Farm To Fork Across America: Bridging the Local Meat Gap in Reno, Part II

Co-authored by Lee Glenn


The thought of visiting Wolf Pack Meats conjured up vivid childhood memories. My father, a veterinarian and my grandfather, proprietor of a California slaughter house and meatpacking plant, exposed me to the inner workings of both ends of life's spectrum at an early age. Visiting my grandfather's slaughter/processing plant was so engrossing that I tried to organize a field trip for my fifth-grade classmates. Obviously that wasn't going to happen, but my teacher appeased me by coming with her own kids. At age 12, I was assisting my father with laminectomies and necropsies... I was in deep at the time.

Ask me now to do either and I feel faint at the very thought. Instead, I telephoned Mike Holcomb, manager of Wolf Pack Meats, to tie up some loose ends from an earlier conversation with Mark Este and Wendy Baroli.

In that article, I noted that historically, slaughter and fabrication (cutting and packing) where conducted under one roof. Cut to a few decades ago, lobbyists had influenced the USDA on "health and safety" issues and were being successful in centralizing the system. A system that became controlled by a handful, those who hired the lobbyists. So went the slow squeeze-out of the family-run shop.

The high cost of permits and exorbitant expenses for re-outfitting plant operations to meet new USDA specifications, drove my grandfather to sell... to one of those conglomerates. While reconfiguring his business to be a meat broker, I often heard him yelling from behind his office door. Burdened by the economy-of-scale that motivate the conglomerates, it became difficult to compete in a market of reduced prices.

Though a few survived to become successful, the conglomerates continued their purge for market domination. Hidebound, territorial and well-fanged, they scared small/medium-sized companies into selling their operations threatening to set up shop nearby to drive them out by competition.

Decades later, the USDA is making corrections to reopen these lost markets due to a shortage of local, much needed facilities. "This framework includes the development of more local production and more consumption links so that farmers can sell not just on a commodity market but also on a local market," says Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

2014-08-18-ZB5K2100.jpgSpeaking to the growing demand for locally grown meat, fresh from the farm,
the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network (NMPAN), is connecting people across the country with information, tools and networking. The organization is part of the Cooperative Extension System's eXtension, an Internet-based collaborative learning service that consolidates the resources of land-grant universities. The Cooperative Extension System is a nationwide, non-credit educational network with an office in each state at its land grant university.

Wolf Pack Meats, an operation under the direction of land grant university The University of Nevada, Reno, is experiencing the surge of this revival. This year, facility manager Mike Holcomb says that they're expecting to slaughter and process 650 heads of beef, 300 lamb and 250 pigs... and still they are struggling to keep up with the demand for their services from small scale ranchers.

"Only one percent of our work is for the student/teach Ag program. The balance is in taking care of our community," says Mike.

Though their waitlist is still growing by 75-125 heads/year, Mike says the number of kills per week will increase. Wolf Pack Meats has been able to hire on more student help over the summer and has expanded their holding capacity with a 48-foot semi-trailer freezer. Though only a quick fix, Mike notes: "Demand is up, and it's a good problem to have. We are at our max and we don't want to push people away."

Servicing 20 to 30 different ranches and still growing, Mike hopes to buy another vacuum sealing machine to reduce packaging time. He likes to keep his customers happy:

Specialty cuts take more time, but we'll do what the customer asks... for primal or individual cuts. One of main customers is chef Mark Estee. We recently expanded by purchasing a hog scalding tank to process pigs. Mark likes to leave the skin on. If you are cooking the whole pig, let's say in a spit or a pit in the ground, the skin is the key component to keeping in the juices.

Mike believes that his operation is profitable for the university: "They've left us alone. The educational portion also carves out a big chunk of time to educate the students in the art of butchery."

The UNR President, Dr. Marc Johnson, is also committed to serving the region and the nation. As this part of campus operations grows, his leadership will be instrumental in influencing other land-based universities to follow suit.

Photography by Julie Ann Fineman