Since the early 2000s, the Island Grown Farmers Cooperative has provided federally inspected animal slaughter and processing to farms across the region, opening new opportunities for farmers to sell their meats in packages and in a retail setting.
Twenty years later, the co-op is planning a new processing facility at the Port of Skagit to meet a rising demand for local meats and to serve more farms.
The new facility at the port west of Burlington will be about 2½ times larger than the co-op’s current plant in Bow and will roughly double the number of animals processed over the next several years, said Phil Shephard, the co-op’s board president and a ranch owner in Friday Harbor.
“The demand for locally grown (United States Department of Agriculture)-inspected meat has been consistently growing over the last decade, and the pandemic has increased that demand even more,” Shephard wrote in an email.
The co-op is made up of 80 members in Skagit, Whatcom, San Juan, Island and Snohomish counties. It operates a USDA-inspected mobile slaughter unit that travels to members’ farms — the first such facility in the country — and a USDA-inspected cut and wrap facility for further processing on D’Arcy Road in Bow.
Shephard said the co-op has no room to expand at its current plant and has had to turn away new members. With other area processors also booked solid, there is not enough processing capacity in northwest Washington, he said.
“We get called frequently from other parts of the state and the country because they say they have to haul animals four to six hours to find any facility at all,” he said. “And they are intrigued that we have a mobile processor and we go to harvest animals at the farm.”
Having the mobile unit eliminates the need to haul animals long distances and can reduce their stress, he said.
Shephard said the advantage of USDA-inspected meats is that farms can sell their products (beef, lamb, goat, and pork) in packages by the cut at grocery stores and farmers markets.
The other option — called custom-exempt processing — only allows farms to sell meat in larger quantities, such as a quarter, half or whole animal, and the sale has to be pre-arranged prior to slaughter.
“Our members are able to sell their product at a premium, and it keeps 80 farms going across Northwest Washington in five counties,” Shephard said. “They are family farms and are small. The meat processing varies as to how much of their income it is, and it’s a substantial boost for all these small farms.”
Mesman Farm, which operates an organic dairy and sells USDA-inspected organic beef, is one of the co-op’s Skagit County members. Alan Mesman said the La Conner farm opened its beef store last spring with the aim to diversify its business after five years of low organic milk prices.
After the pandemic began, the farm saw an uptick in interest in local beef and ran out of product several times, he said. Low grocery store inventory initially drove up sales, but many new customers have since returned.
The farm has a store on-site and online and offers on-farm pickup.
“A lot of people like to know where their food comes from, and we have a very transparent system here, with all the animals out on pasture on the highway near La Conner,” Mesman said. “People are able to see what they’re getting and buy from the people who produce it.”
Shephard said the plan is to break ground on the 4,500-square-foot indoor processing plant at the port in November, weather permitting, and be operational by spring.
The total project cost is about $1.3 million, he said. The port was awarded a $60,000 grant and a $180,000 low-interest loan from the state to help Island Grown Farmers Co-op with initial work on the new building.
The funds are from the Community Economic Revitalization Board through the state Department of Commerce and are available to ports to support economic development.
Commissioners approved a 50-year lease for the co-op’s new facility in July.
Shephard said the co-op plans to hire additional workers for the plant and open a small retail space in the building.
The new plant will be near other agriculture and food-centered businesses at the port, including the Bread Lab, several breweries, a pickle processor and flour mill.
“I’m excited; it’s good fit for the port,” said Port Commissioner Steve Omdal. “It helps a lot of the smaller farmers, and we want to keep those smaller production business models viable.”
He said local processing brings consumers closer to the source of their food.
“You can identify exactly where it came from and the farmer that raised it,” he said. “You can say ‘I want to support that organization and those business models as opposed to a large corporation.’”