If Aroostook potato farmers had to ship every spud 400 miles to get a necessary pre-sale stamp of approval, there’d probably be a lot less growers in the region.
In order for cattle farmers to be able to sell their product to grocery chains, such as Hannaford, they have to first get that United States Department of Agriculture stamp on every side of beef — which means trucking the steer hundreds of miles south.
Stan and Gail Maynard grow Organic Highland Cattle at Orchard Hill Farm in Woodland; the shaggy, ancient breed has about 400 acres of the farm to frolic and organically graze — and to produce high-quality beef.
While Orchard Hill Farms beef is raised about a dozen miles from prospective customers’ kitchens in Caribou, it’s actually a pretty long journey from the Woodland farm to a Caribou dinner plate.
After Stan Maynard loads the cattle onto the truck, the animals are taken on a more-than-200-mile journey to Dover-Foxcroft, home of the closest USDA inspected meat processing facility, which is Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association inspected as well.
It’s 400 miles round-trip to drop off the cattle, and another 400 miles round-trip to pick up the beef.
The second-closest facility, just northwest of Waterville, is a 268-mile drive from Orchard Hill Farm.
Having to truck the cattle such a long way for processing cuts deeply into profits, Maynard said.
“You can see the problem with diesel fuel when it gets up to $4.25 a gallon; I try to truck down four or five at a time, but it’s expensive and very bad for the beef itself to be trucked,” he said. “Any time you truck an animal, it stresses them out; it adds adrenaline and other chemicals to the meat and you affect the flavor, the tenderness of any meat when you get the cattle stressed.
“The calmer they are when they’re put away, the better off your beef is going to be — and that’s a proven fact,” Maynard added.
While no one ever said farming was easy, the Maynards are among a handful of individuals working diligently to alleviate the burden of long-distance trucking from the cattle-raising process. They’re looking to build a USDA and MOFGA inspection facility right here in The County — preferably in central Aroostook, to be equidistant from all corners.
They believe building such a facility in Aroostook would have a drastic effect on the region — creating good jobs, restoring the viability of small farms and making locally grown meat available to the consumer at a lower price.
Troy Haines of Mapleton has worked with the Maynards for years and has his own successful custom meat cutting business.
He is confident that providing infrastructural support for Aroostook County cattle growers by building a meat processing plant would mean more money to the farmers, less cost for the consumer and good things in general.
“You don’t have to be a big corporation to make money,” Haines explained, describing how growth of his 11-year-old business has increased by continuously providing fair prices and services such as free delivery.
“This [business] mindset that we have to bleed as much from the turnip as we can is absolutely wrong,” Haines said. “If we pay more to the farmer, and charge less to the consumer on the meat that we’re sending to the market, you’d bet that other meat companies would have to do the same thing to stay competitive,” he said.
The Maynards and Haines said that Aroostook County has plenty of unused farm fields that would be perfect for raising cattle. For instance, Stan Maynard said that Aroostook County grew 240,000 acres of potatoes in 1944, but only had 56,000 acres in production in 2011.
“Lets say there’s 100,000 acres of land out there right now that can be reclaimed; if we only had a third of that, you can grow 10,000 cattle,” Stan said, explaining that you can grow one cow on three acres of land. “The potential for grass-fed beef, pork, lamb or sheep is astronomical”
Without a local USDA inspected meat processing facility, however, that 200-plus-mile trek to the slaughterhouse is going to drastically cut into profits.
Much of the legwork has already been done planning the local facility.
“With the exception of actually finalizing a location and finalizing blueprints, all we have to worry about at this point is money,” Haines said.
There are a number of potential investors the group is working with, each interested in seeing the project succeed.
Even if the roughly $1.3 million facility were to operate at just 30 percent capacity, it could still be profitable — while offering good-paying jobs with benefits.
“In order to operate in the black, you would have to process seven animals a week,” Haines said, adding that his custom cutting shop currently processes about 55 animals a week.
Conducting an informal survey, Stan found about 5,500 head of cattle plus a few thousand pigs in The County, and the group estimates that about 4,000 animals are being sent from the farm to the dinner table every year — meaning there’s plenty of farmers looking to benefit from a locally operated meat processing facility.
Using Orchard Hill Farms as an example, Haines said that if the local meat processing plant existed, Orchard Hill Farm could double its profit by selling organic, locally raised, grass-fed loin cuts at about $6 a pound, meaning the grocery store could probably sell it at $9 a pound.
“If we go into business, another impact is to the consumer,” Haines said. “You’re creating the ability for people to buy a healthy product at a price they can afford.”
To run the proposed facility at that profit-turning 30 percent capacity, the group anticipates it would need five full-time employees and about 15 part-time or seasonal employees.
Explaining that the business plan was modeled with consideration to maintaining socially conscious business practices, Haines said that the 30 percent capacity profitability is designed to account for $50,000 for a manager, $40,000 for a skilled laborer and roughly $24,000 a year for unskilled labor — plus 30 percent over each figure to account for benefits.
“Our numbers, we’ve had them looked over and they’re real … and offering employees very good pay and very good benefits, offering high quality services at lower prices, offering the best of the best on every aspect of this — you only have to operate at 30 percent to be $60,000 in the black” Stan Maynard said. “It’s nuts.”
The community impact of the proposed meat processing facility is expected to be over $4 million.
While there’s still much work to be done, all the pieces seem to be coming into place; should funding be secured relatively soon, the facility could break ground as soon as next spring, the group estimates.
“We’re at the point where the cart is behind the horse … we just don’t have everything hooked up yet,” Haines said.