September 26, 2008

A hamburger's carbon footprint can stretch halfway across the country and back. But hamburgers produced through the Kentucky Hamburger Alliance Project leave a much smaller environmental imprint.

The Kentucky Hamburger Alliance Project, newly developed by the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, is a vehicle used to provide consumers with locally-produced premium meat and Kentucky farmers with a solution to one of the problems of direct sales - finding a market for all parts of the animal.

UK Dining Services is the project's first customer, having contracted for 3,000 pounds of hamburger patties per month. The burgers will be offered initially at the Student Center and K-Lair Grill. If supply can match demand, Dining Services could conceivably move the product into all their dining halls, using 15,000 lbs. each month.

Bob Perry, coordinator and consulting chef of UK Food Systems Initiative, is the author of the white paper that inspired the project. As long as farmers are finishing cattle with an all natural protocol, meaning no hormones and no antibiotics, the alliance can be an option for them in the direct sales arena.

"They (the producers) are not going to make much, if any money doing this, but what it will allow them to do is to increase the number of cattle they're finishing and increase their business by selling the steaks, choice and specialty cuts," he said.

Lee Meyer, UK agricultural economist and extension specialist for sustainable agriculture, worked with Perry and Meat Science Extension Specialist Gregg Rentfrow to assemble the nuts and bolts of the project. Meyer said one of the biggest problems with direct sales of beef is selling all cuts of meat on an animal. There is great demand for the high value middle meats -steaks and premium cuts. The end meats - chuck from the shoulder and round cuts from the hip - are lower value cuts. It's difficult for a producer to sell those cuts at a profit. The alliance will allow producers to sell those lower value cuts at a break-even price, with the idea that they can ultimately make a profit by selling the entire carcass.

The alliance fits with the homegrown quality touted by Kentucky Proud, the "buy local" initiative of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

"This project could provide added income to Kentucky beef producers at a time when they are being squeezed by rising costs of food, fuel and fertilizer," Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer said. "Anything that helps Kentucky farmers helps our rural economy. And, of course, the UK students will get fresh, delicious Kentucky Proud beef."

Nancy Cox, UK College of Agriculture associate dean for research and director of the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station, agreed.

"It is quite gratifying that UK's students will be able to enjoy food that not only didn't have to travel far to get to their table, but showcases Kentucky's excellent beef producers who have committed to an alternative marketing system for their meat," she said.

Perry said Clem's Refrigerated Foods is an integral part of the fledgling project. The company agreed to transport free of charge the unground beef from processors around the state to their plant in Lexington. There, it will be turned into frozen hamburger patties and delivered to UK, mere blocks away. It is an offer that makes economic sense for all partners in the endeavor. It brings Clem's more processing business but doesn't cost any more than it does to drive empty trucks back to Lexington. It provides farmers with free transportation and UK with a constant supply of locally-produced premium meat.

Normally, a hamburger can log more than 1,500 miles from farm to plate, stopping along the way at the feedlot, processor and grocery or restaurant. Each step on that long route burns fossil fuels. Even more fuel is consumed to produce feed for those cattle and process the meat. It can be a costly business to put a ‘cheap' hamburger on a consumer's plate -- costly in terms of dollars and the environment.

"When you're talking about food miles or carbon footprint, this is truly as small as you could ever go," Perry said.

Two years ago, Dining Services began offering locally-grown produce on a seasonal basis. This year, not only will local hamburgers be added, but Rebekah Grace milk, as well. The milk comes from small family farms in southern Kentucky and is marketed by UK College of Agriculture alumna Rebekah Grace.

"(Offering locally-produced foods) is the right thing to do," said Roger Sidney, assistant director of dining services for retail operations. "I think our customers are asking for us to go in this direction."

At present, Green River Cattle Company is providing all the beef for the project, but the potential is there for the Kentucky Hamburger Alliance to attract beef producers from across the state.

"I think it lays the foundation for more forage livestock systems," Meyer said. "I think we're going to bring in some people who are on the edge, who have been marketing a few cattle through direct sales. And this is going to allow them to upgrade the quantity of what they produce.... And then we'll probably see people looking over their shoulders who say, ‘I can do this, too.'"

"This is a win-win situation that provides tasty food and helps preserve Kentucky's farmland and rural communities," Cox said.

For more information about joining the Kentucky Hamburger Alliance, contact the local extension office or Perry at bob.perry@uky.edu.