In a time when political agreement has become more of an idea than a reality, Alachua County’s proposed meat processing facility has proven an unlikely unifier.
The main stakeholders are small, local ranchers who want to process their animal products to then sell to market; a slaughterhouse that is low cost, nearby and well-regulated is within their interests.
The facility would cost $2.5 million, part of $52.25 million allocated to Alachua County under the American Rescue Plan Act. While the decision isn’t finalized, the facility would be built in the Newberry Environmental Park near a planned wastewater treatment plant, which would also manage the facility’s waste.
John Trower, a small-scale farmer, is confident the new facility would benefit his ranch of 68 grass-fed cattle.
“I think it’s needed — there’s a lot of processors you can’t get to here,” Trower said. “I’ve got cattle on wait now for nine months to have them processed.”
The new facility would hopefully relieve that bottleneck, Trower said. But what’s most important is assurance that his product comes back clean.
With larger industrial slaughterhouses, Trower encountered a common problem: Anything could happen to their meat — from receiving unwanted antibiotics to getting a completely different animal.
Trower once endured the long lines to process 900-pounds of dressed beef, only to receive a mass of soured beef. After he complained, he later learned the meat had sat at approximately 62 degrees for two days, which resulted in two slaughterhouse employees losing their jobs. He couldn’t sell it, let alone eat it.
“I had to pay to have it processed just to feed it to the dogs,” Trower said. “I hated to waste it.”
With four meat-packing plants controlling 85% of the beef market, small-scale ranchers like Trower often have no other option than to go through these few middlemen if they want to sell their product.
But support doesn’t stop at the ranchers.
Consumers, environmental groups and even animal rights advocates largely agree this is the right step forward.
Although morally opposed to meat consumption, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, issued a statement in support of the plan, but on the condition the facility is built with glass walls.
PETA reiterated its views using the Paul McCartney quote, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, no one would eat meat.”
But for small-scale ranchers, a local slaughterhouse is highly appealing for many reasons.
To process their animal products, most small ranchers must ship them long distances, often out of state. This requires high transportation costs, which results in greater greenhouse gas emissions and more stress on the animal.
Transportation was just one of the many problems Bill Bryson faced before he had to downsize his cattle ranch in 2020. When he started Aquilla Farms in Waldo, he had around 100 head of cattle, which had to be processed before being sold to market.
“You’d never even be guaranteed you were getting back the animal you gave them,” Bryson said. “It was a sloppy operation and so it just was unreliable and costly as well.”
When consumers seek local, grass-fed beef, it’s hard for ranchers like Bryson to provide when they don’t know what’s in the meat they get back.
These problems made it impossible for Bryson to do business.
“I lost money every year from 2014 to 2020,” he said. “ I gave it everything I had.”
Bryson eventually had to shut down his farm and rent out his land to another small rancher, but he’s still excited about the proposed slaughterhouse, he said.
“[Who] I think is going to most benefit locally from a local processing plant are the people like me,” he said, “and all the way down to potentially even people who might just raise one or two cows for their own family.”
Large facilities tend to process hundreds and sometimes thousands of animals daily; the facility proposed by Alachua County commissioners would process a maximum of 25 animals per day, according to Commissioner Anna Prizzia, who spearheaded the proposal.
Since her press release Feb. 9, Prizzia has fielded questions from concerned citizens about the facility, often responding in detail.
Because the small-scale slaughterhouse is expected to directly employ 8-12 people, there will be more accountability, Prizzia wrote in an email. The jobs created would be highly skilled and more emphasis would be placed on safety as compared to industrial facilities.
Prizzia also plans to partner with Santa Fe College and UF/IFAS researchers to offer teaching opportunities on waste reduction in the meat-packing industry.
As an opportunity for public comment, the County Commission will discuss the proposal in detail at a meeting April 4.
So far, the most common complaints among residents have concerned animal welfare and the cruelty of eating meat altogether. For Prizzia, the meat-processing facility is a necessary evil.
“I sincerely hope that people do reduce their meat consumption,” Prizzia wrote in an email to a constituent. “Regardless of any shrinking meat consumption, the scale and quantity that this facility would generate will never exceed demand for meat in our region.”
It’s a matter of human equity as well, said Betsy Riley, the Alachua County sustainability manager. A local, cheaper slaughterhouse would benefit small-scale farmers of color, who are disproportionately affected by swings in the market, she said.
Alachua County is committed to keeping Black farmers on their land, Riley said.
But when the market does swing, as it did in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the food supply can be negatively affected for everyone.
County officials hope the new facility would add more support, so that if one part of the system fails, others are there to back it up. The market is more susceptible to shocks with only a few large companies keeping it afloat, Prizzia said.
Though the facility is still in the planning phase, voices from all sides have converged on the issue, making it clear Alachua County understands there’s serious room for change in the meat-processing industry.
Contact Jack Lemnus at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JackLemnus.
Jack Lemnus is a fourth-year journalism major and rural Alachua reporter. He loves to practice his Spanish, fill his bookshelves and gatekeep what he considers underground music.