Humboldt County's pigs recently got a stay of execution, of sorts. A blessing for them, perhaps, but a whole trough of trouble for the many local hog raisers who lost the only nearby slaughterhouse capable of turning pigs into retail-worthy pork.
Humboldt County is home to a host of hog raisers, backyard farmers and small-scale ranchers who raise pigs for their families, friends, local grocery stores and restaurants. Those hogs are about to get fat, as Redwood Meat Co., based in Eureka, recently decided to stop processing hogs.
The decision to halt slaughtering pigs apparently came after a March notice from the United States Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, which threatened to suspend Redwood Meat Co.'s federal certification after inspectors observed lambs being improperly slaughtered there.
"We proffered a plan to [the USDA] as a result of our suspension," Redwood Meat Co. plant manager Ryan Nylander said, adding that the plan includes increased monitoring of "critical control points" at the facility. After a 90-day verification process, during which time the company is continuing to process lambs, cattle and sheep, Nylander said it "will start entertaining the thought of doing pigs." That means costly improvements, including a hog machine and a "knock box," where the pigs are slaughtered. Though hogs were a "relatively small" part of its business, Nylander said he expects the company to process them again in the future.
A USDA spokeswoman said that Redwood Meat Co.'s hog processing had not received any sort of disciplinary action. "It didn't stop because of something that was wrong," she said.
But stop it did, and it seems many of the county's pork producers don't know it yet.
Sara Bleser sells a lot of pork to Wildberries and some directly to her customers. She has been raising pigs at her Mountainwise Ranch on the top of Kneeland for about three years. She would truck them live to Redwood Meat Co., where they would be cut and wrapped and delivered back to her in a USDA-certified freezer truck. When she called about two weeks ago to schedule a drop off, she was told the company wouldn't take them.
"My biggest problem is the lack of communication skills," Bleser said. "I don't have a clear understanding about what's going on over there."
Bleser processes two to three pigs a month typically, and now she's deciding whether to haul her pigs down to Petaluma to be processed. There's about a two-week window where her heritage breed pigs are ripe for slaughter — wait too long and they'll get too fat, making the cuts less than ideal, she said. But hauling pigs south has a host of problems, not the least of which is the cost of the nearly 500-mile roundtrip.
Those costs will likely have to be passed onto the customer, an idea that Bleser cringes at. One of the goals of her business, which she says has been growing steadily to try and meet the county's demand for high quality pork, is to provide healthy meat for a good price. "I have this desire to have quality food for myself and my family, and through that I found the ability to share that with the community," she said, adding that people around here appreciate food that's raised, processed and sold locally. "I enjoy having a hands-on approach and knowing exactly where my food comes from."
Customers want locally raised organic meat, according to Arcata Co-op meat department manager Ralph Smith, who added that the grocery store has a hard time keeping pork in stock because of its popularity. "Everyone keeps asking," he said. "The demand is there."
While animal rights activists may sense a victory, Bleser said a longer trip is harder on animals headed to slaughter. "A 250-mile journey in the back of a trailer is really stressful on an animal," she said, "and it's debatable how it affects the product."
The trip back is no peach, either. Bleser said she would need a freezer truck to haul back the meat she intends to sell to fulfill both the USDA's and Wildberries' standards. "I'm a rancher and a farmer. I'm not really a freezer truck commercial driver."
Despite her recent frustrations, Bleser said Redwood Meat Co. has been a valuable community resource. "I'm hugely appreciative of what Redwood [Meat Co.] does for this county," she said. "Not every county has a USDA-approved processor. We're super fortunate. It's just scary that that might be taken away."
Redwood Meat Co. wasn't the only place to get a hog chopped up. It was simply the only USDA-certified facility. Any animal being sold to the public, whether retail or directly from the farm's freezer, has to be killed and butchered at an inspected plant. There are mobile butchers and others around the area that offer the same services for people who are only raising livestock (or collecting game) for personal consumption.
"Redwood Meats, in general, has proven to be an excellent company that cares about the producers locally," said Jeff Stackhouse, the livestock and natural resources advisor for the UC California Cooperative Extension. But a loss of hog processing could hurt the small-ranching industry and the local economy. "[Hog processing] is something that the local producers really need, the 4-H kids really need," he said. "That's something the community could potentially be hurt from."
Redwood Meat Co. will still process goats, sheep and cattle, and Stackhouse listed some of the other North State USDA-approved processors: Belcampo in Yreka pretty much does everything, he says, and "they're also fairly well known for being expensive"; Johansen's Meat Processing in Orland takes sheep and beef; Superior Farms in Dixon takes only sheep and goats; and Wadsworth, "in Glenn County somewhere," does hogs. Stackhouse said prices at different facilities vary widely.
There being relatively few processors, Redwood Meat Co. is understandably important to ranchers beyond the borders of Humboldt County. The Mendocino Board of Supervisors sent a letter earlier this year supporting a bill introduced by Assemblyman Wes Chesbro that would continue to exempt livestock carriers from restrictions on certain portions of Highway 101. "It is extremely common for these trailers to travel the U.S. Highway 101 route from Mendocino County to Humboldt County where there is a USDA-certified meat processing facility," wrote chair of the board John Pinches. "The continuation of this exemption would allow our County's ranchers to keep their livelihoods without the added stress of an additional regulation to think about."
While small ranchers often raise hogs year-round, Stackhouse said summer months — June to August, particularly — see the most hogs sent to slaughterhouses. It's also fair season, when youth peddle their livestock at auctions. Stackhouse said kids who raise hogs won't be directly impacted by the lack of a local processor, but it does complicate things.
"This is more felt by the buyers or the people running the fair," Stackhouse said. "[Kids] sell the animal to local businesses that support the youth for above-and-beyond market value. They're really essentially giving youth money for college funds and supporting them in their willingness to work. They might not care about the livestock industry at all."
It's the fair board or the buyers, depending on the arrangement, that are responsible for getting the animal to a slaughterhouse and telling the processor how they want it cut and wrapped. "The kid puts the hog on a truck and trailer and the kid gets a check and it's out of the child's hands."
Terry Coltra, president of the Friends of Redwood Acres, said this year's youth auction at the Best of Humboldt Fair was more difficult. The fair had to hire a livestock hauler to transport pigs sold during the auction to Petaluma between 5 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. on the morning of June 24 at an additional cost of $800, which comes out of the junior livestock auction's budget, he said. The realization that they wouldn't be able to process hogs locally came up just before the fair, on top of everything else. "The fair in itself is a task to put on," he said, but "we were able to get through it. I think more than anything it's going to affect all kinds of production around locally."
Smith mainly stocks the Arcata Co-op's large meat department with pork from Alexander Farm in Crescent City, supplementing it with hogs he buys from 4-Hers at the local fairs. Not this year though — he'd begun to hear rumors that Redwood Meat Co. wouldn't be processing hogs any longer. "I didn't buy one just because I'd heard that," Smith said. "So, all I bought was lamb."