Citizens of Alaska will need to decide whether they want to eat home grown meats or meat from Chinese and Brazilian companies.
January 14, 2016
Ruthan Stitt, 16, moves an exotic pig that she raised into the barn on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015, in preparation for the Alaska State Fair. Bill Roth / ADN
PALMER — Alaska State Fair organizers warn that closing a state-run slaughterhouse in Palmer could empty the animal exhibits that draw hordes of fairgoers to the livestock barn.
The fair issued its warning even though state officials announced this week that Gov. Bill Walker’s proposed budget includes about $2 million of one-year operations funding for Mt. McKinley Meat and Sausage, Southcentral Alaska’s only U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified meat processing plant.
If the funding stands — legislators could yank it during the upcoming session — it would reverse the anticipated closure of the plant June 30, the end of the fiscal year. A number of state legislators have signaled their reluctance for the state to run the slaughterhouse, especially given the $3.5 billion deficit looming over the session in Juneau.
The plant loses money almost every year. The last fiscal year saw a loss of $155,000, according to Ben Vanderweele, a Palmer farmer who chairs the state agriculture board. But that money came out of the Agricultural Revolving Loan Fund, not the general fund, Vanderweele said. "It takes zero new money from the state of Alaska to run the meat plant," he said. "It operates on ARLF money and if there is a loss, it comes from money that borrowers, farmers — us — pay on their (agricultural) loans in the form of interest."
At a Wednesday night meeting in Palmer convened by Alaska Farmland Trust, the fair expressed concern that the closure could jeopardize the hugely popular livestock barn. Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assemblyman Matthew Beck, whose children participate in 4-H, hosted the meeting to allow the group to meet in Assembly chambers.
The USDA-certified plant allows farmers raising red-meat animals to sell to individual customers, grocery stores and restaurants. It also provides a usually invisible role in the fair by processing at least half the large 4-H livestock — cows, sheep, goats, hogs — auctioned off every year, 4-H supporters say.
About 90 percent of the animals on exhibit at the fair are 4-H or Future Farmers of America projects, fair board president Carol Kenley said at Wednesday’s forum. The only way the young people raising the animals recoup their costs is selling them for meat, Kenley said.
“Without a licensed, inspected slaughterhouse, there would be no market,” she said. “They would not be able to auction these animals.”
The fair board plans to submit a resolution in support of Mt. McKinley to the Legislature. The topic is one of two — along with opposing the elimination of daylight saving time — that the fair’s $25,000-a-year lobbyist will work on in Juneau, according to a registration form filed by lobbyist Bill Allen.
Last year, fair livestock processed at the plant amounted to six cows, 17 hogs, 10 lambs and three sheep, and most likely a similar number of animals brought up by Kenai Peninsula 4-H participants, according to Lee Hecimovich, 4-H Mat-Su district agent. A good share of those animals are then donated to food banks or soup kitchens, Hecimovich said in an interview Thursday. Without a USDA facility, those donations couldn’t happen.
Shuttering the plant would decimate Alaska’s livestock industry, farmers say. Supporters of the slaughterhouse say they hope to find someone to lease the facility while it remains under state ownership. Other options include a farmers’ cooperative or sale to a private entity.
But at the moment, even supporters of the plant acknowledge that Alaska lacks the herd numbers and local meat marketing to make a privately run plant financially feasible right away.
“Whoever takes this over is not going to run a profitable plant for several years to come,” said Scott Mugrage, a Delta farmer with 400 cattle who is working as local chapter head of the Alaska Farm Bureau on a privatization strategy. “So it’s going to take deep pockets and a lot of willingness to do this.”
The Walker administration inserted the one-year funding for the plant to allow for more time to come up with a solution, deputy Alaska Department of Natural Resources commissioner Ed Fogels said Thursday.
Several legislators attended Wednesday’s forum, all Mat-Su Republicans: Sen. Mike Dunleavy, Rep. Shelley Hughes and Rep. Lynn Gattis. Walker’s Valley staffer, Sarah Heath, was also there, as was an aide to Rep. Jim Colver.
Dunleavy, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, asked for a “one-pager” summarizing the plant’s bottom line.
Beck counted 88 people at the forum, according to Amy Pettit, executive director of Alaska Farmland Trust. Livestock producers made up about half of the 61 who signed in, Pettit said. Nearly all supported a year of additional funding for the plant. About half supported privatization.