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Farmers hoping to save Mat-Su slaughterhouse take activism online

  • Author: Suzanna Caldwell
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 1, 2015

After years of back and forth, the clock is ticking for the Mt. McKinley Meat and Sausage Plant.

Southcentral Alaska's only USDA-certified meat processing facility will close at the end of June, when the state's fiscal year ends. One-time operational funding from the state Legislature earlier in the year has kept the plant going. But with no state funding in place after that, farmers are trying to figure out ways to keep the plant open, starting with Facebook.

Heated discussions within the Alaska Farm and Food page rose to such a level that Division of Agriculture Director Franci Havemeister hosted a one-hour teleconference Wednesday updating members of the group on the status of the plant and answering questions about what they could do.

Without USDA certification, farmers raising red-meat animals in Alaska can't sell the meat to restaurants, grocery stores or individuals. The certification prevents sick animals from entering the food chain and allows a chain of command in case of illness. The Palmer location is the only facility certified to serve farmers in the Mat-Su and the Kenai Peninsula.

In the call Wednesday, Havemeister reiterated that while the division supports operation of the plant, the Legislature controls what happens next.

Funding for the plant comes from the Agriculture Revolving Loan Fund and not the state's general fund, but since the state operates the plant, legislators still must approve operational funds.

While funding was approved for one more year, even that almost didn't happen. East Anchorage Sen. Bill Wielechowski offered an amendment that would have cut operational funding entirely.

In an interview this week, Wielechowski said he supports the plant, but doesn't think the facility should be run by the state. His amendment to stop even the one-time funding was what he called a push to "accelerate" the process of pushing the slaughterhouse into private ownership.

"When I made the amendment on the floor, Sen. Meyer put down his gavel and everyone in the room -- there was this sort of stunned disbelief that we were actually funding a slaughterhouse," Wielechowski said. "No one even knew we'd been funding it."

The plant has operated at a $100,000 deficit every fiscal year since at least 2008, according to financial documents from the Division of Agriculture. The plant did, however, make a $42,488 profit last fiscal year.

Havemeister noted that when she appealed to the Legislature earlier in the year, even the profit wasn't enough to convince them to fund it beyond 2016.

That's left many farmers frustrated.

"So basically, every year we have to fight for our lives for $100,000 or more to sustain the agriculture industry in the state of Alaska?" one woman said on the conference call Wednesday. "That's just not right."

Michelle Payne, co-owner of Wild Angels Ranch in the Butte, said most of her customers want their meat butchered and that means going through the slaughterhouse. If the Palmer facility closes, she said it could mean the end of their business.

Payne is organizing the Facebook group called Alaskans Working to Keep MMM&S Open. She and others have been trying to figure how to keep the plant open, floating ideas on how to employ a limited number of workers and considering how to make the plant more cost-effective.

"Enough people need to make enough noise that they realize that there is still power in agriculture and it's in the farmers and it's in the consumers," she said in an interview Friday. "We need to be the ones who stand up and say, 'This is what we're going to do with agriculture in our state.'"

In the conference call, Havemeister encouraged farmers to contact legislators to encourage them to keep funding the plant. She said in an interview Wednesday that the Division of Agriculture was waiting to hear from the Alaska Farm Bureau's "red meat working group" to figure out next steps in dealing with the plant.

The bureau authorized a study in early October looking at how to deal with the plant. That study, conducted by outside consultants, found that the state should maintain ownership of the plant but lease it to a private operator.

Until a decision is made, Payne hopes to keep farmers' spirits up in the meantime.

"I don't want people to be as discouraged as they are right now," she said. "But if you say to somebody who is just coming into this, 'If you produce 15 hogs this year, you have no place to take them. I hope you have a big freezer, because you're going to eat them.' That's ridiculous."

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