Monday, June 21, 2010

Celt's Garden - Eating to Scale

A few years ago, just as the local food movement was popping on to the radar, Joel Salatin, farmer and writer, wrote a passionate book titled, "Everything I Want to Do is Illegal". Salatin's point is that a half century of consolidation, increasingly large food processors and "eliminating the middleman" has eliminated the middleman. Nearly the entire local food processing and distribution system has gone out of business or been buried in regulations. In some cases, the regulations are aimed at controlling industrial food processing facilities. In other cases, they seem intended to eliminate the small processors.

Salatin has more than once had to pay legal fees, enlist his his legislative representatives, invest in expensive infrastructure, drive hundreds of miles to have his meat processed in an abattoir with the right certification and spend hundreds of hours of grief and time better invested in his farm.

The federal regulations are the same, although they may be differently interpreted by inspectors in different states. The state regulations vary. Salatin's head-on collisions with the State of Virginia differ in the details from what we are up against here. There has been increasing support for local value added products from the Washington Ag Extension service and WSDA during the last few years.

Larry Stap, owner of Twin Brook Creamery in Lynden, gave a tour a couple of years ago and told the tale. This is a story with a happy ending: the family farm is still in operation, still in the family, and Twin Brook Creamery products have a solid local following. Larry's story of getting there was just gruesome. Twin Brooks uses returnable glass bottles. People love the milk. Turning an old farm building into a licensed bottling facility was very expensive and took a couple of years of paper work on top of the renovation. Larry's tale of the regulatory hoops they had to jump through to get up and running was sobering. Seems the glass bottles are made in only one factory in Canada, more infrastructure that we have lost. Larry abides by 98% of organic dairy regulations because he feels that it's the right way to farm, to take care of his customers and his animals. He refuses to apply for organic certification because he feels the paperwork is not a good use of his time and the other 2% of the regulations are just a scam.

Salatin is surrounded by small producers of baskets, jam, cider, etc. He can't sell any of it in a farm stand because it isn't his product. The other producers are not interested in dealing with the public for one transaction at a time. Selling one chicken to a neighbor, by the book, requires a $100,000 investment in upgrading the road, installing handicapped accessible bathrooms, and on and on.

And then there's the certified kitchen problem. No value added product can be sold to the public unless it is made in a certified kitchen. In Washington, a certified kitchen has to be separate from the family kitchen and have a separate entrance and a stainless steel double sink. That's an impossible barrier for someone with four bushels of backyard fruit to jam up. It's too much fruit for the family to eat and there's no legal way to make it into jam to sell. The only option is to give it away. Meat, eggs, dairy and baked goods each have their own intricate regulations, separate from the jam and salad dressing rules.

Tiny entrepreneurial enterprises need to start in the home kitchen. No sensible person starts a small business by investing $30,000 - $50,000 in a commercial kitchen before finding out whether they like getting up at 3:00 AM to bake scones every day. No sensible entrepreneur spends three months making jam without spending a couple of years in low overhead mode, testing recipes on customers first. The barriers to entry are too high for most people to attempt.

There are some local nano-capitalists out there. The burrito lady retired but there is a tamale lady on the east side of town. Tamales like you have never tasted (unless you have a Mexican granny), if you know the tamale lady. I did some chicken deals in parking lots years ago. My middle-aged hippie friends cracked up at the story, because it reminded them of drug deals from the 70's. "Leave the money in the glove compartment, the chickens will be in a cooler in the back."

We are seeing some progress away from a condition of complete paralysis of the local food system. The Washington State Extension service has been positively small farm friendly by comparison with Salatin's experiences in Virginia. The Northwest Agricultural Business Center ( rents an approved poultry processing kit to farmers. Demand has been high. They tried to offer ten-month class on value-added products for farmers last year but it didn't happen. Seattle, always the home of the micro food enterprise, has a few restaurants buying local animals and doing their own charcuterie. San Juan County was out front. After a multi-year process to get a USDA inspected mobile abattoir for small farmers, they got a co-op up and running, hired a butcher, jumped through the hoops and started operation in 2002. Demand is so high that they are adding a second trailer.

Investing in a certified kitchen has been a disaster for two local small businesses and the kiss of death for one. One guy has been able to make it work because he started with a tiny residential kitchen in an old house that was previously absorbed into commercial zoning. As work space, it is terrible - it's a one-butt family kitchen and there is no room to process 100 lbs of fruit or pickles. But it came with the required bathroom and two doors. With a fire extinguisher, a stainless steel restaurant sink and two refrigerators in the former back mud room, he was up and running in an affordable space.

Even as there are a few hopeful signs for local food processing, we are still losing infrastructure. Reid Boiler Works, possibly the last U.S. manufacturer of small scale commercial canning equipment (called autoclaves and retorts on that scale) auctioned everything to the walls this month. Hey, the waterfront property in South Bellingham is a great location for more upscale condos to add to the unsold inventory already lining South State Street.

If you are interested in food nano-capitalism, the Green Book is a summary of Washington State food processing regulations. It's available as a free download. Dig around on the WSU ag extension website. It is always advisable to get a food handler's license and take some classes from the Master Preservers before jumping off the deep end. And of course, test your recipes on friends and family.

Salatin's book is in the library. The queue is a couple of months long.

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on May 22, 2010. For recent posts, see

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