The Associated Press September 30, 2011, 4:13PM ET

Study: New England beef markets not yet feasible

The idea of slaughtering New England-raised cattle and selling the beef locally is based more on idealism than economic reality, says a report commissioned by the six states' agriculture departments.

The study was aimed at figuring out if the local foods movement, which has made inroads in getting more schools, hospitals and other institutions to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables, could be extended to beef. A big part of developing that market is getting those institutions to buy locally, and many are hesitant to pay a premium for local beef.

The New England Beef to Institution Marketing Study said distributors and food service companies will not spend money on locally processed beef until producers invest time and energy to develop the markets and until demand rises.

New England agriculture officials commissioned the study in the spring because some farmers have said they would prefer to send cattle to nearby slaughterhouses to sell locally produced beef and save on transportation costs. Officials also want to increase local food production to make the region more self-sufficient in case disasters ranging from massive snow storms to terrorist attacks make it impossible to bring in food.

But the region has few slaughterhouses equipped to process beef on a large scale.

Increasing local sources of ground beef for sale to schools and other institutions "is still largely an idealistic marketing strategy driven by interest groups" rather than by producers, processors or buyers, the report said.

Katherine Sims, founder and executive director of Green Mountain Farm to School Network, a Newport, Vt., broker between schools and farms, said schools are "not yet begging" for locally processed beef.

Money is a big issue, she said.

"Finding local beef that meets cafeteria budgets is the biggest challenge. It comes down to cost," Sims said.

The study's authors surveyed 431 institutions such as schools and school districts, colleges, universities and hospitals.

They found that such institutions are under cost pressures that may limit access to local sources of ground beef. The study said roadblocks to bringing local food to consumers include inadequate distribution, higher costs or perceived higher costs of local food, insufficient storage facilities, and little access to nearby beef processors.

In addition, the study found that even if demand were high for local slaughterhouses, it's not enough to warrant construction of new plants because the return on investment would be too low. Renovating slaughterhouses, however, could be an alternative, the study said.

Animals are typically slaughtered in the fall after grazing during the summer, resulting in uneven workflows and bottlenecks.

Initiatives to bring local food to school and universities have been successful, though much of the work has focused on local fruits and vegetables, the study said.

"Less energy has been put behind bringing locally grown meat to these populations," it said.

Jane Slupecki, a marketing representative at the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, said the study "will help open the doors" to efforts establishing cooperatives that would buy beef in bulk at reduced costs.

Farmers have a higher cost of production in Connecticut than in other states, she said, but schools are under pressure to keep costs down, she said.

"Those schools have to have lower prices," she said.

In addition, agriculture officials want to promote locally produced beef just as they boost locally grown fruits and vegetables. For example, New England dairy farmers could make money from dairy cattle that can be slaughtered for beef, but most of the approximately 71,000 head of cattle -- about one-third of the region's 216,100 dairy cows -- are sent to auctions out of state, "only to be sold back into our markets," the study said.

Buying local meat is not unheard of in New England, though it is limited. The study cited a health care facility and Middlebury College, both in Vermont, and the Green Mountain Farm to School, which has coordinated distribution of local beef for 12 schools and five senior centers in Vermont.

And a venture in Rhode Island coordinates 40 farms in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts to provide local food including beef to schools, hospitals, workplaces, restaurants and small grocery stores, the study said.

The goal is to bring down costs by establishing cooperative ventures.

"When we walk in the door with 35 potential donors, we have more leverage," Sims said.


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