THE CARNIVORE'S DILEMMA
WRITTEN BY ANN LINDEMANN
PHOTOS BY CANDICE NYANDO
Fresh from several victories (11,000 petition signatures garnered and a rezoning request delayed), obstacles remain for the sustainability of Wolf Pack Meats, Nevada's only fully USDA-certified meat processor. And this isn't just about one troubled abattoir; Wolf Pack is key to our access to local meat.
After decades of a supermarket mentality when we happily bought a pound of ground beef from Iowa and a couple of pork chops from Kansas, many of us have changed our mindset. Just like the fresh locally grown produce we relish, locally raised meat is now valued whether it's on the menu of a tony Reno restaurant or in the Great Basin Community Food Co-op freezer. We want to feel connected to our food and that means knowing that the juicy steak comes from a cow that was humanely raised and grass fed at a nearby ranch.
|Mike Holcomb, research aid and plant manager, outside Wolf Pack Meats|
In turn, small local ranchers are discovering a new, economically viable business model for the 21st century. However, in recent months that viability has been threatened as University of Nevada, Reno, officials look for ways to infuse money into the financially strapped institution. Under consideration is divestment of the school's interest in Wolf Pack Meats, which is the only USDA-certified, full-process slaughter, cut, and wrap facility in Nevada; the next closest facility to Northern Nevada is in Orland, Calif. (181 miles from Reno).
"Wolf Pack Meats can do it all under one roof," explains Fallon Rancher Norris Albaugh who uses the facility to process his purebred native Shorthorn cattle and Dorper sheep for retail sale. "My (liability) insurance (says) it would only cover me if the work was done at a USDA-inspected slaughter, cut, and wrap facility."
Also on the table is the possible rezoning and subsequent development of a 104-acre chunk of the university's 112-year-old, 1,049-acre Main Station Farm on McCarran Boulevard near Mill Street in Reno.
University officials insist the two issues have been erroneously entwined, but the hundreds who filled the Reno City Council chambers and the 11,000-plus who signed an online petition believe otherwise.
Until three years ago, Wolf Pack Meats served as a working lab for students in the university's meat science class. The students spent a semester learning first-hand the meat business from slaughter to cut and wrap.
"The only way to teach a student meat production is to see the entire process in a real business model and that's what Wolf Pack Meats did," explains Reno Rancher Wendy Baroli of Grow for Me Sustainable Farm (aka Girlfarm). "It wasn't teaching them to be butchers; it was teaching new farmers and ranchers what to look for and what to expect when they finally took their animals to market. It's such a jewel for education. It's a gift for students who want to be farmers and ranchers."
However, when the meat science professor retired, the university opted to terminate the class and a subsequent reorganization of the agricultural college ensued. Ron Pardini, interim dean of the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources, admits that perhaps the decision was made too hastily.
"I think there's still interest," he says. "I get letters from students and others who want to get trained in (meat science), but we are kind of out of that business now. My personal view is that we are seeing some real growth and interest in local meat and that Wolf Pack Meats could have an important role in future educational efforts."
After the meat science class ended, Wolf Pack Meats continued with a meat processing and retail operation under the UNR umbrella without a direct connection to the curriculum.
"The meat plant has been in existence since 1967," says University of Nevada, Reno, Interim President Marc Johnson. "We used to have a more comprehensive agriculture program than we do today. We don't do research or have classes in meat science at the meat plant — it is no longer vital to the mission of the university. Therefore, we need to reevaluate the university's subsidy of Wolf Pack Meats."
John Miller, a meat cutter, cuts meat in the processing room at Wolf Pack Meats
Johnson also points out that more than 80 percent of the volume that is processed at Wolf Pack comes from California producers.
"The complicating factor is that the plant continues to lose money," he says. "Since we are subsidizing this operation with research dollars allocated by the Nevada Legislature we are essentially using Nevada tax dollars to subsidize California producers."
Johnson contends that the university has no "particular desire to close Wolf Pack Meats," but rather find a way to discontinue its subsidy of the operation.
According to a university spokesperson, it's only been during the past 18 months that self-supporting operations have been attempted. The prior five years UNR sustained $566,833 of operational losses. By the end of 2011, Wolf Pack Meats was operating in the black with a balance of $9,255. These operating expenses do not include overhead costs such as lease and insurance payments, taxes, and administrative support.
Many believe that the self-supporting business model hasn't been allowed enough time to hit its stride, while others say it's part of the university's land grant designation as well as its mission and outreach to support agricultural programs and Wolf Pack Meats.
"You can't say it's a (business) loss," argues Ann Louhela, executive director of NevadaGrown, a nonprofit marketing entity for Nevada agriculture. "This is highly misleading. Wolf Pack Meats should be part of the college's mission."
Politics aside, the demise of Wolf Pack Meats could pose a real problem for small ranchers such as Norris Albaugh and Rob Holley who depend on the facility to safely process their grass-fed meat for retail purposes.
Both ranchers say their liability insurance companies insist on an all-inclusive, USDA-certified facility such as Wolf Pack Meats. However, insurance regulations are just part of why these two local ranchers, and many others, use Wolf Pack Meats.
Without Wolf Pack Meats, these ranchers would be forced to have their animals harvested at a slaughterhouse facility, then that meat would be transported to a cut and package facility — ultimately landing in retail and restaurant locations. They believe this multi-facility process threatens food safety.
"Every time you take a carcass from one facility and then load it on a truck and take it to another facility there is room for error," Albaugh explains.
Rob Holley, of Holley Family Farms in Dayton, concurs with Albaugh.
"Taking the animal from the slaughterhouse in Fallon and then transporting it to Reno ... the inspection process is broken," Holley says. "It's akin to evidence in a criminal case — where you can't attest to the chain of custody. And, unfortunately, when something goes wrong it falls back on me, the producer."
Holley and Albaugh both take pride in raising their grass-fed herds humanely and stress free. These animals, they say, basically only have one bad day.
Although a huge USDA-certified meat plant is slated to open near Yerington in 2013, these thoughtful small ranchers, who may only harvest 10 to 30 animals a year, don't believe it will serve their needs.
"Wolf Pack Meats gives small producers like myself individual attention and personalized care," Albaugh says. "I just don't think an operation like Walker River Meats will be able to provide that. At Wolf Pack Meats I'm not just a number, I'm a name."
Holley — who sells his grass-fed beef to several private chefs, a couple of restaurants, as well as Great Basin Community Food Co-op — praises Wolf Pack Meats' personal approach.
"The chefs can call Mike Holcomb (at Wolf Pack Meats) directly and order custom cuts," Holley says.
These ranchers are finding there is a great demand for their locally raised meat and consumers are willing to pay for it.
"We have been direct marketing our beef for seven years," Albaugh says. "I'd say there's been as much interest in the last six months as there has been in the last five years. People aren't just inquiring about the meat now, they are actually purchasing it."
Retail and Restaurant Perspective
There are many reasons why moving from a 500-square-foot facility to a 7,000- square-foot facility is beneficial for the Great Basin Community Food Co-op in Reno. But, it's the cooler that really excites Co-founder Amber Sallaberry.
"In our old facility we had a little tiny section of the freezer for meat and we had to replenish it hourly," Sallaberry explains. "In the new space we will have 300 times more space for frozen meat. There's a huge demand for local meat."
Chef Mark Estee has been meeting this demand in his popular restaurants: Moody's in Truckee and Campo in Reno. Both restaurants feature locally raised beef, pork, and lamb on the menu. (See related story in Chef's Table column.)
"I'm really interested in supporting local ranchers and keeping the money in the community," Estee says. "The meat tastes better and consumers are willing to pay for it."
Another aspect of the university's agricultural conundrum is the proposed rezoning of a 104-acre parcel of the 1,049-acre Main Station Farm owned by UNR. City of Reno officials considered a proposal by university leaders to rezone the parcel "to help protect the value of the parcel and potential future development."
However, after a huge public outcry in December 2011, Reno council members opted to table the decision for 90 days. Members of the opposition reasoned that the proposed rezoning for industrial use could further erode the mission of the 112-year-old teaching farm and close the door to the possibility of a relevant agriculture program that embraces the demand for locally produced food.
Wolf Pack Meats resides at the north end of the parcel in question and some believe if it was rezoned and, thus, developed, the possibly incompatible new neighbors would complain and the facility would be in danger of closing.
Although university leaders disagreed with these points, they did support the continuance.
At press time, university leaders were in discussion with Wolf Pack Meats stakeholders. Options on the table include purchase, lease, or the formation of a local meat co-op. University leaders sent out a request for proposal and, according to Dean Pardini, the Board of Regents could vote on it as early as March of this year. Pardini says he also is gathering regional stakeholders to discuss the vision and direction of the college and its curriculum.
"We are taking a positive view," Pardini says. "We got kind of disconnected because there were some political issues, but we are trying to connect to the agricultural community to see where the college should go."
Rancher and Local Food Movement Activist Wendy Baroli says in the end there is indeed a silver lining.
"I'm not sure if we are going to be able to change anything with Wolf Pack Meats or the university rezoning the parcel," she admits. "But what (this process) tells me is that there is a huge movement that is willing to come together. It tells me that we can have a viable economy based on raising healthy, local food."
Ann Lindemann is a Lake Tahoe-based writer whose work is frequently featured in edible Reno Tahoe, as well as a variety of other regional and national publications.