Despite an increase in customers during the pandemic, Clark County meat producers looking to expand their business are struggling against a lack of local processing facilities and the high cost of farmland.
“Meat-packing problems and grocery store scarcity, it’s been great for us,” said Jocelyn Stauffer of Windy River Livestock. Stauffer and her husband, Will, have raised beef cattle on 50 acres in Clark County since 2019. Their sales have doubled every year. “My husband thinks we’ll double again this year,” she said.
Will Stauffer attributes concerns raised by E. coli outbreaks to an increase in demand for locally grown products. He said he recently overheard a child at the Vancouver Farmers Market ask his mom how many animals are in a package of ground beef. For the Stauffers, the answer is one animal. However, for E. coli tracing purposes, he said, the ground beef at a grocery store came into contact with 1,500 animals at the facility where it was processed.
James McPhee and his wife, Kimberly, started their farm in Clark County in 2015 with three cows, four sheep and some garden beds on 5 acres. Since then, they’ve expanded to 300 to 350 acres of grazing land and hundreds of head of cattle.
In May of 2020, James McPhee was interviewed for a story in The Columbian. At that time, he said that his telephone was ringing all day long with new customers seeking locally raised meat. The steady increase in business hasn’t stopped.
“It has not slowed down,” he said, “because of COVID and some other exposures to large meat packers, it brought to light how fragile the food chain is.” He said four meat-packing companies control 85 percent of the conventional meat market. If employees get sick, the whole supply chain shuts down — leaving empty shelves at grocery stores.
“People started to reconsider where they get meat. Our process is less affected by the COVID,” he said. In addition, he said he has found that Clark County residents like to support local family farms. “Once people realize how easy it is to support a local farm, they get hooked,” McPhee said.
Jim Kunetz of Greene Jungle Farm has raised livestock in Clark County for 12 years. He grows Animal Welfare-approved, pasture-raised, grass-fed beef on his 30-acre farm in Ridgefield.
“We decided when we chose to raise beef that we would focus on the health of the animal and the health of the soil, because that influences the health of the meat, which affects our health,” he said. “It’s not rocket science to know if you take care of the soil, you take care of the animal.”
Business has been good for Greene Jungle.
“We have a steady supply of customers,” Kunetz said.
Increased interest has led to more business, but Clark County meat producers noted two constraints to growing their small family farms: lack of local processing facilities and the high cost of land.
Meat producers who sell steaks, ground beef, or any other cuts of meat are required by law to process their animals at a USDA facility. Clark County doesn’t have one of these facilities, so meat producers transport their animals hours away to places like Springfield, Ore., for processing.
In addition, the small number of facilities means reservations must be made at least a year in advance.
“One of the issues in our county is that smaller producers have difficulty finding a processing facility,” said Zorah Oppenheimer, district manager for the Clark County Conservation District. CCD purchased a mobile poultry processing unit to assist local farmers. Years ago, the district looked into buying a mobile processing unit for livestock, but its $200,000 price tag made it cost prohibitive.
At McPhee Farms, James McPhee offers an alternative for his buyers. Under state and federal law, animals can be processed by a mobile processing unit if the customer buys the whole animal. McPhee sells shares of whole animals to customers and then helps them arrange for processing their share into cuts of meat through a mobile processor.
McPhee estimates that 60 percent of his new customers never bought an animal directly from a farm. He’s become a specialist in walking new customers through the transition from buying cuts of meat at the grocery store every week to buying animals directly from a farmer once a year.
McPhee prefers the mobile processing because his animals are processed on site and don’t have to endure the stress of traveling long distances. His customers use Morgan Kemper of Kemper’s Mobile farm slaughtering. He said he believes Kemper is the best because he uses clean and humane methods.
Mobile processors are also scarce in Clark County, however, and McPhee’s customers must schedule a year ahead. McPhee plans to open his own butcher shop in the near future to deal with the issue.
Land a challenge
The other major constraint on growth for beef business in Clark County is the high cost of land. “The cost of land in Clark County is a problem,” said Kunetz. He bought his farm 12 years ago, but spent seven years looking for the property.
The Stauffers of Windy River Livestock are seeking more land to expand their growing business. “Land is expensive, and there’s not much around,” said Jocelyn Stauffer.
“It’s much more profitable building housing than farms,” said her husband, Will.
James McPhee leases the seven pieces of land to graze his animals. “You cannot buy land and run a profitable business, because the cost of land in Clark County is so expensive because of housing.” According to McPhee, farmland in Clark County sells for about $100,000 to $150,000 per acre.
Sue Marshall, a Clark County farmer and board member of Friends of Clark County, notes that the problem of high farmland prices in Clark County is complicated.
“Zoning itself is not the reason land is expensive. The reason that land is really expensive is housing development pressure,” said Marshall.
According to Marshall, housing development pressure in Clark County has created urban sprawl into rural areas as the growth boundaries (areas that can be developed into housing developments) have been expanded. This causes an increase in land costs because housing developers are willing to pay a premium for sites that can be developed or sites that they believe may be included in the growth boundaries in the future.
Growth boundaries are controlled by the county’s Comprehensive Plan. At present, Clark County is in the process of updating this plan. Under state law, the county must update its comprehensive plan every eight years. The next update is scheduled to be submitted to the state by June 30, 2025.
The last update in 2016 was contentious. Under Washington’s Growth Management Act, Clark County is required to create a 20-year Comprehensive Plan as a guide to how the county manages growth and development with respect to the natural environment and available resources. These resources include Clark County’s soil-rich farmland and forests.
The last update passed by the Clark County Council was successfully challenged by Friends of Clark County and Seattle-based Futurewise to protect working farms and forests in Clark County.
A similar battle is likely to occur this time around. The tension between housing developers interested in expanding the growth boundary to build housing developments and organizations working to preserve farmland is still an issue. Acres of open rural land continue to be valuable to both of these groups for their competing interests.
Despite these challenges, meat producers are committed to providing locally raised products for their customers.
“I love what we do. I love that we can share our passion and our labor and our customers can feed their families with our high-quality meat,” said James McPhee. “I’ll be doing this until the day I die. It’s in my blood.”