In this republished blog written by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm,  in the US state of Virginia, he explains how the world of hides and leather has changed. As is the case in the UK, the value of hides in the US has plummeted and instead of being used for leather, they now go to landfill. This is one of the reasons smaller abattoirs, in both the UK and the US, are struggling and continue to go out of business. Our Campaign for Local Abattoirs is seeking to address some of these issues.

Teresa and I co-own a small abattoir (slaughterhouse) in Harrisonburg that employs 20 people and is our closest federal inspected facility. We get our beef, pork and lamb processed there; it’s about 40 miles away.

The buy-in occurred about 10 years ago when the couple who owned it were in their 80s and in declining health. Without a succession plan, the facility was in danger of closing when they finally couldn’t do it anymore, so I spent several years actively searching for a buyer. The eventual partner wouldn’t buy it without us putting in a big stake to ensure Polyface’s continued patronage.

I’ve learned a lot in this experience and one of the things that’s most disconcerting is how the world of hides has changed. Lest I lose anybody in this discussion, let me remind everyone that leather – yes, leather that’s on car seats, purses, shoes, luggage, belts – comes from animal hides. The most common is from cows.

Back 20 years ago, abattoirs received about $40 a hide. Salted down on site, hides would be piled up and brokers would pick them up once a month and send them down the value chain toward tanning into leather. As tanneries left the US (like so much manufacturing) due to over-regulation, China became the new destination for these hides.

As consolidation accelerated in the industry, larger and larger processing plants enjoyed preferential service from the brokers. If a broker could pick up a tractor trailer of hides at one stop, that of course was far more efficient than stopping at half a dozen small community abattoirs in order to get a load. Over time, the prices paid to small abattoirs began dropping.

At massive processing plants where 1,000 beeves are processed in a day, shipping containers sit on site to receive the hides and head straight for a port and the trip over to China. In a few short years, what used to be a $50,000 income stream for a small abattoir dried up. Literally.

At our small facility in Harrisonburg (T&E Meats) we process between 2,000 and 3,000 beeves (plural of beef) a year. But none of those hides makes it into leather. Nobody will come and pick them up. Guess what happens to them? They go to the landfill, where we pay a tipping fee. Yet another compostable item the ecology grew and needs to replenish the earth, thrown away.

Guess who pays that?  The facility has to pass that cost back to the farmer who’s getting the animals processed. But as a small plant operator, I realize the shift in economics. What used to generate a substantial income has now become a substantial liability. This $100-$200,000 swing between income and expense is economically devastating to a small community facility.

When people accuse farmers like me of being elitists because our prices are higher than Wal-Mart, much of the higher price issue has nothing to do with efficiency or production costs. Rather, our higher prices have more to do with these kinds of scale discriminations within the system. We’re literally squeezed out.

To add insult to injury, though, consider the disrespect this places on the animals who have dutifully served us and given themselves for our nutrition to summarily throw such a useful component of their lives into the landfill. It’s unconscionable that as a society we’ve let ourselves fall to this level. Of course, a complicating factor is that the world uses less leather today with faux fiber everywhere you turn. So buying genuine leather products is yet another way to honor the lives of the animals who adorn our dinner.

Last week, we launched a new trial here at Polyface. We brought back 12 beautiful hides and have found an outfit in Florida that will tan them. Hopefully we’ll be able to offer them in the next few months. They make great (and beautiful) rugs, bed coverings and wall hangings. At least we honored those 12. These are striped and gorgeous hides.

What leather product have you bought lately?

With thanks to Joel for allowing us to re-publish – see original post here.

Photograph: Christy Sheffield 

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