Meat: we are defined by it, and the majority of the nation's diet is built around it. And in South Carolina, thanks to the state's long history of ranching — which started in 1670 when the colony began supplying beef to the West Indies — it's the foundation of Charleston's meat-centric culinary scene. The state's livestock industry continues to thrive today, boasting poultry and eggs as two of the Palmetto State's leading agricultural products. Yet there is a growing disconnect between what consumers are seeking and what the majority of producers are currently able to yield.
Across the nation and here at home, the numbers indicate an increasing demand for local, heritage-breed, pasture-raised, hand-butchered animals. However, the majority of livestock in America is still raised in concentrated animal feeding operations and processed in large mechanized factories focused on providing low-priced products. As a result, the farmers interested in meeting the shift in demand are faced with several significant barriers: production costs, access to processing, and consumer education.
"It's very difficult to go into any type of agriculture without any kind of legacy that includes land," says Michael Worrell, the owner of MiBek Farms in Barnwell County. Michael and his family currently lease over half of an 800-acre lot for their beef operation. One of the top challenges Worrell and the rest of the agriculture community has is land access. The family raises their cattle in grazing rotation and land — and a lot of it — is essential to their operation. The reason: cattle are herbivores and herbivores thrive in outdoor free-range environments. There they can graze and forage on diverse crops that provide them with a balance of nutrients, vitamins, and proteins necessary for a healthy diet. Cows' stomachs are perfectly adapted to break down a diverse mix of grasses and legumes. The result is a leaner, healthier animal that produces meat known for its dynamic and robust flavor. As a bonus, pasture-raised animals often need little or no antibiotics or hormones and tend to have leaner meat with more omega-3 fatty acids and less omega-6.
Another downside: pasture-raised cows take longer to reach full harvest weight compared to factory farm beef.
Like Worrell, Ted Chewning of Walterboro's Sweet Bay Sausage faces land issues. For Chewning to properly raise his heritage hogs, he must tend a small herd size, plant forages, and keep the animals on constant rotation on his over 100-acre operation in Round O, S.C. His herd consists of a mix of heritage breed hogs including Ossabaw, Hampshire, Yorkshire, and Duroc. Over the course of their lives, his animals will rotate through pastures, planted fields with peanut and sugar beet forage, and into forests full of acorns and roots. After the animals are rotated, his fields and forests are given up to six years of restorative rest with cover crop and non-harvested plantings.
But the job doesn't end when the animals reach market weight. Then comes the important task of slaughter and butchering.
So where do many of those in the South Carolina heritage-breed, pasture- raised meat industry go for butchering? The Williamsburg Packing Company in Kingstree, S.C. Owned by Sep Harvin, Williamsburg Packing is one of the most well-known locally operated facilities. A USDA-approved slaughter and processing facility, it's focused on providing services for small- to mid-sized producers. The operation has an appointment based system where farmers can get their animals first slaughtered and then processed in a variety of cuts: sausage, whole animal, fresh or frozen. The average turn-around on product is two weeks and most producers schedule well in advance.
The Williamsburg Packing Company is Animal Welfare Approved and Certified Humane, and they also take small to medium orders of a variety of chickens, turkeys, ducks, beef, goats, lambs, bison, water buffalo, and alpaca. The facility is able to offer these unique services because they rely heavily on skilled labor that is "human powered" that can adapt to different types and sizes.
Worrell is one of Williamsburg's regular customers. Unfortunately, this means two-round trips of a combined 460 miles to deliver and pick-up his product. He isn't alone.
Harvin says that farmers travel on average three hours to his facility with some coming from as far as Tennessee. Despite the far reach of his customers, Harvin is still only processing a weekly average of 1,000 chickens, 150 pigs, eight to 10 cows, three to four goats and/or lambs. His smallest order for any one customer is one pig with the largest at 10 pigs or in one case last year, 400 ducks at one time.
Juggling the customer orders, adjusting to the seasonal loads, replacing the equipment, and maintaining the skilled labor force can result in a more expensive process for these smaller facilities. "It's a challenge to producers to market their pastured product because it's more expensive to produce and to process," says Harvin. In comparison, the large, specialized processors are focused on a single animal coming from commercial farming operations. Some of these huge processors can process over one million birds in a single week (or 400 cows in an hour), all for extremely low prices.
"The big barrier to entry is just the cost of getting into the business," says Harvin. "It is around $4 million to build a facility and outfit it with the equipment. We are at 18,000 square feet and we still don't have enough space."
There are some who advocate for mobile abattoirs, processing units that can travel from farm to farm, a system that has been legal in South Carolina since 2010. Due to the demand for these units, one Washington company developed a fully equipped 36-foot tractor-trailer unit priced at $210,000 and designed to process eight cows, 24 hogs, or 40 sheep. The mobility of these facilities reduces travel time and animal handling, but they come with their own set of issues.
In 2005, the University of Vermont conducted a feasibility study in one community that explored the reality of using mobile slaughter systems versus other models. The challenges presented in the mobile system included on-farm facilities for inspectors (lodging, restroom, and shower); the capacity for waste disposal (waste water, blood, hide, organs), access to high volumes of potable water, cooler and/or freezer space; and the capacity to meet stringent safety regulations. Beyond the abattoir, farmers would still need facilities to full butcher, age, process, and freeze their products.
Smaller poultry farmers are currently utilizing exemptions to process for themselves. Thanks to one exemption, Donald and Susan Brant of Brant Family Farms in Varnville, S.C. process poultry on their own farm, a measure that allows them to harvest 1,000 birds annually for direct consumer sale. Being able to process on-farm allows for the Brants to reduce their travel and processing costs, but this only applies to their chickens. They would love to increase their pasture-raised hogs and cattle production but the distance to processing will continue to be one of their limiting factors.
"The economies of scale are a lot harder for a small farmer and processor," Sep Harvin explains. Or as Michael Worrell says, "Actual production is the not the hold back. It's getting the product sold at a price that makes the farm sustainable."