Direct marketing meat from your farm animals can be very hard work, but it is an excellent way to promote your farm. Furthermore, understanding and viewing the end product will help you become a better farmer as you will be able to adjust your management, feeding strategies, and genetics.
Insurance is a must for all aspects of life and should be mandatory for conducting business. It is highly recommended that farmers selling meat from their farm animals along with other commodities carry at least $1 million of liability insurance or carry the amount of insurance as per the advice of a licensed insurance provider. Your local and/or personal insurance agent can help you find a policy that works for your needs.
USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)
Congress passed the Federal Meat Inspection Act in 1906 creating a law that mandated all meat intended for interstate commerce must be inspected by the government prior to sale. he main goal of meat inspection is to help create a wholesome product for human consumption.
There are four main requirements for meat inspection;
1) mandatory pre-mortem inspection
2) mandatory inspection of every carcass
3) monitoring sanitary standards established for each slaughterhouse and meat processing plant
4) authorized the USDA – Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to monitor meat processing facilities.
In addition, the USDA-FSIS oversees the humane handling and slaughter of every animal that is on the property of the meat processor. There are no exceptions to this law, regardless of the number of animals or the size of operation.
Note, not all meat processors are USDA inspected; some are custom processors. These processors will harvest and fabricate your animal/carcass and then stamp all the packages as “Not for Sale”. These products are intended to be consumed by the owner of the animal. Custom processed meats cannot legally be sold, regardless of size of operation or number of animals.
Choosing a Processor
Choosing a meat processor can be very challenging. Often farmers find the closest meat processor to their farm, only to find out they are not USDA inspected.
Obviously, proximity is one of the main criteria, but sheep and goat farmers need to visit USDA inspected facilities:
1) When visiting, pay close attention to the facility/building and the parking lot; do they look to be in good condition? The condition of the building and parking lot can indicate how the meat processor pays attention to detail.
2) Upon entering the building, how does the place smell? Meat processing facilities have a typical smell which is normal, but foul, pungent aromas are not and can indicate sanitation issues, which will affect the shelf-life of your product or worse a food poisoning/safety issue.
3) Some USDA inspected facilities have a retail meat case; pay attention to the cuts within the case, as this will be the quality of your retail cuts.
Most importantly, is the willingness of the meat processor to work with you. Schedule a meeting with the meat processor and discuss your intentions, goals, and even the basics of your business model. Ask to make sure all areas are inspected, i.e. the harvest (kill floor), carcass fabrication, and grinding need to be inspected. There have been incidences where an animal was harvested under USDA inspection, but the fabrication and grinding was not, thus the products could not be legally sold as they lost the mark of inspection once they entered a non-inspected process. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse, this is why it is important to discuss your goals and intentions with the meat processor.
Working With a Meat Processor
Working with a meat processor can be very intimidating, but open communication between the farmer and the processor is a key to success. Farmers often say that the meat processor is speaking English, but they do not understand what is being said. Meat processors, like most professions, have their own language and forget that not everyone understands the lingo. It is the responsibility of both the farmer and the meat processor to make sure that all parties understand. Do not be afraid to ask questions.
Below are a few phrases meat processors say:
1) Hot Carcass Weight – the carcass weight taken immediately after harvest, normally before the carcass goes into the cooler and/or rigor.
2) Dressing Percentage - the percentage difference between the live weight and the hot carcass weight. Typically, sheep will have an average dressing percentage of 50%, whereas goats may only dress 45%. This percentage is only an average and can be affected by anything influencing the live weight but not the hot carcass weight, such as an unshorn lamb, gut-fill, horns, etc.
3) Shrink - The amount of the carcass weight lost due to evaporative cooling. Meat is approximately 70% to 75% water and a carcass can lose as much as 3% to 5% in the first 24 hours immediately after harvest. The shrink tends to be higher in sheep and can be over 10% loss in goats due a limited fat cover.
4) Cutting Loss – The amount of fat and bone removed from the carcass and/or retail cuts.
5) Yield – The amount of retail cuts and ground product in relationship to the live weight or carcass weight.
The meat processor will ask you how you want your animal to be cut up or fabricated, while others will have a “cut sheet” of the types of retail cuts they offer. This can be the most intimidating aspect of merchandising your own meats. Farmers need to educate themselves on this aspect of the business and can contact the Kentucky Sheep and Goat Council, their local county Cooperative Extension Agent, or the state meat specialist for help.
Sheep and goat farmers that want to sell at Farmer’s Markets or road-side stands need to have their meats vacuum packaged. Vacuum packaging or low oxygen packaging is the removal of air prior to package being heat sealed. This type of packaging is the best protection against freezer burn and will help ensure flavor consistency from one package to the next. In addition, vacuum packaging in clear plastics allows the consumers to see the product prior to purchasing. Farmers should communicate to their customers that the vacuum will be broken upon the thawing of frozen vacuum packages and that refreezing these package is not advisable.
Labels on packages are the main way to convey information about your product to consumers. Basic/generic labels contain the weight of the retail cut, price per pound, total price, use by date, and inspection legend. Farmers may want to add the farm name and art work. However, the labels need to be approved by the USDA when claims are added; e.g. environmentally friendly, no added hormones or antibiotics, lower fat, etc. The meat processor can be a valuable ally in creating a legal label to place on your packages.
Selling Your Meat
Selling meat from your farm animals will become another part-time to full-time job. Farmer’s Markets are the most popular venues to sell your retail cuts. In Kentucky, it is advisable to sell at only registered Farmer’s Markets and Road-Side Stands. The Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s Farmer’s Market page has all the information you need to sell within the Commonwealth
Others may envision selling to a grocery store (chain), restaurant, and/or a local school district. This can be a major challenge as you need to have a consistent supply and/or a consistent supply of the more desirable cuts (loins and racks). In addition, these entities may require additional food safety programs that go beyond traditional USDA inspection. This will greatly reduce the number of meat processors you can work with as not all meat processors have these additional food safety programs in place.
Selling Goat Meat
The majority of Americans have not eaten goat meat and may not be willing to purchase your product. Currently, the market appears to be the ethnic market of Hispanics and Middle Easterners. These groups have moved to the USA, but still want foods from their homelands, and goat meat was a traditional food. However, they may want to purchase the whole carcass rather than individual cuts or may want the entire carcass cut into one inch cubes. Moreover, they may want a certain type of animal, such a small kid or a mature billy. Do not be afraid to work with the leaders or trusted individuals within these communities to meet their needs. In addition, become familiar with the ethnic holiday calendar to better prepare your farm for the demand.