Ranchers Can’t Sell Locally – Thanks Feds!

Posted: August 15, 2012 in Uncategorized

CYNDY COLE Sun Staff Reporter

There’s a big disconnect when Coconino County ranchers think of selling their beef to a local family or grocery store: They can’t get it there from here.

Some estimate the ranchers are missing out on perhaps $10 million in sales of grass-fed beef.

A longstanding lack of state and federal inspectors means the beef cannot get the approval it needs by law to be sold locally, and ranchers instead ship calves off to feed and be butchered elsewhere.

So Flagstaff exports its cattle to other states, then imports its steaks.

“We’re dependent on 18-wheelers full of pallets of frozen meat,” said business owner Jonathan Netzky, who turns to meat processors in Chino Valley to sell beef from Flying M Ranch.

This scenario will continue, it appears.

Listening to complaints from neighbors, the Coconino County Planning and Zoning Commission voted down a Cosnino family’s proposal to add a federal Agriculture Department inspector and a 720-square-foot building expansion where local cattle would be slaughtered, inspected and butchered.

Dennis Champagne, owner of Coconino Game Processing in Cosnino since 1999, already butchers some 700 game animals annually during hunting season, along with some 50 to 75 domestic pigs, sheep and cattle raised by families for their own consumption.

VOCAL MAJORITY

Acting partly at the request of local chefs and food groups, he had proposed to add 20 or 30 domestic animals per month outside of hunting season — or perhaps 240 animals per year — with the meat to be sold commercially.

Neighbors were divided, but a vocal majority spoke out against the plan at the end of July. In the end, seven out of eight county zoning commissioners defeated it.

“Our property values are already at an all-time low, and then we would have to disclose a slaughterhouse when we decide to sell,” said neighbor Kim Gussman.

Gussman and her husband are offering more remote property for the business on Leupp Road.

Attorney Tony Cullum spoke on behalf of opponents.

“We’re going to make it from a small, wild-game processor to a large slaughterhouse,” he argued.

Several other neighbors said the business had already been in violation of the conditions of its use permit.

“We have never been notified. We have never been included. As we all admit, we have never complained because we wanted to be good neighbors,” said neighbor Pats Shriver.

HANDSHAKES AND TEARS

If Champagne’s property were a few hundred feet closer to Interstate 40 to the north, he could be zoned for a truck stop or restaurant, he noted.

He referenced no complaints on file from his neighbors in 13 years.

“I look behind me right now and I see people who are very dear to me, and it hurts,” he said.

Rarely does a planning and zoning discussion over one item last four hours, draw dozens of residents, and prompt handshakes and tears.

Netzky, who works on behalf of groups supporting local food, later said he was unhappy with the decision.

“I’m very confused as to how the judgment was made by seven people that he had outgrown his conditional use permit,” he said.

RANCHING ON DECLINE

About 90 percent of Coconino County’s “agriculture” is cattle, said Ron Hubert, past president of the Coconino County Sustainable Economic Development Initiative.

Studies he tracks put its worth at perhaps $10 million.

The number of local ranchers has decreased recently, as the price of beef hasn’t kept up with feed and fuel costs, Hubert said.

Research also shows small meat-processing operations typically only succeed when launched out of an elk and deer processing shop, as Champagne has, or on a very large scale.

“It’s really hard to make a processing plant work — to make it economically viable,” Hubert said.

Julie Walker works for Morrison Brothers Windmill Ranch, near Newman Park, located south of Flagstaff.

The number of head she can run on the Coconino National Forest has been cut in recent years, so she’s trying to find a new way to make the operation profitable.

Bashas and New Frontiers have told her they’d buy a combined 16 head of cattle per month, as grass-fed beef, if she could find a way to get the meat inspected so she could sell it to them.

“We can’t make it as ranches without an ability to be able to get product to market,” she told the commission.

It’s possible she’ll look to form a cooperative to process meat with other ranchers.

GOOD IDEA, WRONG LOCATION

Six of the eight commissioners voiced concerns about granting the permits to allow the business to expand, though most said it was a good idea but in the wrong location.

All voted to allow game processing to continue — something some neighbors had also opposed.

“There is a death stigma,” to a slaughtering facility, Commissioner Tammy Ontiveros said, adding that she did believe it would negatively impact property values.

Commissioner Mary C. Williams disagreed.

“I don’t believe that the property values are that affected,” she said. “I don’t think it’s Dennis’ fault. I think there’s a lot of fear going around.”

This was purely a land-use issue, Commissioner John Ruggles said, and a question about what counts as a “cottage industry.”

Discussion about allowing the business to grow a little more, then move, was a nonstarter with Commissioner Sat Best.

“We can’t force people to water their trees, much less move their business,” he said.

‘GREAT, NEAT HOUSES’

Best asked why the business couldn’t expand somewhere else, and said the idea from the audience with their bigger, more manicured homes was unified in one regard.

“The message from the community to the applicant is clear as a bell: Make the place look like our great, neat houses,” Best said.

Cyndy Cole can be reached at ccole@azdailysun.com or at 913-8607.

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