Why did the chicken (and cow and pig) cross the county?

A guide for local officials addresses barriers for needed livestock processing in Southeast Michigan

A cow looking at camera.
Photo by John Cox, Baseline Farm in Scio Town

Consumer demand for local meat and poultry is increasing nationwide, but Southeast Michigan farmers and retailers are struggling to meet the demand. According to a 2014 feasibility study conducted by the Michigan State University Product Center, Washtenaw County lacks the necessary federally-inspected processing infrastructure to establish a feasible local meat system. Currently, Southeast Michigan producers must trailer their animals 50-150 miles (one way) for processing, and this distance negatively impacts their overall bottom line, adds to animal stress, and makes small-scale livestock farming financially difficult in the region.

Any meat intended for sale must be slaughtered at a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-inspected facility. Exemptions can apply for further processing, though these are limited and many markets require USDA-inspected processing as well. Poultry must be processed at either a USDA-inspected facility or at a facility with an exemption. To learn more, see Opportunities in Meat Marketing and Meat Inspection and the Poultry Processing in Michigan guide.

For the last 15 years, farmers, cooperative extension professionals, and retailers have worked together to overcome barriers posed by limited USDA processing capacity in Southeast Michigan. Farmers have engaged in more direct-to-consumer sales like Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm subscription models or custom-processing sales which can utilize custom-exempt facilities rather than the more distant USDA-inspected plants.

As national meat supply chains face monumental disruptions due to COVID-19, demand from retail grocers and restaurants for local meat products has skyrocketed, and farmers’ frustration for the lack of adequate processing have resurfaced. As a result, farmers, local food policy advocates, and cooperative extension educators have re-engaged around the goal to reduce barriers for local meat and poultry processing to develop in Washtenaw County.

Two Washtenaw County entrepreneurs are ready to build the USDA-inspected processing plants needed to fill this infrastructure gap. However, both entrepreneurs are challenged in surpassing both local zoning and financial hurdles to reach their goals. In many townships across Washtenaw County, processing plants are permitted only under a special-use permit on either agricultural or industrial zoned parcels. These permits require a public review process, a public hearing, and fees. The process can help communities address common perceptions of processing facilities such as noise, traffic, dust and other potential nuisances but is arduous for an entrepreneur. Economically, a simple, 2,000 square feet new processing facility costs at least $1 million to construct, thus posing a significant financial barrier to new entrepreneurs.

In response to these challenges, the Washtenaw County Food Policy Council in collaboration with MSU Extension, has developed a guide for local planning and community development professionals, policy makers, and community members to better understand the impact and necessity of small meat processors. The guide covers why Washtenaw County needs local processing facilities, describes how niche-processing plants look and feel, and provides regulatory recommendations for local planners seeking to address the need for this unique and important part of the local agricultural sector.

To seek additional information about planning and zoning for agriculture or animal processing, please contact one of our educators from the Government and Community Vitality team.

Did you find this article useful?