Farmers aim for larger market share
Published: Saturday, January 24, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 23, 2004 at 11:43 p.m.
Of all the hurdles to running a successful organic livestock operation, there's one that rabbit farmer Dave Seely says is the most challenging: keeping his hungry customers fed.
FYI: Farm conference
"We can't produce enough rabbits to meet the demand," said Seely, who, along with his wife, Beth, have operated the Seely's Ark rabbit farm in Dunnellon since 1986.
"If we produced three times as many we'd sell every one of them."
For years, small-scale growers of natural beef, poultry and other hormone-free animal products have had only limited access to markets most coveted by producers - such as grocery stores, restaurants and high-end deli meat cases. Many states and countries require U.S. Department of Agriculture certification before meat can be sold, cooked or displayed, experts say.
But because the costs associated with USDA inspections are often high, most small, family run operations - including the Seelys' - long opted out of the federal certification process, instead selling fewer products at farmers' markets and road-side stalls. The result was a loss of market share that only larger meat producers, such as Tyson and Perdue, could fill.
On a regional scale at least, the Seelys are working to change that. The Seelys' operation was being visited Friday by a group as part of the 13th annual Practical Tools and Solutions for Sustaining Family Farms Conference, being held in Gainesville this weekend.
With the help of $150,000 mined from their retirement funds, the Seelys are pouring hope - and their future - into a processing facility they say will improve the way they do business. And if they're successful, the Seelys think their efforts could one day revolutionize the way small livestock farmers in the Southeast operate.
Since 2001, the rabbit farming couple has been building up their processing facility in Ocala to handle not only the rabbits they produce, but also the poultry, beef and game meats grown by farmers throughout Florida, Georgia and other Southern states.
In recent years, the plant has become fully USDA certified, a recognition that has opened up markets not available when the couple began farming more than a decade ago.
Today, what they call their "ultimate" white meat is eaten on cruise ships and in restaurants, and is sold in stores across the country, including Wards Supermarket in Gainesville, the couple say.
David Hiney, a Georgia field coordinator for Heifer International, an international agricultural aid organization that assists farmers in the Southeast with marketing and development, said such progress wouldn't have been possible without a federally approved plant.
And now that it's a reality - agricultural experts say that besides a few beef facilities, the Ocala plant is the only USDA-approved facility for small growers in Florida, Georgia and Alabama - Hiney said he looks forward to the day when other regional farmers can take advantage.
"Having a certification processing plant would legitimize and open the market" to many growers in the Southeast, he said.
Dave Seely agreed.
"We are trying to help the small farmer," Seely said at his farm's processing plant Friday. Behind him, chest-high wash bins and cleaning stations dotted the wall.
"Some states wouldn't let you into their state" with products that weren't federally approved. But now, "We can market anywhere in the world."
There is still some work to be done and permits to acquire before the plant reaches full capacity, the Seelys say. For now, the majority of the meat that runs through the plant comes from the rabbits they raise on their own farm.
But when the doors do swing open to others, some area farmers say they'll be ready.
Craig Hardin, a fifth-generation cattlemen who produces grass-fed beef and free-range chicken on 100 acres in Salem, said, "It would allow us a place to process our poultry" and other animals. Hardin also spoke at the farms conference.
Greg Bruno can be reached at 374-5026 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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