Momentum behind small meat plants continues to grow in Colorado and throughout the West

Candace Krebs
The Ag Journal
“Meat-in” events, such as this one in Mead, Colorado, were held on March 20 in reaction to Governor Jared Polis declaring it a “Meat Out Day.” Conversely, the state’s agriculture department is aiming to capitalize on heightened awareness of food system limitations, generated by the viral pandemic, to create more grant funding opportunities for small meat processing facilities.

Just as Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’ “Meat Out Day” proclamation created an opportunity to promote meat across the state and beyond, a limited period of meat shortages early in the pandemic created an opportunity for the industry to enhance its meat-processing infrastructure and create more direct-marketing opportunities for ranchers.

Recent webinars focused on some of the new resources and programs propelled forward by concerns over meat supplies early in the disease outbreak.

In Colorado, Gov. Polis is allocating $312,000 to what the agriculture department calls a “move the needle” grant, intended to grow the state’s food and agriculture value chain, including small meat plants, according to Mark Gallegos, chief of inspection and consumer services at the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

More:Master irrigators share learning to conserve at Ogallala Aquifer Summit

Individual project funding is capped at $100,000, with completion required by December 31.

“Growth in Colorado’s food and agriculture value chain, especially relating to food manufacturing, can experience constraints and lack of funding at times, and this grant is designed to help mitigate those constraints and help with the expansion of value added projects,” Gallegos said in a recent webinar.

The funding will be distributed through a competitive grant application process administered through CDA’s market division.

More grants are likely as additional federal COVID relief aid gets rolled out in the coming weeks, he added.

Surrounding states are also funneling COVID relief toward building up additional small-scale livestock processing.

According to Rebecca Thistlethwaite, director of the Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network based at Oregon State University, 16 states have used CARES Act funds to start grant programs for small and mid-scale meat processors. Hundreds of plants benefitted from these funds for upgrades, new equipment or expanding cooler space.

At least three states — Oregon, Washington and Nebraska — are looking to start state meat inspection programs. Two more states — Texas and Nebraska — are looking at broadening custom-exempt sales or expanding the use of “herd-share” sales models.

Several pieces of federal legislation are also aimed at increasing marketing flexibility for small meat processors, Thistlethwaite added.

The DIRECT Act, introduced in the House, would reduce red tape by allowing state inspected meat to be sold nationally to customers who order online.

The PRIME Act, also introduced in the House, would amend the federal meat inspection program to allow sales of custom-exempt meat within states, subject to state laws.

Bills like the Strengthen Local Processing Act and the RAMP UP Act create new funding for state inspection cost-share programs, interstate shipping, HACCP validation support and career and technical training.

RAMP UP, in particular, is designed to support plants seeking to move to a higher level of inspection — for example, from custom-exempt to state inspected, or from state to federal inspection.

More:Meat-Out Day raising concerns for meat industry with growing trend to eat plant-based alternatives

During a recent webinar, Colorado State University food systems specialist Becca Jablonski said the university is planning some type of statewide “Meat Summit,” likely next January, to build on the momentum created by ongoing regulatory changes and new funding sources.

Jennifer Martin, an assistant professor of meat science at CSU, is now heading up a university initiative to coordinate resources and training for small meat processors across the state.

The full webinar, entitled “New Opportunities and Collaborations for Colorado's Meat Processing Sector,” is posted online on CSU’s Food Systems page (FoodSystems.colostate.edu.)