Farming in rural Perry County, Brooks Miller has had to drive hours, sometimes all the way to Maryland, to find a USDA-certified facility to slaughter animals for his meat CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).
But with feed prices going through the roof, he’s had to think of ways to cut down on costs to keep his business profitable.
Instead of trying to find a closer USDA-certified shop to take his animals, he’s decided to bring the USDA to him, sort of.
Recently, Miller and the owner of Kistler’s Butcher Shop in Loysville, Pa., celebrated a new partnership that Miller said will enable him to cut his processing costs in half, while at the same time providing Kistler’s with additional customers.
“It took a long, long time to set up,” said Miller, who with his wife, Anna Santini, has operated North Mountain Pastures farm since 2009.
On March 4, a USDA inspector came to Kistler’s Butcher Shop, 20 miles from the farm, to oversee processing of some of Miller’s animals.
“The first day went well. Everybody was kind of on edge the first day, but the second day went much easier,” he said.
Miller and Dennis Kistler, owner of Kistler’s Butcher Shop, have what Miller calls a “loose agreement,” where Kistler provides the slaughtering facility in return for Miller arranging to get the certifications for bringing the facility up to USDA specifications.
Miller started the process two years ago, taking classes at Penn State to get his Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points, or HACCP, certification. Along with that, he visited facilities, such as Rumbleway Farm in Maryland, to see what sort of things had to be done to get Kistler’s facilities up to USDA standards.
Miller said it took close to two years after he started the process to get a meeting with a USDA inspector to go over, step by step, what it would take to get an inspector out to the facility to oversee the kill process.
Kistler said a lot of improvements had to be made, including replacing various tools he was using and lots of cosmetic improvements.
He said he also hopes to be certified organic soon and become one of only a handful of butcher shops in the state to be USDA certified, certified organic and endorsed by Animal Welfare Approved.
“It benefits my business because it should double the amount of business I had,” Kistler said. “Also, by having this business, it should more than double the effect on the local economy.”
Miller said that having a USDA-certified facility 20 miles away is already cutting down on the amount of time and fuel he’s has to use to get his animals to slaughter, even though the costs of having the animals slaughtered is actually a little higher.
“I would guess we are saving probably 50 percent of our processing costs in having a local processor. The biggest thing is, we have a really close relationship with him (Kistler) too,” Miller said.
Most of the meat slaughtered at the butcher shop will be sold through the meat CSA that Miller and Santini have on their pasture-based farm.
The business was started in 2009, two years after the couple got into farming.
Neither one had a farming background. Both were engineering majors in college and during summer breaks, Miller took summer jobs in Texas, one year working for NASA.
Although he said he enjoyed the aerospace industry, he became increasingly concerned with the type of work he was doing and whether it fit his creative personality.
“I just had moral objections working on potentially important aerospace weapons. So I was looking for a long time for an alternative,” Miller said. “I felt like the use of energy was pretty much our most pressing issue. I just like to be in control of the energy I was using. I wanted to take responsibility for it.”
He also wanted to be outside, he said, “doing something with his hands.”
At the same time, Miller said his future wife began having concerns over how food was being raised and the treatment of animals.
So they got into farming, initially leasing land from Hope Springs Farm in Hershey, Pa. The couple got married on the farm and had their first child there.
They then leased land owned by Longacre Camp in Perry County. Two years ago, they purchased 84 acres of their own not far from the camp.
“It’s been a crazy race trying to get stuff done, getting water systems put in, putting up fencing for all of the animals. All of the startup is tough to plan for, and it is really expensive,” Miller said.
About 80 percent of the couple’s income comes from the CSA, which started with just chickens and some beef bought in from another farm.
Since then, it’s expanded to include the pigs, lamb, ducks and goats the couple raise, along with some rabbits and salmon they bring in from other farms. Everything is raised on pasture, with the exception, of course, of the salmon.
The meat CSA is similar to a typical vegetable or fruit CSA, in that customers pay an upfront fee to “subscribe” to the CSA and in return get a set amount of product each month; in this case, lots of meat.
The CSA runs from July to November, with a “second season” from February to June.
Miller said the challenge of running a meat CSA is setting up the share types to fit his farm’s production and the market he’s serving. It’s also educating his customers about different cuts of meat.
“With our pork and our beef and our lamb, we actually tell people they are getting their whole share of an animal across the full season. For example, with beef, one month they might get T-bone,” he said.
“Next month, they might get chipped steak and cubes. We just keep track of the yield of the beef,” he said. “It’s an educational thing. What is actually in the yield of the animal and actually how to use it, that’s a big component of what we do.”
Since Miller has already earned his HACCP certification, the couple’s next step is to start a custom shop at the farm to do more value-added products, like specialty sausages.
“It’s definitely a big learning curve when it comes to that. It’s coming along. The biggest difference is good meat and good ingredients and doing stuff the old way, with fresh herbs and spices,” he said.
The couple raised more than $40,000 for the project through Kickstarter, an online funding program that allows people to finance projects anywhere in the world.
Miller said a portion of the money has been used to build a small shop on the farm, but the planned aging room in an earthen bank has not been built and he has failed to get the necessary permitting from the local government.
With the sequester likely to cut back on the hours of USDA inspectors around the country, Miller worries about what sort of impact that will have on Kistler’s Butcher Shop and whether it will mean he’ll have to once again have his meat processed at a facility much farther from his farm.
Along with that, he worries about the impact of feed costs on the business.
“Our biggest thing is pig feed costs, figuring out ways to produce more of our feed on our land for pigs and chickens. That can be anything from sprouting barley for the pigs to growing worms for the chickens,” he said.
Although it can be struggle at times, Miller said the family is at least making a living, which is fine for him, since he gets to see his wife and his two kids, Kaj, 5, and Layla, 2, more often than not.
“It’s not really our goal to make a lot of money. We didn’t come into this with money. We’re not independently wealthy. We’re trying to make farming pay for itself,” he said. “For us, it’s a lifestyle and a great way to raise our kids.”