Tucked away behind the trees along Bendigo Boulevard in the Snoqualmie Valley, Lulu Redder and her farmhand stand underneath two canopies, processing chickens five at a time, with Redder’s two dogs and 5-month-old daughter, Rosie, not far off.
A first generation farmer, Redder owns the small 10 acre Feral Woman Farm just outside of downtown North Bend, where she raises livestock in the form of chickens, rabbits and pigs.
The summer months mark the beginning of the busy season for livestock producers like Redder, who has been working double-overtime hours to prepare her full-grown chickens to be processed and sold. The chickens she’s producing today, however, she will not be able to legally sell.
A month ago, Redder and many small farmers in the region were hit with a bombshell when Carnation Farms, the only state-permitted poultry processing plant in King County outside of Vashon Island, announced in late July that they were canceling all processing reservations for the remainder of the year beginning in August.
Without Carnation Farms’ processing plant, many King County farmers, who already have limited options for meat processing, lost a needed resource — and in some cases, like Redder, were left without a way to sell their products.
“This blow is a lethal one for many low-volume producers,” Redder said. “We need more options for small farmers.”
Redder and many small producers plan their season around Carnation Farms and other state-permitted processing plants, which allow them to sell the livestock they raise to consumers. Selling meat is a heavily regulated process and processing facilities are limited, with almost none within an hour’s drive of the Snoqualmie Valley.
Given its importance to local farmers, the decision to close Carnation Farms was not made lightly, said Paul Shoemaker, the farm’s interim executive director. He said the farm had reached a boiling point.
Going into the summer, Shoemaker said, the farm faced significant hurdles due to staffing shortages and equipment malfunctions. By July, they realized there were too many variables they were not certain they could get right, he said, and decided to close down until next year.
“We spent a month or two trying every-which-way we possibly could to make it work – and believe me, we’re well aware of the impacts it has on farmers,” Shoemaker said.
“We called and talked to everybody personally and understandably their reactions were everywhere from ‘we get it’ to ‘boy I’m really ticked off at you,’ and those are all valid feelings,” he said. “The last thing we wanted to do was shut it down.”
‘This is not an isolated event’
The need for additional processing in King County has been a longstanding one. The need has been felt by poultry and red meat producers in the region for decades, but has become spotlighted in a post-pandemic era, said Patrice Barrentine, an agriculture policy and economic development specialist with the King County Department of Natural Resources.
“This is not an isolated event,” Barrentine said of the Carnation Farms closure. “Every processing plant I know of in Western Washington is having workforce and supply chain issues.”
While meat sold across state lines is required to be processed through a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) permitted-facility, federal law allows states to regulate sales within state lines. In Washington, that is handled by the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA).
Under state law, there are two ways producers can process and then sell their poultry within the state. The first and most convenient option is through a WSDA permitted facility, like a Carnation Farms, that can process up to 20,000 birds and allows farmers to sell their products in most capacities.
These facilities are lacking in the state, especially in King County. According to a list provided by Barrentine, the only other state-licensed poultry processing facility in King County is on Vashon Island. Outside of that, the closest options for Valley Farmers are either south of Tacoma or north of Gold Bar.
Without a processing facility nearby, King County farmers end up spending more time transporting their livestock to processing facilities, which results in more stress for the animals and greater contributions to carbon emissions, making it more difficult to sell and profit from meat in King County.
That is troubling because King County’s geography dictates a need for livestock producers to have a local food source, Barrentine said. Only about 2% of money spent by county residents on food and beverages were produced in King County, according to King County’s Local Food Initiative.
“King County’s soil is such that it is not great for vegetable production, meaning livestock farming is our best option,” Barrentine said.
Outside of state approved facilities, the only other option for state producers to sell their poultry is through a WSDA Special Permit.
The special permit allows farmers to process up to 1,000 birds on-farm, but comes with a stricter set of requirements, including that birds have to be sold whole and unfrozen within 48 hours of being processed and cannot be sold anywhere outside of the farm or a farmers market.
Getting a special permit takes about 8-10 weeks, about the life of a chicken. Redder, who produces about 150 birds a month, said she tried to get an expedited permit after Carnation Farms’ closure, but was unable to do so because WSDA is experiencing a high demand for those permits.
While many farmers are struggling to find ways to sell their products, demand for local food, including meat, in the county has never been higher, Barrentine said.
“These folks are working so hard to bring you local meats,” Barrentine said. “Please buy them.”
While Barrentine acknowledged this an unfortunate time of year for closures to happen, she said historic levels of funding are being directed toward meat processors.
Elizabeth Carlson, a spokesperson for U.S. Congressmember Kim Schrier, said concerns about meat processing are the number one issue they hear from meat producers in the 8th Congressional District. Schrier, who represents the Snoqualmie Valley and majority of King County, is the only member of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee from the Northwest.
Recently, Carlson said, the Agriculture Committee unanimously passed the Butcher Block Act, which creates a grant and loan program through the USDA rural development office with aims to create more processing options for meat producers and restore supply chain resilience.
The USDA also introduced the Meat and Poultry Processing Expansion Program, which offered processing facilities the opportunity to submit applications for grant funding to support expansion and supply chain resilience.
For Redder out in North Bend, she is preparing to take matters into her own hands and provide another processing option that would support others in the Snoqualmie Valley farming community.
Last year, well before Carnation Farm’s closure, she was able to crowdfund enough money to build a WSDA processing unit she could operate at her farm and open up to those in need. The processing unit is currently under construction, but she said she is hopeful to have it up and running and permitted by this winter.
“Now more than ever we need this resource to provide essential services to those underserved communities,” she said. “This is a project that the support of the community made possible, and I want to make sure it is available to serve this community.”