Alaska Farm Bureau President Scott Mugrage says the Interior has everything needed to provide meat for the state’s consumers, including farmers who grow feed and ranchers who buy it for their cattle. He says all that’s needed now is a meat-packing plant that can produce and deliver the product to customers all around the state. That’s why he and his backers are buying a slaughterhouse in North Pole.
Scott Mugrage takes a break from harvesting feed at his farm in Delta Junction to talk about why he’s getting back into the meat-packing business. He gestures at the field of knee-high grain and says it all starts with the feed that he and other farmers in the area grow.
“There’s forage barley here,” he said. “There’s oats, there’s turnips, radishes. There’s buckwheat. A couple different kinds of clovers …”
Mugrage is longtime farmer and rancher with decades of experience running cattle operations in the South and Midwest. And he’s the proprietor of Mugrage Hay and Cattle, where he grows feed for his 650 head of beef cattle and other area ranchers’ livestock. So he knows a lot about the business. And he says this part of the state could become its biggest beef-producing region.
“The Interior is the area that has the land, the cleared land, that’s already available,” he said. “So this is where the feed’s grown, this is where the animals need to be so this is where the slaughter needs to be.”
That’s why Mugrage and his backers are buying Mid State Meats in North Pole, which they’ve renamed Alaska Interior Meats. He’s hired a manager and is looking for skilled workers, and he says once it’s up to speed the U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified facility – one of three in the state – will fill a gap that’s kept local ranchers from growing their industry.
“It supplies a bridge for farmers and ranchers to get their livestock to a USDA-inspected facility that enables them to sell that to someone in retail – y’know, in restaurants or meat markets or grocery stores or wherever.”
Mugrage says it’ll be challenging to get his products into supermarkets, which sell an estimated 97 percent of the meat Alaskans consume, because the stores prefer to buy in bulk from big Outside suppliers. He says that raises food-security concerns, and it presents a challenge to local growers, because products imported from the Lower 48 are cheaper. So he says he’ll appeal to consumers who want meat fresh and free of hormones from locally grown cattle that haven’t eaten genetically modified feed.
“For a grocery store to receive meat that’s three weeks old when they get it, their shelf life isn’t very long,” he said. “Well, if we can get it to them three weeks faster, they’ve got that shelf life right there that just that along increases the value of Alaska grown.”
Borough Sustainability Commission member Jimmy Fox says it’s an issue because the Interior imports almost all its food from Outside – and the supply chain is vulnerable.
“Food security is definitely a major issue in the Fairbanks North Star Borough,” he said. “If we can grow and harvest that food right here in our own back yards, we’re going to be a lot better off in case of an earthquake or some other kind of disaster.”
Fox says Alaska’s food security would get a biggest boost by de-emphasizing production of feed for cattle and other livestock and encouraging farmers to grow food for human consumption. He says that also would create less environmental impact than production of livestock.
Mugrage agrees a successful meat-packing plant would improve the Interior’s food security. But right now, he worries about a different kind of disaster that’s threatening his slaughterhouse venture: Governor Mike Dunleavy’s deep cuts to agricultural-program funding.
“We’re facing some pretty tough budget cuts to agriculture in this state right now – probably the worst ever,” Mugrage said.
He says the governor’s cuts would among other things eliminate the state’s Agricultural Revolving Loan Fund, a state agency that lends to farmers.
“We have to borrow money for that slaughterhouse, and I doubt that a bank is going to look at us very diligently there. In fact, the loan that the old company has is with that revolving loan fund.”
Mugrage says he hopes the governor and lawmakers come to some sort of agreement to preserve the revolving loan fund before he closes on the meat-packing plant sale in November. Meanwhile, he’s got a field to harvest, and a long list of other chores to do, regardless of what the politicians in Juneau decide.