Championing Local Food: Couple Continue Fight to Build USDA Facility


Rosemary Linares and Damian Rivera. Photo by Doug Marrin.

The husband-and-wife team of Damian Rivera and Rosemary Linares have been working tirelessly for nine years to build a USDA Certified processing plant in Washtenaw County, but they are facing numerous challenges in their quest to support local farmers and stabilize the local food chain.

“The current situation creates enormous costs in transportation and time for area farmers,” explains Rosemary. “Our comprehensive feasibility study shows that establishing a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse here would be really favorable to the local farmers and distributors.”

With the nearest USDA slaughterhouse an hour and a half away, a regional operation would save farmers six precious hours of travel when they deliver the animals and return to pick up the meat.

The majority of U.S. meat processing is owned by just a few companies. Courtesy Rosemary Linares.

Damian is an independent processor. His business is “Damian’s Craft Meats,” and his customers are typically area farmers who have sold shares of an animal. Damian goes to the farm and butchers on-site. He does all the work on-site at the farm, saving the producer time and travel. Damian is unique and well-known for his humane approach to processing, which destresses and calms the animal. He wants to increase the scale of his practice by opening a USDA facility, but the way forward has been difficult. The couple has worked on the $9 million project for nine years.

“It’s particularly difficult to find a location to meet the many specifications and criteria for a USDA facility,” explains Rosemary. “The biggest barrier is the challenge of navigating the local townships' complex ordinances, prohibitions, and processes.”

Money is another issue. The couple cannot afford industrially zoned parcels. Their funding limits them to searching for land zoned for an agricultural business. They are looking for ten acres. Finding the right plot also creates a frustrating chicken-and-egg situation. They have discovered that they must own the land before applying for a permit. But they can’t afford to gamble on a location unless they know it will be permitted for processing. “We’re not a large corporation with millions to tie up in land on the hope a processing facility will be allowed,” says Rosemary.

Damian describes a third hurdle they face is political clout. He and his wife don’t have the same political influence as the large corporations. “While the new farm bill helps our project monetarily, it doesn’t help persuasively,” explains Damian. “The lobbyists influence politicians to create policies that benefit their large corporations. The discrepancy in the farm bill is that it’s not helping the local movement or farmers.”

“It’s not that people are explicitly anti-slaughterhouse, but there are so many barriers,” says Rosemary. “They don’t recognize that talk about supporting the local food system includes processing. To have a more vertically integrated meat value chain in this county supporting local farmers, we need that.”

While Washtenaw County and the townships haven’t overtly opposed the idea of a USDA facility, they haven’t helped or encouraged the couple either. Rosemary compares it to a Wayne County township actively courting them for a processing plant. “We’re not receiving any kind of that level of warm reception and encouragement from anywhere in Washtenaw,” says Rosemary.

When they get it opened, Damian’s and Rosemary’s facility will do more than reduce travel time for farmers. It would help stabilize the local food chain. For all their money and political clout, the large corporate processors are vulnerable, as seen during the pandemic when plants had to shut down, and grocery shelves diminished or emptied as a result. Rosemary explains that only a few corporations, two foreign-owned, garner the vast majority of meat processing in the country. Other threats loom, too. Cyberterrorism is an ever-present threat to shut down operations that provides food to millions, as is a vulnerability in the energy supply to large plants.

Damian and Rosemary have been working on their project for years. It has been a difficult and frustrating journey, but Damian remains motivated by a vision of the future born in his past.

“I grew up eating what my family raised at home,” he explains. “The care I saw my mother and grandparents give the animals that fed us stuck with me. I want to leave this legacy. I want to make a difference. I want to leave this world better than I found it.”

“It is important to me that my kids, the next generation has access to local food and know where their food comes from,” he continues. “I want them to understand, appreciate, and respect how hard it is to grow a pound of meat, a tomato, a potato, a carrot, and be in tune with the earth.”

Damian’s mission extends beyond his immediate family into his culture. “I want to be able to provide people of color, the Mexican community, with fresh food,” he says. “I want to connect them to the farmers so they can make the food they may have had growing up, like me.”

“The food just tastes better when you get it from a farm where the farmer cares about the breed and the food that they give the animal and its livelihood,” adds Rosemary. “When you establish a relationship with the farmer, it’s really wonderful, and that comes back to that community component.”

While Damian and Rosemary continue their fight to open an independent processing plant to serve local farmers, they are not alone in the effort to improve the local food chain. On an icy night in February, more than 100 local farmers and supporters braved the weather to gather at Webster Twp Hall. The meeting was a presentation, “Small Farm Meat System in Southeast Michigan: Challenges, Opportunities, & Action.”

See online article: Local advocates in Washtenaw County say the meat value chain is "vulnerable and broken."

By the engagement of the audience, it is clear the demand for local food continues to grow. The biggest challenge is making it available to an expanding customer base.

“In the local meat value chain, we’ve got a growing demand on one end and supply on the other,” says Rosemary. “Damian and I are addressing the bottleneck that connects the two—processing.”

So, as local demand for fresh food continues to grow, Damian and Rosemary remain steadfast in their mission building a processing facility that will provide economical USDA processing, connect local farmers to the community, and leave a legacy for future generations.

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