultant" with a company called TriVan Truck Body to build more of these facilities. About a half-dozen mobile slaughterhouses were operating in the U.S. as of the summer of 2010.
"It's a good economic development," Dunlop told me. "The amount of money that went into this project to get it started... has been paid back many-fold." Not only does the mobile slaughterhouse help small farmers survive, it also enhances the local economy, bolsters the self-sufficiency and cohesion of the agricultural community, and makes higher quality, humanely raised meat more widely available.
Katherine Gustafson wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions for a just and sustainable world. Katherine is a freelance writer and editor based in the Washington, DC, area. Her first book, Change Comes to Dinner, about sustainable food, was published last week by St. Martin's Press.