Ohio Doesn't Have Enough Organic Meat Certifiers To Meet Demand
Paul Dorrance has raised grass-fed livestock in Chillicothe for years, but his animals are not considered organic. It's a conundrum facing more Ohio farmers these days.
“Notably missing is the availability of the option to differentiate yourself, whether it’s in a restaurant or grocery store or at a farmers market via certified organic,” Dorrance says.
Dorrance and others in the agriculture industry agree it’s because of a lack of processing facilities or butcher shops in Ohio that can certify meat as organic.
“My non-certified processor is booked out 'til middle of next year already,” Dorrance says. “They’re busy enough without the certification, perhaps, and that might be the answer.”
Grocery stores have more organic options today than they did 10 years ago, Lipstreu, and Ohio farmers are helping lead that change. According to the USDA National Agriculture Statistics Survey, the state now ranks second in the nation for transitioning acreage to organic land, and is among the top 10 states for certified organic farms.
Despite that demand, the state’s farmers are having a harder time certifying their livestock as such.
Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association policy director Amalie Lipstreu noted that there’s only one processing facility in Ohio that can certify meat as organic.
“We do have one organic meat certified processing facility in the northeast corner of the state in Middlefield,” Lipstreu says. “It’s very small.”
Lipstreu says it’s hard to know how many farmers would organically certify their meat if the option were available to them.
“It’s kind of a chicken and the egg question, forgive the agricultural pun," Lipstreu says. "We’ve talked to a number of producers that have certified organic land and raise animals and have expressed interest in having their animals be certified organic, but it doesn’t make any sense for them to do so. Farmers not only have to raise the animals on organic certified land, they must organically certify the animals themselves.”
The USDA has given organic certification assistance in the past. Last year, it provided assistance for 75% of costs up to $750, but that help has gone down. Now the agency only provides assistance with 50% of costs up to $500.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture says as a regulatory agency, it does not have insight into the business decisions surrounding whether processors would become organic-certified.
Mandy Townsend is a farmer in Ashtabula whose land is certified organic, but her animals are not. With so many people stocking up and cooking more at home during the pandemic, she’s sold out of livestock and her butcher is backed up.
“He’s been so overwhelmed by new customers that he’s gotten really grouchy,” Townsend says. “When I was going in to pick up some beef a month ago, he said, ‘I’m not taking more orders after January. I’m just not, I’m just tired.’”
Townsend says the increased demand for local meat reminds her of what happened during the Great Recession.
“We saw something like this after the crash of 2007,” Townsend says. “Like in 2008, there was a definite uptick in demand for locally produced food.”
Solutions On Wheels
According to a 2017 study from Ohio State University, falling employment in food processing, wholesaling, and retail sectors likely result from wider use of labor-saving technologies.
Dorrance says one way to increase organic meat processing in Ohio could be introducing mobile processing units.
“That would serve the certified organic community but also folks who are not certified,” Dorrance says. “Addressing that middleman infrastructure that is so lacking right now and so overworked.”
Twenty-two states, including Michigan, rely on mobile processing units for organic meat certification. Dorrance says introducing this would also help the state see if there is demand for anyone to start a brick-and-mortar processor.
“We’re in the final stages of hopeful grant approval to pursue the economic and social viability of the idea,” Dorrance says.