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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Northern Beef Packers hopes to ride the sustainable farming, local foods wave

Construction workers are putting the finishing touches on the Northern Beef Packers plant in Aberdeen for an opening in early 2012.

Journalists on food and agriculture are watching developments which trend away from corporate-based, industrialized agriculture. The market for locally grown food coming from smaller-sized farming operations has become significant.  The USDA reports that food which is locally produced and sold through farmers markets and specialty stores was a $4.8 billion business in 2008 and is projected to reach $7 billion this year.  Driven by reports on the health problems of obesity, diabetes, food-borne illnesses, reactions to chemicals and anti-biotics, some prominent food distributors are beginning to promote healthier, locally-raised food to their customers. New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman recently reported on a letter a beef distributor wrote to his customer-chefs that advocated the better flavor contained in what is called non-commercial beef.  A distinction is made between industrial-produced beef and that coming from smaller, controlled operations where the beef is not fed with chemicals and anti-biotics in confinement feeding operations.  The Times also reports on a number of meat markets opening in New York City which handle the locally produced, non-industrialized beef, and the emergence of sustainable farm operations as a force in the marketplace.  

Commercial farming has been profitable of late largely because of the diversion of corn from livestock feed into the production of ethanol.   Consumers are experiencing very significant rises in food prices and are becoming much more aware and concerned about the quality of food available to them. Industrial-raised meat is dependent on hormones to stimulate the fast and cheap growth of meat and on antibiotics to control disease in confinement-raised animals. 

Evidence is mounting that practices associated with industrial agriculture are dangerous and endangered.  Monsanto's Roundup weed killer is spurring nature to develop strains of weeds which are immune to the herbicide and are unusually aggressive when they establish themselves in crop fields.  In response to questions raised about health dangers in the genetic-modified crops designed to be grown in Roundup-applied fields, scientists say they frankly don't know, but there are some indicators of health and nutrition concerns that need to be investigated.  Many foreign countries have banned  genetically-modified crops from importation.  

A trend away from industrial-produced meat and poultry is spear-headed by quest for more flavorful and healthy food among gourmands.  They have created a market for heritage plants and animals.  Burpee's seed company now features seeds from old-line tomato plants, which chefs and food-crafters say are much more flavorful, nutritious, and satisfying.  This Thanksgiving, Huffington Post published a feature on old breeds of turkeys that retain a flavor that has been bred out of the commercial Broad Breasted Whites, which were created for production in confinement cages inside buildings.  The heritage breeds are raised outside, are much slower growing, and are not fed hormones, anti-biotics, or chemically-processed feed.  Food bloggers wrote about where the heritage breeds were available, and reported on how accessible they were.  One story pointed out that orders for a heritage turkey for Thanksgiving had to be placed by August and cost $125 to $150 per bird.   In some cases, they were delivered live.  

I've read other stories by my farm-writer colleagues that tell of people who sell chickens and eggs produced by "kitchen flocks. The birds are old-line breeds that, in addition to being fed grains, are allowed to roam and scratch for food outside.  These, too, are pricey, but capture the tastes and flavors that have been bred out of the commercial versions of the birds.

Pork produced by animals kept  outside is also becoming available.

I would be the first to caution that not everything that claims to be raised organically and naturally is necessarily good.  As a living history re-enactor (my period was the Civil War), I was involved in an event at which we were serving a banquet of food raised and cooked as it would have been in the 1860s.  A woman in our group found some chickens she said were "organically" raised outside.  My job was to cook them in Dutch ovens on wood coals, a method of cooking that is generally flavorful and interesting.  Those chickens were dreadful.  They were tough and stringy and made one of the re-enactors comment that they made one realize what kind of shit our ancestors had to ingest, at times, to survive.  The person who saved the day was E.W. from up in Jamestown who had brined a deer he shot and roasted a haunch of venison over wood coals, basted with a sauce of currants picked along the James River.  That was elegant.  

Heritage, naturally produced foods have to be raised with an objective of quality, and quality takes a lot more attention and work to  achieve in more natural settings than in confinement operations.  A good farmer can produce products that are, indeed, more flavorful, nutritious, and tender than their industrial counterparts, and the sustainable trend is part of a revival of agriculture as opposed to agribusiness, for which the bottom line is the controlling criteria.

That leads to the prospects for Northern Beef Packers, the new packing plant in Aberdeen which is preparing to go into operation early in 2012.  The Brown County Democrats hosted a company representative, Richard Benda, recently at one of its Dollar-A-Month Club lunches.  Many of the Democrats active in northern East River politics are in the beef business and are interested in the prospects that a local packer could provide for them.  The Northern Beef Packers is of great interest because it would offer a local, convenient market for their beef, make them less dependent on the corporate whims of the big three beef packers in the U.S., Tyson, Cargill and JBS SA (headquartered in Brazil) which control almost 90 percent of the beef production in the U.S.  In addition to the economic advantages NBP could provide for regional producers, cattle growers see advantages for them of using the land and local feed supplies toward raising a higher-quality product.  

The development of NBP has a shaky history.  The idea for a regional plant often got bogged down by competing schemes and schemers who had little moxy in how to get a beef business going and made promises they were unable to keep.   However, people in the cattle business were optimistic because NBP had hooked up with a distributor of high quality beef, Premium Angus Gold, and had a market for its product once the firm was up and running, which is the biggest factor in a proposed packing plant.  A place to sell the beef produced is, obviously, essential to the prospects of success.  

 One afternoon at a Democratic fund-raiser, a man who operates a prominent cattle auction in our region told me he just heard that Premium Angus Gold had backed out its arrangement with NBP.  Apparently the organization grew frustrated at the many delays and the legal and business snarls that the plant kept encountering.  Since that time the plant has been taken over by investors from Korea, and its bills from contractors and its county taxes have all been  paid.  And Mr. Benda said that the plant is reconnected with Premium Angus Gold and is aiming to take advantage of the premium beef market.

When NBP buys a load of cattle, the purchase will include detailed breeding and feeding records for each head.  In other words the entire life history of each head brought in for slaughter can be tracked.  This information is part of the quality control, and the company can identify the origins of the best quality beef.  That information will also be used to help producers in striving to produce consistent and dependable quality.  

The firm lists the following USDA Certified Beef Programs and Brands in what it will offer to consumers: 
  •     South Dakota Certified Beef
  •     South Dakota Certified Natural Beef
  •     Northern Beef Packers Premium Black Angus Beef
  •     Northern Beef Packers Premium Beef
  •     Northern Beef Packers Grass-fed and Pasture-fed beef (with enough customer interest)
Involvement in these high-grade programs will extend its ability to produced boxed beef of superior, dependable quality, also.  The business plan is aiming high.  This is, in part, because Japan and Korea are among the biggest importers of premium quality beef and the Korean backers of the plant know that potential.

If all goes as planned, South Dakotans will have a value-added enterprise in their state and beef consumers will have options that is emerging from the sustainable, local production movement.  And its success will provide significant economic growth for Aberdeen and Brown County.

You will know the plant is a success when Tyson, Cargill, or JBS SA think it is offering significant competition and offer to buy it out.   However, consumers of good beef and advocates of a healthy agriculture wish NBP success in making its plans work.  


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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States