While many individuals who come to the western Sierra region fall in love as soon as they lay eyes on its beautiful green fields against a backdrop of the staggering blue mountains, what some seem to forget is that those fields are green in large part due to irrigation systems stewarded by local farmers and ranchers.
Carson Valley Meats has tried and failed twice to open a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) boutique meat processing facility in Northern Nevada.
Opponents have frequently said they’re not opposed to the idea of a meat processing facility, just the location. But with locations having been ruled out either because of feasibility issues or cries of “Not in my backyard!”, ranchers and agricultural producers continue to ask, “Where else can we turn?”
Carson Valley Meat’s first attempt to open the facility began in Douglas County. It was denied because the facility was unable to be connected to water and sewer systems at the location on Centerville Lane, the site of the historical Storke Dairy.
It then moved to Carson City, finding a location on the Highway 50 E. corridor within the General Industrial district, which allows for special use permits to be issued to slaughterhouses.
After having to pass through two reviews by the planning commission before being approved, three residents of Carson City appealed the decision, and it was brought before the Carson City Board of Supervisors.
The proposed site of the Carson Valley Meats processing facility is currently a sagebrush field off of Detroit Road. Surrounding properties include waste management, an abandoned, half-finished concrete structure surrounded by barbed wire, and a materials facility. Supervisors questioned whether or not the addition of the Carson Valley Meats project, which included full landscaping, would detract from the aesthetic of what they hope to be considered a gateway to Carson City – images: Kelsey Penrose
The project failed on a 3-2 vote. Some supervisors stated it was because they believed having a slaughterhouse within the Highway 50 E. corridor could have negative impacts on tourism. Others were concerned by it being located approximately 900 feet (a little less than three football fields) away from an established mobile home park.
Many of the concerns raised by the opposition were unfounded, including the idea that “dangerous flammable chemicals” would be used, that blood and guts would be dumped into the nearby river, that wild horses would be rounded up and slaughtered, that livestock would keep the town up at night with their tormented, “Silence of the Lambs”-like screaming.
Supporters have argued that most of the concerns from residents are the result of a disconnect between our modern world and the agricultural practices we rely on to survive.
During public comment on the Carson Valley Meats facility, resident Todd Braun stated, “There’s been a lot of talk about green space tonight. Everybody wants their green space. Well, guess what? Without these small family farms being able to sustain themselves, they’re going to sell out to housing developers, and you’re going to lose your green space.”
The Carson Valley Meats project has, since its beginnings in Douglas County, sought to provide harvesting and finishing services to the Sierra region’s numerous small livestock producers, including 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) student operations.
There are only two USDA facilities within the western Sierra region: Wolf Pack Meats in Reno and the Lahontan Valley Meat Packing Company in Fallon. Both serve clients from all over Nevada and Northern California. Both have waiting lists of more than a year out to schedule processing.
“One of the most endemic, if romanticized, components of the western American landscape is the ranch,” says the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office. “Ranching sat alongside mining and gambling as one of the most recognizable aspects of Nevada’s economic development and heritage. For many of Nevada’s rural communities, the dependence on ranching or mining income, or both, is still a central component of their economies.”
Project proponents argue that without a proper harvesting facility, local livestock handlers will either choose to move out of the region, or stop raising livestock altogether. They argue that either one of these options would be — and already is — an extreme detriment to the region as a whole, adding that pushing farmers and ranchers from the area amputates Nevada from its roots and culture of high desert ranching.
“Meat doesn’t magically appear at Smiths or Raleys or Walmart,” said Douglas County resident Kathie Taylor, who worked closely with Carson Valley Meats during the project proposal as a member of its PR Team. “Unless it is raised and processed locally, it’s raised in factory farms, fattened up in feedlots with thousands of other animals trucked in from all over the country before being processed in huge facilities that are suffering first from labor shortages and second from transportation shortages, and then from employee shortages in grocery stores to get it from the stockroom to the sales floor, or it’s imported from another country in order to fill our grocery store shelves. [People] need to know that as a community, we cannot sustain ourselves if we cannot feed ourselves.”
A report published by the Nevada Department of Agriculture shows the average age of farmers and ranchers is increasing, even as the size and number of operations has remained stagnant and the state’s population continues to increase.
“From 2002 to 2017, the numbers of operators over age 55 have increased significantly,” the report states. “This will have long-term economic impacts on Nevada’s agriculture sector.”
While individual agriculture operations covered an average area of 1,821 acres and accounted for a total of 6.1 million acres of Nevada’s land, most Nevada farms are small, with 50% being between one and 49 acres.
Livestock numbers have dropped over the past few decades. In 1920, there were 1.3 million head of sheep in Nevada. In 1981, the number had decreased to 134,000. In 2021, there were only 60,000.
In 1987, there were 305,018 total head of beef cattle in Nevada. In 2021, that number decreased to 244,000.
Nevada’s main livestock production is in cattle, and has been for decades. However, over time, there has been a slow decrease in the amount of operations, and the total head of cattle within those operations.
By comparison, the population of humans in Nevada increased drastically. In 1920, there were only 78,000 people living in Nevada, increasing to 881,545 in 1981 and an estimated 3.1 million in 2021.
According to the USDA, when it comes to meat harvesting and processing, Nevada remains dead last in the Pacific Region, falling behind California and Hawaii.
So, with more people than ever living in the Silver State, why are livestock and crop numbers stagnant, or, in some instances, in decline? One answer could be that local changes are making it harder for producers to get by.
Farmlands are being sold and turned into neighborhood suburbs. Dairy and meat processing facilities are being shut down and replaced by either vacant land or apartments or sprawling housing developments.
Concerns about Nevada being able to feed itself have been raised by some.
During a recent “unprecedented” snowstorm, which seems to be an increasingly precedented event, passing over the Sierras became impossible and, soon enough, supermarket shelves throughout the Northern Nevada region became bare. This led some to question whether relying on shipping food by truck from other regions in the country could be setting everyone within the Sierra region up for failure.
Charles Mann, Agriculture and Mechanics teacher at Carson City High School (CHS), who is also an FFA advisor, echoed these sentiments.
“This would have brought so many educational opportunities for our students,” said Mann. “This is an opportunity that would have given us an instrumental amount of firsthand experience for our students. As we saw with Interstate 80 being closed for snow, this could have helped alleviate [our problems] with food insecurity. We would have been able to have a livelihood here.”
Food insecurity is not an issue specific to Nevada alone. In fact, over 13 million households in America are food insecure. But with Nevada being in the top 10 states in population growth during 2021, it is becoming more and more evident that, without complete reliance on the global food supply system, Nevada would not be able to sustain its population.
In addition to keeping people fed, investing in local agriculture production facilities can have an economic impact on local communities, and the state as a whole. For example, the opening of the Dairy Farmers of America powder milk plant in Fallon caused Nevada’s dairy exports to increase from $14.7 million in 2014 to $61.2 million in 2019. For a small community such as Fallon’s, which has a population of only around 8,400 people, numbers such as these can be life changing for those employed with the plant.
In Carson City, the local non-profit The Greenhouse Project has had a direct impact on the community by providing year-round fresh produce, while educating students on agricultural practices. It’s grown on the grounds of CHS and provided to community organizations that serve the food-insecure.
In Dayton, the Rural Health and Nutrition Initiative began growing inside its 30,000-square-foot grow facility in early 2021 for local food pantries with the goal of helping solve food insecurity in our region.
While these facilities are able to have a direct impact on the region’s food insecurity issue, supporters of agriculture say it is not enough. A push to revitalize Nevada’s culture in agriculture needs to be a community-wide push, they say, from individuals, to the government and everyone in between.
“Here in Nevada, we are still trying to value agriculture as a whole, because this community is still farmland, whether you see it or not, there are still members of our community that are still raising animals,” said Mann. “This would have brought a change of our infrastructure that we desperately need in order to make sure that the business is staying here. I want to support local, and this processing facility would have helped that.”
According to supporters of the local agriculture movement, the only thing standing in the way of Nevada becoming self-sufficient are the people who don’t want to be able to see the very facilities they need to survive. Tying the hands of local producers who only want to feed their communities, they say, will lead to the downfall of all communities, both in Nevada, and the world.
Kelsey Penrose grew up in Carson City, Nevada, and now reports on the goings-on within the Northern Nevada region. She found her way into journalism by harassing her first editor for six straight months until he finally broke down and gave her a job. Now you can find her work in the Sierra Nevada Ally, Carson Now, Reno News and Review, This is Reno, the Sacramento Bee and more. Kelsey is an alumna of Arizona State University, holding a Bachelors in English Literature and a Bachelors in Anthropology with a focus in Archaeology, and she is currently pursuing a Masters in Creative Writing with Sierra Nevada University. She is passionate about issues facing rural Nevada, the future of agriculture in the sierras, social justice, folklore, and bluegrass music. She lives and gardens in Washoe Valley. Support Kelsey’s work for the Sierra Nevada Ally here.
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