Commentary: Meaty maneuvers

In the wake of a week of troubling news from the Middle East and yet more campaign nonsense it's time to end the week on a positive note.

It's a story about an unlikely project in a near-forgotten state, at least as far as animal agriculture is concerned.

Called "More Maine Meat," the project aims to improve the economic returns for livestock producers in Maine, in addition to growing the state's meat industry by supporting development of more forage-based resources."

The project is being implemented by the Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society in conjunction with University of Maine.The society's stated mission is "to explore, develop and promote agricultural systems and practices that allow Maine farmers to retain a greater share of consumer expenditures for farm products. This will be accomplished by developing methods to reduce the need for purchased inputs and by adding value to farm production."

In more practical terms, the concept is for Maine farmers and ranchers to be positioned to fulfill a larger proportion of the New England region's demand for meat.

Now, it would be easy to dismiss the project as a mere drop in the proverbial bucket, a small-scale, localized initiative that won't change the landscape (literally) as far as producing, processing and distributing meat and poultry products to New England's approximately 15 million inhabitants.

Even subtracting all the wanna-be veggies adherents, who presumably will be filling up on soyburgers and broccoli, that's still an awful lot of meat. Although a significant portion of regional dairy products come from in-state producers, the truth is thatno matter how successful the society's project might be, the overwhelming volume of Maine's animal protein consumption will end up being sourced from Mid-Atlantic hog farms, Southeastern poultry operations and Western feedyards.

But the benefit of this and other similar locally focused projects isn't about changing the fundamentals of U.S. livestock production. It's not even about radically altering the "food miles" our basic commodities travel before ending up in the neighborhood grocery store's meat case, although that is certainly a positive results, no matter how limited it might be.

No, the real benefit here is providing a business model that keeps smaller farmers and ranchers in the black and in the industry. For a whole variety of reasons particularly the importance of preserving farmland and pasture whenever and wherever it can be done projects such as More Maine Meat serve a valuable purpose.

Short-term, we need to maintain as diversified a food production system as possible. That means as more farmers and producers staying in and entering the business. That means a variety of operations, considering size and scale and specialization. That means as many choices of products in the marketplace as possible.

Longer term benefits

Right now, the project's working group is developing an action plan that will capitalize on existing resources throughout the Northeast, while researching specific issues relevant to Maine. The participants, who include producers and volunteer faculty from the University of Maine, are grappling with a number of issues that limit the potential growth of livestock production, including processing, production and distribution of product to market.

Those are critical challenges, ones not easily overcome.

But here's the perspective that needs to be considered here. By itself, projects such as More Maine Meat won't make a monumental difference in the existing system of animal agriculture.

However, imagine hundreds of such projects being launched in dozens of states. That would make a big difference, with one likely result: Some of the growing percentage of consumers who proclaim to eschew eating meat because they find so-called factory farms problematic might be coaxed back to the center of the plate if locally grown, farmer-friendly alternatives were available, even at less-than competitive prices.

That alone is a development to be embraced by anyone in the industry.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.