Karen Ott-Mayer Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Karen Ott-Mayer

A cow or a community?

A few weeks ago, a friend walked through my front door and sat down.

“I have some bad news,” he said.

He proceeded to tell me that Pitcock’s, the local meat processor located in Pope, decided to shut down for nearly half the year and process livestock only for a few months each year.

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I found the news not only disappointing, but frustrating, which may sound strange coming from a woman who owns no livestock.

The reason?

It represents one more break in a system and a quiet danger to all of us.  Since the 1970s, slaughterhouses all over the U.S. have vanished, leaving only a handful of large, multi-national packing houses.  

Mississippi joins many other states that have watched their food systems change from local, strong economies to dependence on corporate giants who proclaim “they” know what food is best for us all.

However, the cost is even greater for Mississippi.

As the fattest state in the nation, our communities and families can’t afford to lose healthy eating options or opportunities to build local, strong food economies.  Even with Pitcock’s, north Mississippi doesn’t have one state-certified or USDA-certified processing plant anywhere north of Jackson, which means opportunities for local meat re-sale and distribution are pretty much zilch.  

Producers in our area will now travel to Pontotoc in order to process for re-sale.  Or even more disappointing, our producers will cross state lines into Tennessee to the Fayette County Packing Company which is not only state-certified, but USDA certified as well, sending business and tax dollars to our neighbor.

Let me switch tracks briefly.

Pitcock’s seasonal closing comes at an ironic time when ideas of local food, farmers markets, food safety, sustainability and frustration against industrial farming practices has never been greater.  People want greater control and choices when it comes to their food.

And yet, local systems are broken or dilapidated.  

Savvy producers, however, are pushing new limits.  

Today, the New York Times ran an article about the success of our own Billy Ray Brown in Oxford and Brown Family Dairy that sells at the Hernando Farmers Market and a handful of stores in Northwest Mississippi.  When Billy Ray began building his dairy almost three years ago with the help of family and friends, his greatest detractors were his own peers.  No one believed it would ever succeed.  

Experienced, older producers who represent this state’s greatest knowledge base also represent this state’s greatest weakness because they turn a blind eye to changing times and ideas of innovation.  Our blindness comes at a cost.

While managing the Hernando Farmers Market for the last two seasons, I have talked with countless growers, producers and consumers all of whom have unbridled enthusiasm for their own operations, and more importantly, faith and success in this selling system.  In our agricultural landscape, particularly when it comes to cattle, all I hear is what doesn’t work.  

Cattle numbers are down.  Fewer producers can make a living.  Processing beef is too expensive.  An infinite number of dollars thrown at the Oakland processing venture resulted in disaster.

And on the flip side, here are what consumers are learning: One pound of ground beef in the grocery may contain as many as 1,000 different cows with no traceable origin.


In upstate New York, a group of producers tired of having no control over growing grassfed beef operations invested in a mobile, beef processing unit much like those now designed for chickens.  They found an answer.  

With Billy Ray’s cows or Pitcock’s or the Hernando Farmers Market, the important fact to realize here is these ventures are more about community and people than a cow.  

It’s about the success or failure of establishing and growing small economies of scale where local people have more control over their destiny.  

What does that mean exactly?  It means a local farmer’s market vendor can make anywhere from $300 to $1,000 each Saturday morning selling his own goods.  It means that Billy Ray can sleep at night knowing he’s providing communities with the best dairy product possible.  

It means that our small towns do something immediately to find new life instead of waiting on that next large industry to arrive with vague promises of future prosperity.

If our state legislators, food specialists, cattle associations, extension agents and anyone else within reach of our meat producing system needs a new road to consider, it should be to think about one simple equation:  

What is the simplest way to get a cow from a Mississippi field to a Mississippian’s plate?  For those that argue we do that now, here’s another challenge.  Do it without exporting any part of the system.

 Do it in our own backyard.  Do it so Mississippians keep the dollars.  And do it so we know we’re eating the best food possible.

Karen Mayer is a freelance journalist and manager of the Hernando Farmers Market and resides near the town of Como.