Saturday mornings at a farmers market can usually be described by a single word – busy. Customers are searching for fruits and vegetables from their local farmer to cook in the coming week. A growing number of customers are now leaving their local market with another locally grown product – fresh meat. The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Meat and Poultry Inspection Division has seen the number of farmers classified as meat and poultry handlers increase by more than 63,000 percent since 2002.
“Most farmers markets across the state have a farmer or two offering meat products,” said Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. “Consumer demand seems to be the driving force behind the growth. Consumers want fresh, wholesome and local products. In 2002, only one meat handler was permitted by the department. Now that number is 640 and rising.”
All meat and poultry handlers must be registered and inspected by an inspector with the Meat and Poultry Inspection Division. “When a farmer calls our office requesting a meat-handler registration license, we immediately assign that request to one of our inspection staff who will make contact with the farmer and schedule an on-site visit,” said Alan Wade, director. “The inspector will visit the farm to make sure all meat and poultry products are properly marked, labeled and wholesome, storage units such as freezers and coolers are clean, operating properly, and only used for the inspected products for sale, adequate pest-control measures are taken, sanitary conditions and general housekeeping is acceptable and any damaged or returned product is properly disposed of. We also answer all their questions and provide valuable information in reference to food safety practices in relationship to handling, transporting and storing.”
Farmers must take their animals to a USDA- or NCDA&CS-approved processing facility for slaughter and processing. All animals are inspected onsite before and after slaughter as well as during processing. After a meat handler receives a registration license, he is placed under a surveillance protocol program administered by the Meat and Poultry Inspection Division. Annually, inspectors randomly visit about 20 percent of the farms and randomly interview an additional 20 percent by phone.
Baldwin Beef of Yanceyville was one of the early meat handlers in North Carolina. Mac Baldwin and his wife, Peggy, along with son Craig and grandsons Scott, Patrick and Stephen, maintain 850 Charolais cows on 800 acres of land the family owns and 2,800 acres of leased land. His cows are grass-fed to slaughter and processed into kitchen-ready cuts.
Before venturing into direct selling, Baldwin provided cows to Laura’s Lean Beef company. “One day we couldn’t get 19 big steers onto to the truck for delivery,” Baldwin said. “It was then I tried my hand at selling the meat myself.”
Baldwin started small, with just a garage and a freezer. Then with the help of the website, customer testimonials, repeat customers that visit Baldwin at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market and a deal with Whole Foods grocery stores in North and South Carolina, he is slaughtering 500 cattle a year. “The farmers market was the best place for us to get our feet wet and gain a loyal customer following,” Baldwin said. He still has room for growth. “I estimate there are a least 2.5 million customers about an hour’s drive from the farm,” he said.
Iles’ Cattle Farm in Littleton has been in the meat handler program for only a few years and already has a steady and loyal customer base at the Roanoke Rapids Farmers Market the first Saturday of the month. Owners Dan and Stephanie Iles also use Facebook to reach out to their customers directly. This past year, the Iles had the best year yet in sales, and they hope that their business continues to grow.
The Iles family was in the dairy business for 78 years before switching to Red Devon beef cows. They switched from dairy to direct sale on their 100-acre farm of grass-fed beef, pasture-raised pork and free-range eggs. They also provide feeder pigs to local producers. The Iles hope to grow their business by getting their products into local grocery stores and by expanding with online and mail orders. Right now their processor slaughters and packages about five to six cows for them annually.
“Processing costs are one of the major expenses the farmer has,” said Wade. “Farmers are also looking for processors that can provide more value-added processing to their products. Most would like to market bacon, hot dogs and country ham, and many small processing facilities used by farmers are not providing these services. Matkins Meat in Gibonsonville, the Iles’ processor, does provide a few value-added products, including bratwursts and sausage. State and federal laws do not allow farmers to add any ingredients or alter the packaged meat received from the processing facility in any way.”
Eight veterinary medical officers and five compliance officers within the Meat and Poultry Inspection Division are located across the state and ready to assist farmers that want to become meat handlers. A complete list of farmers that are meat handlers, as well as rules and regulations for meat handlers can be found online.
To request a meat and/or poultry registration license contact the Meat and Poultry Inspection Division at 919-707-3180.