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Please Kill Me

Stan Schutte spent ten years turning his downstate farm organic, but he still can't sell organic meat because he doesn't have access to an organic slaughterhouse. So now he's building his own.

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When Stan Schutte began the transition from conventional to organic farming nearly ten years ago, he says people treated him like he'd quit the medical profession to become a chiropractor. "My peers looked at me like I was nuts," he recalls. Now just a year after finally earning certification for the entirety of his 200-acre Triple S Farms in downstate Stewardson, he's taking on another project some of his neighbors probably think is crazy: frustrated by a shortage of facilities that can process the cattle and hogs that make up the bulk of his business, he's decided to build himself an organic slaughterhouse.

Schutte, a resilient 49-year-old built like a tree stump, has been farming the same land his whole life, first with his father and now with his son. When he took over his share of the family farm in 1980, things were so bad he had to take a third-shift job at a printing plant to make ends meet. For 18 years, he'd drive home after his shift and go straight to work on the farm. When hog prices crashed to a low of eight cents a pound in 1998, "it got my attention," Schutte says. He knew he had to do something different. "I wanted to quit my factory job," he says. "I needed to quit my factory job." Noting the higher prices organic products commanded, he decided to make the switch.

He did it one field at a time. Today he grows organic fruits, vegetables, and feed for his animals, which include cows, hogs, chickens, and turkeys. At the height of the season he employs as many as eight people. He sells his meat at farmers' markets in Decatur, Springfield, and Champaign-Urbana and through a meat-buying club for customers in those areas: subscribers put down a onetime deposit and then each month order what they like. Schutte occasionally drives up to Chicago to sell direct to customers in the city and look for opportunities with stores. "I'm working on markets there right now," he says. Last year the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference, the largest meeting of the organic farming community in the country, named him farmer of the year.

But even though Schutte doesn't use hormones or antibiotics and his pasture and feed are certified organic, he can't market his beef and pork as organic because there's no slaughterhouse close enough to his farm certified to process it as such. He can only sell his meat as "natural," a label that has no official meaning and doesn't command the same premium prices that "organic" does.

Meat processing is a major challenge for many small and midsize Illinois farmers--organic or otherwise. Industrialized meat production and an agricultural economy based on corn and soybeans have not only decreased the number of farms raising their own livestock, they've diminished the number of slaughtering and butchering facilities that can serve them. Most company processors are almost always closed to farmers not under contract with the owners, meaning the little guy often gets left in the lurch.

Schutte takes his livestock to Hartrich Meat Processing Plant in Ste. Marie, about 50 miles away; between delivering animals and picking up meat, he estimates he's there once a week. Only one processor in the state, Scott Bittner's Eureka Locker, can process certified organic pork and red meat, and Eureka's 150 miles away. Worse than the additional travel time and fuel costs, the longer drive would stress out his animals--and adrenaline makes for tougher meat.

Meanwhile, the lack of competition has caused processing prices to increase dramatically in recent years. "Two families could live off my processing bill," Schutte says. When he told a farmer from outside Illinois what he paid, he started laughing.

Despite these problems, Schutte says that until recently he couldn't imagine what he'd do if the facility were to disappear like so many others before it. All of his achievements to this day wouldn't matter a whit, he says. "We'd be out of business."

Most of Illinois' livestock production is contracted by giant meat packers like Tyson and Smithfield--an estimated 90 percent of its poultry and 80 percent of its hogs. The companies pay local farmers for the labor and space to raise their animals and then collect them when they're ready for slaughter.

Contract production hit Illinois' chicken industry in the 1960s and accelerated fast, Schutte says. The hog farmers stayed independent longer, but when pork prices crashed in the late 90s, farmers who were short on capital began signing up with the big guys too. Critics of contract production liken it to indentured servitude: not only do the farmers never own the animals but the company dictates how they're raised, including how and what they're fed and what the farmers will be paid. Inarguably contract production has affected even farmers who aren't part of it, and one of the ways it's done that is by decreasing the number of slaughterhouses available to them. And as Schutte says, "You've got to be able to kill the animals somewhere."

"It's a chicken-and-egg thing," says Terra Brockman, executive director of Land Connection, an agricultural nonprofit that helps secure land for independent farmers and connects consumers with local producers. "We have limited farmers raising livestock, but there'd be a lot more if they knew they could process it."

The facilities for small independent farmers are relics of the 40s and 50s. Back then, says Schutte, "everyone was on farms: they'd have their animals for their families and they'd take them in in the fall." But over the past half century, as many large Illinois farms turned to cash crops like corn and soybeans, farm work became highly mechanized. With fewer people required to work the farms, the countryside emptied out. Industrial meat production gave corn and soybean farmers little incentive to raise animals: meat was cheaper at the grocery store, and inorganic fertilizers could be used in lieu of manure. Self-contained farms with multiple crops and livestock became anachronistic. Less livestock meant less work for slaughterhouses, which began closing.

Slaughterhouses certified to process organic meat are even harder to find. The USDA requires organic-certified plants to process organic livestock at the beginning of the day, when the equipment is clean, and to keep them separate from any non-organic animals.

The Central Illinois Poultry Processing Plant in Arthur, run by Andy and Vera Jess, an Amish couple, on diesel generators and natural gas, is the only place in the state certified to turn out organic poultry. Because it is also the only commercial poultry processor downstate, period, many small farms that raise chickens--including Schutte's--depend on it. But Amish farmers alone bring in plenty of business, and there's been talk in the past of closing it to outsiders.

"It's getting to be nip and tuck as to how long we can get in there," says Paul Gebhart, who farms livestock and grain on 220 acres in Christian County, southeast of Springfield. "Everybody got nervous and begged them, and I think they're too good a people to say no."

But because of the plant's limited capacity, farmers like Gebhart are already getting pushed out during the busiest seasons. "They've already shut us out for November, which is kind of when you need a turkey," he says. As a result Gebhart has decided not to raise any turkeys this year.

Gebhart takes his cattle to Fisher's Packing Company in nearby Owaneco, but he's worried about them too. He says the state agriculture department is unreasonably hard on small processors. Sanitation, he's quick to clarify, comes first, but "they're coming in and finding little cracks in the wall and finding a reason to shut the place down."

The owner of Fisher's, Kenny Eggiman, claims that in order to satisfy inspection criteria smaller plants must be less rather than more stringent in terms of meat inspection. "I get pissed off every time I start talking about it," he says. Recently, he recalls, an inspector looked in his smoker and asked which ham he checked during his day-to-day inspections. "I check every ham," Eggiman replied. "No, which one do you check?" the inspector persisted. "I check them all--I've only got 25 hams," he told him. The inspector insisted Eggiman name a specific ham for his records to comply with a rule written with industrial-size plants in mind. Eggiman says stuff like this drives him so crazy he's going to quit the business soon.

If he does quit, Gebhart will have to drive 80 miles to Bittner's plant in Eureka, which he says is the next closest slaughterhouse that will take him. It's organically certified (Eggiman isn't), but Gebhart is still reluctant to do it for the same reasons Schutte is--the additional fuel costs and the added stress on the animals. Things are so touch and go that a few years ago Gebhart himself nearly bought an existing plant in Broadwell, just north of Springfield, but the deal fell through. "Now it's not a slaughterhouse," he says. "It's an RV repair shop."

Given the dearth of processors, on-farm exemptions--which allow farmers to process animals, usually poultry, on-site so long as they only sell the meat on-site as well--have become increasingly attractive. But farmers say that recently they've become harder to get and keep.

Dennis and JoAnn Dickman began raising free-range chickens on their five-acre farm outside Kankakee in 1999: "I didn't like the taste of store-bought chicken," JoAnn explains. She says at their initial inspection to get an exemption, state inspectors made a series of requests--including that they install industrial cooling equipment--that she knew weren't required for a farm the size of theirs. "I said, 'Wait a minute--that's for commercial processing,'" she recalls. "Because I was a legal secretary, I said, 'Show it to me in writing. I'll comply but show it to me in writing.' And they couldn't."

The Dickmans got their exemption and followed state regulations carefully. Sometimes the Illinois Department of Agriculture would neglect its annual inspection, JoAnn says--so she'd call and insist upon it.

As business increased, the Dickmans began processing all their birds at Central Illinois Poultry Processing, a two-hour drive away, and developing new products. They maintained their on-farm exemption too, even though they'd stopped using it. Then in 2005, when they requested product labels for seasoned chicken patties, they were denied. Product labels are required to sell all state-inspected meat or poultry products, and the state Department of Agriculture claimed it rejected the Dickmans' request for new ones because they might illegally apply them to chicken processed on their farm--even though it had already issued them labels for chicken sausages, which were processed at CIPP too. "They said, 'If you give up your on-farm exemption, we'll give you the label,'" JoAnn recalls. "It was an ultimatum." The Dickmans caved.

"The state inspectors have been systematically getting rid of the on-farm exemptions," says Bridget Holcomb of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, a citizens' group promoting responsible agriculture. She claims she's been told by inspectors that they simply don't want to drive around to the small farms. Chris Mazurczak, bureau chief of meat and poultry at the state Department of Agriculture, denies this and says the number of on-farm exemptions is not decreasing, though he offered no statistics.

Gebhart, who sits on the board of the ISA, believes the Department of Public Health is pressuring the Department of Agriculture. He thinks that slaughtering on farm, despite regulation, still makes the authorities nervous: the process can still seem antiquated, not properly white-coated and modern. But on-farm slaughtering is more transparent, he argues: "You're protecting yourself by buying from me. If you go to the supermarket, you don't know who to blame. But when you buy from me, you know me. If it's bad you know who to quit doing business with." A spokesman for the Department of Public Health said the department had "no comment other than to say that this is a program that's regulated by the Department of Agriculture."

Schutte wanted to sell his meat as organic and cut his processing costs, so about five years ago, he began looking into opening his own slaughterhouse. "It's smart business to move up the food chain," he explains. By 2005, he'd recruited a board of farmers--"one guy's a computer guy, but he raises chickens," he clarifies--and a few private investors to help him do it. They plan to start construction this summer on a $4 million USDA-inspected plant in Mattoon, about 15 miles from Schutte's farm and three hours from Chicago. (The USDA seal means the meat can be sold outside of Illinois; state-inspected meat can only be sold in-state.)

Schutte believes Family Farmers Meats, as they plan to call it, will be the only multispecies organic plant in the country. By law, red meat and pork are always strictly separated from poultry so the planned facility will have separate spaces for each. It should be humming by winter; at full capacity, Schutte estimates it will process 40 cows or 120 hogs a day, serving between 30 and 50 farmers within a hundred-mile radius. The nearest plant of a similar size that's certified for organics is in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, 12 hours north. "We're in a processor desert," says Schutte. "It's no accident that we're building it where we're building it."

Nobody in Illinois has tried what Schutte's proposing before. A few people have bought an old plant, like Scott Bittner in Eureka, and refurbished it, an option Schutte considered and rejected. Older plants have inefficient walk-in coolers and freezers and thus enormous electricity bills. "You've got 700 pounds of hot beef," Schutte says, "and you've got to get it cooled down quick." But virtually no one--no one who's not a corporate meat packer--builds a plant from scratch. The capital costs are frightfully high, and there's been little institutional support for either renovating or building new slaughterhouses. Schutte applied for a grant from the Illinois Department of Agriculture and was denied. "The Department of Ag--Big Ag-- doesn't get it," he says.

"We're taking a huge, huge risk," Schutte says. "Basically I'm putting the farm on the line." But the current statistics for organic meat should comfort him somewhat: in 2005, according to the Organic Trade Association, sales went up an astounding 55 percent from the year before.

Once the plant's up and running, the next challenge is getting the meat to where the demand is. Schutte and his partners plan to sell their products--starting with chicken and then expanding to pork and red meat--under the common brand Family Farmers Meats. He hopes to have someone run deliveries twice a week to Chicago accounts, including grocery stores. True Nature Foods, an independent grocery in Edgewater, has been selling local and organic meat for four years. Owner Paula Companio says demand has increased so much in that time she's had to buy two new freezers just to handle it.

A decade ago, when Schutte turned his farm inside out, his neighbors thought he was batty; even now, he says, "they could care less" about organics. But he may need their business, whether they're organic or not, for his project to succeed. He's confident that if he can build it they will come: "We could have done 50,000 to 100,000 chickens this year if we'd been up," he says.

Paperwork is taking longer than expected and the company is already chewing through its construction capital. And in between farming and nurturing the project, Schutte is busy lining up more farmers and more investors, working with state and USDA authorities, and looking over blueprints. "I'm wearing about 20 different hats," he says. In fact, he admits, he's working as much as he did when he worked the third shift at the printing plant.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Rob Warner.

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