TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — Cheryl Ouellette has a dream about meat — real meat, local meat, and how meat can save the family farm.
Known as the "Pig Lady" for the swine she nurtures at her Summit-area farm, Ouellette is the source and the force for the first mobile meat-processing unit in Pierce County.
She is project manager for the Puget Sound Meat Producers Cooperative, which runs the traveling slaughterhouse.
The purpose-built, 45-foot-long trailer is designed to act as a portable abattoir where farmers and ranchers can have their livestock dispatched, skinned, gutted, cut, chilled and made ready for packaging.
After years of planning — and an eventual investment of more than $200,000 from the Pierce County Conservation District and a $25,000 loan from Ouellette herself — the unit became operational last August.
It's all about how meat goes from the field to the table.
Since August, unit butchers have butchered — and on-site U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors have inspected — some 68,000 pounds of beef; 5,500 pounds of pork; 5,500 pounds of lamb and 700 pounds of goat.
No longer does Becky Weed, owner of Harlow Cattle Co. in Spanaway, need to send her beef cattle to auction or to a feedlot.
"Until this unit, and the cooperative, there were no easy alternatives for people like us to market our cattle as beef instead of animals. This has opened an entire small-farm industry," she said this week.
"It will allow us for the first time to break even or make a small profit," she said. "Now, I can get about twice as much per animal as beef."
Weed joined the Puget Sound Meat Producers Cooperative in November, shortly after the traveling slaughterhouse began operations.
"We were aware of it, but nobody approached us," she said. "Now, I'm on the board. I've gone from not being very sure to being very enthusiastic."
No longer does Joe Keehn, owner of Farmer George's Meats in Port Orchard, need to ship in beef for his customers. Now, he can use his own.
"It's just made it more easy for me to move cattle through our store," he said. "I've increased the number of cattle I've got — because of the unit. I can keep my store supplied instead of bringing in meat from the Midwest. My customers are very satisfied."
This little revolution has only just begun, Keehn said.
"It's going to make it a lot easier for a lot of farmers to keep on farming."
And no longer will Lee Markholt, owner of The Meat Shop of Tacoma, need to haul his cattle 326 miles roundtrip from Pierce County to a certified-organic processing plant in Sandy, Ore. — taking an entire day away from his shop.
"It was costing me about $75 per trip," he said. "Multiply that by 60 or 70 trips a year."
Now, he said, he can nearly walk his cattle a few hundred yards to where the mobile unit is stationed along Vickery Road.
"It's a real blessing for me," he said. "It certainly absolutely will affect my bottom line, for the better for sure."
Of Ouellette, he said, "She's put a tremendous amount of effort into this. She's been the backbone of the deal."
So far, the unit has traveled to farms in Sequim and Elma, Port Orchard and Tumwater. Eventually, said operations manager Carrie Coineandubh, it will travel to several Western Washington counties, from Pierce, King and Snohomish to Mason, Kitsap, Grays Harbor and beyond.
The cooperative counts 75 members, Ouellette said. It could use 25 more immediately, with an eye toward a total of 200 — producers, restaurant owners and others.
"Hopefully, at 200 we will be fully capitalized," she said. "We'll have enough animals to work full time, four days a week.
The cooperative can break even by working three days per week, said Coineandubh.
Ouellette's goal is to work herself out of a job.
"I'm not a processor. I'm a farmer," Ouellette said. "I've been putting my life into this. My herb business has gone by the wayside."
Ultimately, she said, it's about more than just meat.
"My major passion is to educate other farmers about how to direct-market, how to build relationships, and hopefully to inspire young people to become farmers. I haven't been doing that. I've taken two years and scaled back. Now, we hand it over to the cooperative to run. I'll have time to inspire young people — and grow pigs."
The cooperative recently passed a major USDA inspection and has received clearance from a veterinarian that it meets federal standards of the Humane Slaughter Act. The unit has likewise received the certification necessary to process meat that can be classified as organic.
"I alternate from euphoria and then wondering what comes next," Ouellette said.
"I want to save small farmers," she said. "I want them to have sustainable incomes and be proud of what they do. We've got to get this across the country."
For her, it's nearly a religion — stable farms, hometown farmers, a local, sustainable food supply.
"There is more demand for local food than there are local farmers," she said. "I have to grow more farmers."