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SAVE THE DATE: Second Annual Conference on Native American Nutrition

SAVE THE DATE: Second Annual Conference on Native American Nutrition

September 18-20, 2017

Mystic Lake Casino Hotel

Join us for this annual conference that brings together tribal officials, researchers, practitioners, and others to discuss the current state of Indigenous and academic scientific knowledge about Native nutrition and food science, and identify new areas of work.

Topic areas include:

  • Decolonizing food and nutrition
  • Indigenous evaluation frameworks
  • Successfully translating research into practice

The conference will also include skill-building workshops for researchers and practitioners on topics such as:

  • Documenting the traditional food system in your community
  • Protecting human subjects in research
  • Organizing youth to work on improving Native nutrition
  • Building tribal and university partnerships

Confirmed speakers include:

  • Stephen Bond, Intertribal Agriculture Council
  • Jamie Donatuto and Larry Campbell, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community
  • Abigail Echo-Hawk, Seattle Indian Health Board
  • Gary Ferguson, Rural Alaska Community Action Program
  • Linda Frizzell, University of Minnesota School of Public Health
  • Harriet Kuhnlein, Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment
  • Devon Mihesuah, University of Kansas
  • Lisa Te Morenga, University of Otago
  • Stephany Parker, Oklahoma State University
  • Joy Persall, Dream of Wild Health
  • Donald Warne, North Dakota State University

Schedule at a glance

  • Sunday, September 17 | Reception: 7-9 p.m.
  • Monday, September 18 | Conference: 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
  • Monday, September 18 | Evening reception: 6-10 p.m.
  • Tuesday, September 19 | Conference: 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (optional tours in the evening)
  • Wednesday, September 20 | Conference: 7:30 a.m.-2:15 p.m.

INDIAN COUNTRY TODAY: MSU Sending Tribal College Students on New PATHS to Food Sovereignty

Students will learn how to further food sovereignty this summer during PATHS program



Danielle Antelope, an enrolled member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, is one of several tribal college students who will have a unique opportunity to spend six weeks at Montana State University this summer, earn some money, engage in hands-on lab work and learn how to advance food sovereignty—and health—in Indian country.

The United States Department of Agriculture has awarded Montana State University $280,000 over three years to support the PATHS, or “Pathways to Agriculture and Native foods, Tribal Health and Sovereignty,” program. Principal Investigator Holly Hunts, an associate professor in Montana State University’s College of Education, Health and Human Development, said: “This is an interdisciplinary effort to look at problems and solve them. We are exponentially smarter when we work together.”

Eric Birdinground, a senator in the legislative branch of the Crow Tribal government and chair of the tribe’s Health and Human Services Department, said an important feature of the PATHS program is that students will bring back what they learn to their community. Richard Little Bear, president of Chief Dull Knife College, sees another benefit as well. “Our students have a hard time leaving the college, and the reservation, so PATHS and similar programs provide a bridge to the four-year mainstream institutions.”

And of course the primarily focus of the program—agriculture and food sovereignty—are crucial. “The program will educate them about foods in general and about our own Native foods. That part is helpful because so many of us have gotten dependent on the Walmart system of distribution of our food,” Little Bear said.

Food Sovereignty, Tribal Colleges, Tribal Colleges and Universities, Montana State University, Native American Students, PATHS Program, United States Department of Agriculture, USDA, Indigenous Food Systems, Agriculture, Donald Trump Budget, Trump Budget

This graphic explains what the PATHS program is. Montana State University/Facebook

Janie Simms Hipp, Chickasaw Nation, is founding director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law. She said the MSU program complements the work being done at her university, and she will be helping to implement the PATHS program. “There is a desperate need to have a strong group of students who are ready to step into extremely important tribal leadership roles as soon as possible,” she said, and this program will help train them.

Students will spend six weeks this summer at MSU where they will work in different labs, go on field trips to tribal agricultural projects, and engage in other creative learning experiences. When they return to their tribal colleges and universities, the program will stay connected with them for a full year until they come back to MSU for another six weeks next summer, at which point they should be ready to pursue a research interest of their own.

The research opportunity is what has Antelope’s attention. “I’m really excited about the research because when I was a junior in high school I did the MAP program at Bozeman. You go there for eight weeks and do research and take classes. That was a great time for me. So this time, six weeks, being on campus, being an adult, having my family with me. I’m really excited to get that campus life, the city—maybe I won’t be so scared when it comes time for me to leave to continue my higher education.” Antelope, 21, is working on her associate’s degree at Blackfeet Community College.

“Our goal is that they will want to finish a four-year degree in agriculture or food or nutrition or some health field. We’d be happy if they came to MSU,” Hunts said. The university would welcome more Native American students, especially in areas like cell biology and neuroscience and biochemistry, she said.

The PATHS program is open to students at any tribal college. The funding covers two cohorts of four to five students each, with each cohort attending the program for a total of 14 months beginning in the summer of 2017 and the summer of 2018. The program includes a $1,500 stipend for the summer, $1,500 during the academic year and another $1,500 the following summer. Additional funds cover housing, food during the summer sessions, in-state and out-of-state travel, lab costs and supplies, a total of over $14,000 per student over 14 months each will participate. Native American mentors who have successful track records at MSU in either food sovereignty, nutrition, agriculture or health will work with students throughout the program.

“In the second summer, we’ll go to Washington, D.C. so students can meet with the federal movers and shakers in agriculture,” Hunts said. “We want to make sure they are connected to policy makers and know how to get policy changed.”

Hipp said the Washington trip and introducing students to how the federal government makes policy is an essential part of getting them ready to serve their communities. “This component is especially important right now when USDA is getting reorganized and the president’s budget calls for literally doing away with some of the key programs that tribal governments have relied upon to build up the food sovereignty movement. We can’t stand by and say we’ll deal with it later,” she said.

Another immediate benefit of the program, Hunts said, is that “students will also be really employable by the end of the 14 months, with lab, data entry and library skills.”

Core members of the PATHS team at MSU are Hunts; David Sands, a professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in the College of Agriculture; Ed Dratz, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Letters and Science; Florence Dunkel, an associate professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology; and Claire Sands Baker, a longtime nonprofit consultant.

For more information, contact or text 406-599-9457. Information is also available on Facebook.


INDIAN COUNTRY TODAY: Quapaw Tribe’s $1M Processing Plant Will Aid its Farm-to-Fork Goals and Economic Development

INDIAN COUNTRY TODAY: Quapaw Tribe’s $1M Processing Plant Will Aid its Farm-to-Fork Goals and Economic Development

Quapaw Tribe is nearly ready to debut its processing plant to produce USDA-approved bison and cattle meat


Quapaw members, traditionally agricultural people, are embracing a farm-to-fork lifestyle and economic development with their soon-to-open processing plant for bison and cattle meat.

Today, bison, goats and about 500 head of cattle roam 1,500 acres of the tribe’s Ottawa County plains in northeastern Oklahoma. Gardens and greenhouses grow fresh veggies and herbs, and some 50 beehives produce honey that the tribe hopes to develop for market. The tribe may add poultry to the mix, too.

“Historically, we’re agricultural people, and we’re just going back to the basics. It’s who we are,” Quapaw Chairman John Berrey told The Joplin Globe.

The processing plant will help make healthy and culturally relevant food available to its members and the surrounding community. The $1 million, 25,000-square-foot facility is slated to open this summer. The tribe began work on the plant near Miami, Oklahoma in late August 2016.

The plant will additionally serve as a training center for regional educational institutions. Last July, the tribe hosted 100 Native American students attending the University of Arkansas’s Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative summer program. Representing more than 50 tribal nations, the students toured Quapaw businesses and agricultural operations. “We want to teach young people how to build a sustainable economy based on the farm-to-table mentality,” Chairman John Berrey previously told ICMN.

Products, including its USDA-inspected, bison and cattle meat from the ventures will be sold direct to consumer through the tribe’s mercantile store: Quapaw Mercantile, located in the town of Quapaw.

Honey produced is utilized in the tribe’s various restaurants and should soon hit retail—even though the tribe invested in the bees to maintain its pastures. “The bees help feed the cattle, basically,” Berrey previously told ICMN. “The beneficial product is the honey. But really, we got them mainly to promote good forage on our pastures.”

The Quapaw Tribe also runs the Downstream Casino Resort in Quapaw—and the restaurants there are greatly benefiting. Its the only casino in the world that employs a full-time cattle rancher, a bee keeper and an expert coffee roaster. “Our chefs go out to the greenhouses daily and select the produce they will use that day in the kitchens,” tribal spokesman Sean Harrison previously told ICMN. “With the cattle, we gained the ability to serve the best quality beef available anywhere at any price. We hired the experts in the field to run these operations, and we spared no expense in setting up the perfect systems for our agriculture program.”

Fresh, tribally roasted coffee through Quapaw Coffee Company will also begin supplying the restaurant soon.


Food Insecurity, Food Deserts, Food Sovereignty, and the Impacts of the Farm Bill on Indigenous Peoples in the face of Global Warming

Janie Simms Hipp (Chickasaw Nation), lawyer, scholar, author, and founding director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law (, joined American Indian Airwaves to discuss food insecurity, food deserts, food sovereignty, cultural sustainability, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK),  the impact of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) historical operations excluding Indigenous farmers, and the potential consequences of the Farm Bill of 2018 on Indigenous peoples and their respective First Nations. There are more than fifty million acres of active agriculture lands within Indigenous Nations. Indigenous farmer operators, indeed, comprise of 39.2 percent out of all non-white farm operators, and the Farm Bill is revisited and revised every five years by the United States Congress. 

Click the audio player below to hear the interview.


American Indian Airwaves regularly broadcast every Thursday from 7pm to 8pm (PCT) on KPFK FM 90.7 in Los Angles, FM 98.7 in Santa Barbara, FM 99.5 China Lake, FM 93.7 North San Diego, WCRS FM 98.3/102.1 in Columbus, OH, and on the Internet @

Missed shows for the past 60 days can be accessed at:

Economic and dietary health of Native Americans hangs in the balance with 2018 Farm Bill, according to major new report

Economic and dietary health of Native Americans hangs in the balance with 2018 Farm Bill, according to major new report

Most comprehensive assessment ever written of Farm Bill risks and opportunities for tribes, Native American producers, and urban Native American communities lays the foundation for unified advocacy


MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – Current efforts by the United States Congress to write the 2018 Farm Bill will have significant consequences for the 5 million Native Americans and Alaskan Natives in the United States. A new tribal report concludes that Native communities must be prepared to better advocate for their interests, defend programs on which their most vulnerable members depend, and look for new ways to achieve greater food sovereignty and food security through increased self-reliance and reform of federal policies.

The report, entitled Regaining Our Future: An Assessment of Risks and Opportunities for Native Communities in the 2018 Farm Bill, is the most comprehensive analysis ever conducted on Farm Bill issues relevant to Indigenous populations in the United States.

In recent years, there has been a growing grassroots movement within Indian Country to reclaim Native foodways and establish better food security. But federal policies alien to Indian Country continue to have an outsized and often detrimental influence on Native nutrition, agriculture, ranching, farming, conservation, trade and forestry.

“Today a food and nutritional health crisis grips most of Indian Country. As Congress prepares to shape the next Farm Bill, there has never been a more critical time for Native Americans to unite to defend our interests,” said Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) Chairman Charles R. Vig. “Tribal governments, Native producers, environmental stewards, and Native community members must work together to involve Congress in helping us solve this crisis.”

One of the largest pieces of domestic legislation, the Farm Bill is historically considered by Congress every five years. It serves as the primary vehicle for developing federal food and agriculture policies, including nutrition, crop insurance, conservation, commodity programs, research and education. The most recent version of the Farm Bill, passed in 2014, included $489 billion in spending.

The SMSC commissioned Regaining Our Future as an initiative of Seeds of Native Health, the tribe’s four-year, $10 million philanthropic campaign to improve Native nutrition and food access. The report was authored by Janie Simms Hipp, director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative (IFAI) at the University of Arkansas School of Law and former senior advisor for tribal relations to Secretary Tom Vilsack at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Colby D. Duren, IFAI policy director and staff attorney and former staff attorney and legislative counsel for the National Congress of American Indians.

“We must be knowledgeable of and engaged in the improvement and development of federal food policy because it directly impacts our lands, our foods, our waters, our natural resources, and our economic development opportunities,” said Hipp. “Regaining Our Future sets the groundwork for tribes to work together from a common understanding and advocate for that most basic of human needs, the ability to feed ourselves in our own food systems with our own foods.”

In researching and writing the report, Hipp and Duren consulted closely with the Intertribal Agriculture Council, the Intertribal Timber Council, and the National Congress of American Indians. While Indian Country has historically not been involved in comprehensive Farm Bill policy discussions, these three organizations have been dedicated to advocating for and correcting problems with federal food and agriculture policy on behalf of Native peoples for decades.

“The Intertribal Agriculture Council has struggled to rally the support of tribes to effectively advocate for greater Native inclusion in previous Farm Bills,” said Ross Racine, executive director of the Intertribal Agriculture Council. “This document will serve as a new foundation for our ongoing efforts, working in partnership with the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, the SMSC’s Seeds of Native Health campaign, the Intertribal Timber Council, and the National Congress of American Indians to ensure well-crafted, effective, and thoughtful agriculture and nutrition policy.”

Regaining Our Future is available for download


About the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community

The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community is a federally recognized, sovereign Indian tribe located southwest of Minneapolis/St. Paul. Making its top priority to be a good neighbor, the SMSC is one of the top philanthropists in Minnesota and donates more to charity than any other Indian tribe in America. It also focuses on being a strong community partner and a leader in protecting and restoring natural resources.

About Seeds of Native Health

Seeds of Native Health is the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community’s philanthropic campaign to improve Native American nutrition and food access. Launched in 2015, the $10 million campaign has provided grants to local communities and funded research, education, and capacity-building efforts. Partners include the American Diabetes Association, American Heart Association, AmeriCorps VISTA, Better Way Foundation, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis’s Center for Indian Country Development, First Nations Development Institute, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, the Notah Begay III Foundation, the University of Arkansas School of Law’s Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, and the University of Minnesota.

About the University of Arkansas School of Law

Established in 1924, the University of Arkansas School of Law prepares students for success through a challenging curriculum taught by nationally recognized faculty, unique service opportunities and a close-knit community that puts students first. With alumni in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, two territories and 20 countries, it has been ranked among the top 10 “Values in Legal Education” by the National Jurist magazine for four consecutive years and is among the top 46 public law schools, according to U.S. News and World Report.

About the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative

Established in 2013, the University of Arkansas School of Law Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative is the first of its kind nationally, focusing on enhancing food, agriculture, health and wellness, and business and economic development; youth and professional education in food and agriculture; strategic planning and technical assistance, research and publications in the areas of health, nutrition policy, traditional knowledge; financial markets and asset management; and tribal governance, law and policy.

The Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative is a strategic partner in the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community’s Seeds of Native Health campaign. With a leading gift from Seeds of Native Health, IFAI is conducting a landmark project to develop a long-needed, comprehensive set of model food and agriculture codes to be customized and adopted by tribal nations. Additionally, the SMSC and IFAI are partnering with the Corporation for National and Community Service to create a cadre of 21 “Native Food Sovereignty Fellows.” IFAI is recruiting, training, deploying and supervising the work of these VISTA volunteers in 10 tribal communities.


Media contact

Sara Thatcher


Applications for VISTA positions open!

Applications for VISTA positions open!

Native Food Sovereignty Fellows positions available!


The Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative (IFAI), with generous support by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) through its Seeds of Native Health campaign, announce the opening of up to 20 VISTA positions available at up to 10 tribal governments and tribal communities throughout the United States.

VISTA is an important and vital community and public service program operated by the Corporation for National and Community Service.

This unique partnership between VISTA, the SMSC, and IFAI allows for coordination of these placements and the creation of a cohort of Native Food Sovereignty Fellows. Fellows will work in teams placed in Native American communities to contribute to and assist in efforts focused on food sovereignty, food systems, and tribal economies that build opportunities in food and agriculture.

The application period is now open. All those interested can apply directly through the AmeriCorps VISTA website, which explains the application process.VISTA positions are paid positions providing benefits, educational benefits upon successful completion of the assignment, living and housing assistance, child care (if applicable) and related support. VISTA members who are “Native Food Sovereignty Fellows” will work closely with IFAI and receive ongoing training and assistance from IFAI to augment their local work.

Space is limited, and we are looking to fill positions quickly – Apply now!

Native Food Sovereignty Fellows are being placed at these host sites:

  • Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe (Eagle Butte, SD)
  • Crow Creek Sioux Tribe (Fort Thompson, SD)
  • Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (Cherokee, NC)
  • Lower Sioux Indian Community (Morton, MN)
  • Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma (Quapaw, OK)
  • Red Lake Band of Ojibwa Indians (Red Lake, MN)
  • San Ildefenso Pueblo, NM
  • Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (Fort Yates, ND)
  • Swinomish Indian Tribal Community (La Conner, WA)
  • Village of Tyonek (Tyonek, AK)


If you have any questions, please email Director Janie Hipp at, or VISTA Coordinator Bryan Pollard at

USDA Seeks Applications for Community Development Grants

USDA Seeks Applications for Community Development Grants

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is inviting applications for grants to support economic development in rural communities.

“These grants will support partnerships between community development groups and rural communities to develop essential facilities and create jobs and business opportunities,” USDA Rural Development Acting Deputy Undersecretary Roger Glendenning said.

USDA is making grants available under the Rural Community Development Initiative (RCDI) program to strengthen the rural economy. Qualified intermediary organizations receiving RCDI grants will provide technical assistance and training to help nonprofit organizations and communities develop their capacity to undertake housing, community facilities or economic development projects. Applicants must have capacity-building experience for these types of projects and must provide matching funds at least equal to the RCDI grant. Grants range from $50,000 to $250,000.

Eligible recipients are nonprofit organizations, low-income rural communities or federally recognized tribes. RCDI grants are not provided directly to businesses or individuals.

Examples of eligible projects include homeownership education, minority business entrepreneurship, strategic community planning or assistance to access alternative funding sources.  A grant awarded to Habitat for Humanity Virginia in 2016 shows how the RCDI program is helping rural communities. The organization used a $150,000 grant to train Habitat affiliates across Virginia to rehabilitate homes as an alternative to its traditional model of building them from the ground up. Increasing the capacity of Habitat affiliates to rehabilitate dwellings will greatly increase their ability to serve more low-income families in Virginia’s rural communities.

For more information on how to apply, see page 24281 of the May 26 Federal Register. The deadline to submit paper applications is July 25, 2017.

USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; homeownership; community services such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural areas. For more information, visit


BLOOMBERG: There Aren’t Enough Slaughterhouses to Support Farm-to-Table

Sellers of high-end pork, beef, and chicken agree: there simply aren’t enough facilities to humanely and safely kill their animals.



Everything at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., has a story. Servers, chefs, and farmers at the restaurant, which was recently ranked No. 11 in the world, are there to tell it to anyone with a few hundred dollars, several hours, and a reservation.

Depending on the day’s menu, the braised pork belly may come from red wattle pigs, prized by Chef Dan Barber for their high fat content. At one point during a recent meal, a diner’s candle was extinguished and poured over plates as a sauce, because—surprise: The candle was made of beef tallow. It’s likely the only fine dining establishment where a trip to the manure shed is as coveted as dessert. All are part and parcel of the Blue Hill at Stone Barns experience.

Farm-to-table restaurants usually skip over just one small detail during these dramatic narratives. It’s arguably the most important step in the process, but few people want to think about slaughter when they’re cutting into their dinner.

It’s also often cited as the most difficult. Despite ever-increasing customer demand for noncommodity meat, there aren’t enough slaughterhouses to keep up. It’s a major hitch in the supply chain—keeping supplies down, prices up, and making the already grueling job of farming even harder.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, New York. Photographer: Cole Wilson/Bloomberg

Phil Haynes is the assistant livestock manager at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, the open-to-the-public farm and education hub that supplies many of Blue Hill’s ingredients. On a freezing March morning, he awoke before sunrise and drove four red wattles about an hour and 15 minutes to Dealaman Enterprises, Inc. in Warren, N.J. With the help of a Dealaman staffer, Haynes led the animals into a dark barn filled with the rank odor of fresh manure, before heading back to work. He’d make the same journey the next day, only then he’d return to Stone Barns with the carcasses.

Between Haynes’s trips, the animals met their fate in a small room so clean and brightly lit that a single smear of guts on the white wall seems out of place, though neat piles of them sit on the floor. In a process that takes about 30 minutes per pig, the animal is stunned, slaughtered, scalded, and eviscerated. Various innards are sorted appropriately—livers on a spike, lungs in a garbage pail.

Even at Blue Hill, which exemplifies the aspirational closed-loop, farm-to-table meal, slaughter of pigs and sheep requires a trip off premises. Under USDA regulations, farm staff must take these animals to a federally inspected facility to serve it at the restaurant or sell it at the Stone Barns store, though an exemption for small amounts of poultry staying in the state allows them to slaughter their chickens, turkeys, and ducks in an on-site, state-certified facility.

Stone Barns is more fortunate than many other farms, said Jack Algiere, the Center’s farm director. The slaughterhouse is “very close, considering,” he says. Others are forced to “drive two, three, four hours for processing.”

Phil Haynes feeds the farm’s heritage breed pigs. Photographer: Cole Wilson/Bloomberg

While the situation varies from species to species and state to state, sellers of noncommodity pork, beef, and chicken agree: there simply aren’t enough facilities to humanely and safely kill their animals.

The numbers are stark. In 1967 there were 9,627 livestock (cattle, calf, hog and sheep) slaughtering establishments in the U.S. That same year, Congress passed the Wholesome Meat Act, requiring producers to use a USDA-inspected facility if they sell meat across state lines. A mass consolidation of the meat industry followed. Today, commodity meat is dominated by large companies. Just four companies sell about 85% of America’s beef and the pork and chicken markets are similarly controlled by huge corporations. By 2016, there were only about 1,100 federally inspected meat and poultry slaughterhouses in the country.

But customers are increasingly demanding free-range meat from smaller producers that, largely because of the lack of slaughterhouse, aren’t able to supply it fast or cheap enough. Volume sales for free-range meat, for example, was up 26.9 percent in 2016, while conventional was down 0.5 percent, according to data from Nielsen Fresh.

Just a handful of large slaughterhouses handle a disproportionate amount of that American meat: Of those approximately 1,100 facilities, 215 large slaughter establishments (defined as 500 or more employees) produce about 75 percent to 90 percent of the country’s volume. At the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, N.C., for example, approximately 30,000 to 34,000 hogs are reportedly slaughtered each day. At the other end of the spectrum is Dealaman, the only federally inspected hog slaughterhouse in New Jersey, which processes a paltry 1,200 pigs a week.

The explanations for the struggles of the small slaughterhouses vary but inevitably come down to two interrelated factors—regulations that favor large meatpackers and uneven enforcement of those regulations.

The federal rules for packing houses are, understandably, complex, and adherence can be expensive. But they are essentially the same whether a facility is slaughtering 100 head each day or 10,000. Many argue that laws created to help inspectors monitor large facilities are ill-suited to small ones. “There is no question in my mind that you can have a safe, operating small custom house without having the same regulations that you have for a large packer,” said J. Dudley Butler, the former head of the USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration, who actively worked to diversify the meat industry during his tenure. “That’s a terrible regulatory burden on small packing houses.”

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service offers a small plant help desk and help with regulations and trainings, but smaller operators still complain about not being in the know, because they don’t have the resources. “We simply don’t have the capacity to send a guy to every trade seminar to learn how to game the system,” says Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and co-owner of the processing plant T&E Meats.

Chickens rest under a mobile coop at Stone Barns. Photographer: Cole Wilson/Bloomberg

Smaller slaughterhouse operators commonly make claims of disparate treatment and even intimidation by inspectors. Large establishments rack up violations as well—their noncompliance rate is actually a bit higher than that of their smaller counterparts. But smaller facilities see a disproportionate amount of enforcement. In April 2017, seven enforcement actions were issued, according to an FSIS spokesperson—and five went to small and very small plants. In other words, slaughterhouses that produce a maximum of 25 percent of the country’s beef, pork, and chicken received 71 percent of the month’s enforcement actions.

The USDA says it’s just doing its job. “USDA’s FSIS makes no exceptions when it comes to the safety of our food supply and protecting the health of American families,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “Our inspectors take appropriate regulatory actions to ensure that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry and egg products is safe and wholesome, regardless of the size of the establishment.”

As consumers clamor for small-scale meat, producers are racing to provide it, but the lack of slaughterhouses hinders growth.

“This is my bottleneck in my company today,” says Ariane Daguin, owner of high-end meat purveyor D’Artagnan. Daguin insists on approving not just the farms but also the slaughter facilities processing her meat, which she says can be a particular challenge. She works with a range of heritage breeds whose varied sizes and morphologies need more flexibility than a typical, highly mechanized assembly line setup can offer. When the Pennsylvania plant that had been processing her Amish-raised chickens went out of business, she had to reconfigure the whole supply chain, eventually substituting birds raised and slaughtered in the Midwest to fill the gap. “Today we are back with the same [Amish farmers],” she says. “But it took me two and a half years to find a replacement.”

Scheduling is another challenge. Slaughterhouses often require six months notice. The independent, USDA slaughterhouses that are still in business are often booked solid, and cancellations for such things as illness or poor weather can be costly. It can take months to get a new appointment, forcing farmers to devote more time and resources to the animals in question, which cuts into their already slim margins. “What was a profit now becomes a loss,” says Jon McConaughy, co-founder of Double Brook Farm in Hopewell, N.J., who built his own on-site slaughterhouse for approximately $350,000 after concluding it was the most economically feasible option.

Berkshire pigs feed in the pen at Stone Barns. Photographer: Cole Wilson/Bloomberg

Finding a local slaughterhouse is not just a matter of time and convenience. Small-scale farmers with heritage animals pride themselves on the higher animal welfare standards they say produce superior meat. After devoting months to carefully raising rare breeds on customized diets, farmers are loathe to end the animals’ lives at facilities that may mistreat them. Farmers say they will travel longer distances for better facilities they trust more. The last slaughterhouse Stone Barns used, Haynes said, was mistreating the animals. “I’m not working with those guys anymore. They don’t respect us, don’t respect the animals.”

It’s not just a compassion issue—transportation of livestock is often cited as a major stressor for animals and associated with lower meat quality, and the last hours or minutes in an animal’s life can undo months of effort.

Facilities that are better for animals are often likely to be better for workers, too. Unlike the large processing houses, where workers’ repetitive motions often lead to carpal tunnel syndrome and other injuries, Dealaman’s workers move around, trading positions and tasks, one minute gutting, the next sweeping, the next scalding. This is not uncommon in small operations, but it also adds to the price of meat.

Such a flexible workplace requires more higher-skilled laborers, so smaller operations often offer a higher hourly wage than large plants. “We take care of our folks, pay way above the minimum wage, in the $20-to-$22-per-hour range,” said Salatin. That is significantly higher than the $13/hour average wage for a slaughterhouse worker in the US.

In 2015, Republican Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Democrat Chellie Pingree of Maine (both farmers) introduced the PRIME [Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption] Act in the House of Representatives. The bill would allow farmers to sell chops, steaks, and other cuts of beef and pork processed in state-regulated custom slaughterhouses as long as the sales stayed within state lines.

“My wife just drove three hours to pick up three steers,” said Massie, who raises grass-fed crossbreeds of Angus and Wagyu cattle on his farm. “The frustrating thing is that she passed a processor three miles from our house that can do the exact same thing, but it’s not a USDA facility. ”

The bill faces stiff opposition from strange bedfellows: the Big Meat lobbyists at the North American Meat Institute and consumer group Food & Water Watch.

“Despite what these advocates want to believe, bacteria don’t distinguish between large and small facilities,” says Eric Mittenthal of the North American Meat Institute. “To have the safest food system possible, the same food safety standards should be followed by everyone.”

Adam Kaye, vice president of culinary affairs, butchers a Berkshire pork leg at the Blue Hill restaurant. Photographer: Cole Wilson/Bloomberg

“We don’t think the PRIME Act really deals with the safety concerns,” says Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for the food campaign at Food & Water Watch, largely because custom slaughterhouses must meet state regulations but do not have inspectors on site at all times.

Some say that’s inadequate. “At the state levels, the quality of the kill, process, and safety, frankly, is not sufficient,” Daguin says. “You do need regulations, but the regulations in force are the wrong ones.”

Massie argues that these smaller scale, state-regulated custom slaughterhouses provide more traceability and less commingling of products from different sources, which ultimately makes them safer. Federal regulations, he said, “have failed to protect the public from mass recalls and very large outbreaks of food-borne illnesses.”

Advocates also point to the recent scandal around Brazilian meat giant JBS SA. In March, Brazilian authorities announced an investigation into evidence that the company bribed government officials to allow the export of its tainted meat.  While the USDA says no beef from the implicated facilities has reached the U.S., and FSIS has stepped up its inspections on imports from the country, PRIME Act advocates ask why Brazil has better access to US markets than many American ranchers do.

The PRIME Act doesn’t require allowing sales of these meats; it simply gives states the authority to regulate such sales themselves. But Massie blames the industry for wanting to keep the status quo. “There aren’t any big moneyed interests in Congress supporting this bill, and if you want to see what’s happening in Congress, generally you should follow the money,” Massie says. “When you dig into the opposition, a lot of times you’ll find it’s funded by one of the meatpackers.”

Agribusiness spent more than $133 million on lobbying in 2015, but Mittenthal says “zero dollars and resources” were expended by NAMI on this issue.

Massie plans to reintroduce the bill in the next few months and hopes its bipartisan nature will help move it along. “Republicans like that we’re reducing federal regulations, and the Democrats like that it will enable production and consumption of local food,” he said.

For now, though, he and his wife will keep having to make the three-hour trek each way to the slaughterhouse. “That’s not very environmentally friendly or efficient,” he said.