Saturday, November 29, 2008

Where good lambs go ...

Foreword: This essay was originally published in the Spring 2008 edition of Vermont's Local Banquet, a quarterly magazine celebrating local, sustainable food and farming. I republish it here in keeping with the season. Since it was first published, a few things have changed. Adams Farm, the slaughterhouse that I had used for years, has re-opened with a new plant and more capacity. The group of producers that I am working with has developed a few good business models and is moving closer to making some decisions about whether to move forward with another slaughterhouse, and a private concern is reportedly getting close to starting renovations on a plant that has been closed for nearly 20 years. Slaughter capacity is still tight in this part of New England, but not nearly as bad as it was in 2006 and 2007, and the trajectory is going in the right direction.

In good weather, the drive between southwestern New Hampshire and the Capital District of New York state can be breathtakingly beautiful: there’s the view from Hogback Mountain, the wind farm in Searsburg, the Bennington obelisk. But at 4 a.m. during a December snow storm, while pulling a trailer loaded with lambs over a foggy two-lane road, the drive is tedious at best and can be downright hairy.

I am a sheep producer in Westmoreland, N.H., just over the Connecticut River from Putney. When I started calling around last August for a slaughterhouse in which my lambs could be processed, the nearest USDA-approved facility that could give me a December appointment was in Altamont, N.Y., about three hours from my farm. On the phone, they told me my lambs had to be delivered at 7 a.m. on the appointed date, and if I didn’t show up on time, I’d be out of luck. I signed on, knowing that the drive would be long, but I had no other choice.
Such has been the nature of things for folks involved in the direct marketing of local meat since two of the largest slaughterhouses that serve this area burned down within six months of one another in 2006: Fresh Farms Beef in Rutland burned in July, and Adams Farm in Athol, Mass., burned in December. No people or animals were harmed in either fire, but at Adams at least one steer that was awaiting slaughter was shooed out of the burning building and never seen again. And 13 of my lamb carcasses were in the cooler awaiting cutting and wrapping when the place went up. Adams Farm is rebuilding, but permitting, financing, and insurance hassles have postponed work and the hope is now that it will re-open this fall. There is no indication that Fresh Farms Beef will rebuild.

So when we farmers started raising our animals last spring, we knew that finding slaughter capacity later in the year was going to be difficult. All the remaining slaughterhouses within a reasonable distance were putting their existing customers’ needs first, and rightly so. Thinking that five months would be plenty of lead time, I started to make calls in August. One place told me they weren’t accepting any new business, period. Another told me they were already booking dates from May 2008 on. I had been using Adams Farm exclusively to process my lambs for the past seven years, and had a good rapport with the folks there. At these other places, I was just another guy with 40 or 50 lambs to process in December. I represented work that they didn’t have time or the physical space to handle.

Not so long ago, New England had lots of little local slaughterhouses that handled the sort of business that my farm provides. Local butchers were known and respected members of the community. New Hampshire poet Maxine Kumin describes Amos, one such local butcher, in her 1992 poem, “Taking the Lambs to Market”:

a decent man who blurs the line of sight
between our conscience and our appetite.

That line of sight has been so thoroughly blurred by agribusinesses, with their massive feedlots and associated meat packers, that unless you buy your meat directly from the farmer who grows it, you probably wouldn’t know that there’s a crisis in slaughter capacity around here. Slaughterhouses are generally not featured prominently in the Chamber of Commerce’s listings of local attractions, but they are as crucial to a local food supply as farm machinery dealers, large animal veterinarians, and backyard mechanics – all of whom are getting thinner on the ground every year.

This winter’s recall of 71,500 tons of beef from an industrial-scale California slaughterhouse – the largest food recall in history – points to the importance of having relatively small, community-based facilities where there’s regular contact between the management of the plant and the farmers who raise the animals that they process. One USDA inspector who had gone from working at a mega-slaughterhouse to a local plant in Washington state told a farmer friend of mine about the difference between the two: at the factory plant, he had 40 seconds to inspect each animal, pre- and post-slaughter; at the local plant he has 40 minutes.

If the inspector has to move at that sort of outrageous pace at the industrial-scale plant, so do all the workers. Speed leads to mistakes, and when the inspector is that pressed for time, it can lead to those mistakes being missed. We consumers then pay the price in the form or E. coli outbreaks, worker injuries, inhumane treatment of animals, and the slaughter of animals that have not been properly cleared for use in the human food chain. Local slaughterhouses are subject to something even more powerful than USDA inspection: the opinions of the farmers and meat customers who want things done right and will call them on shortcomings.

Within a month of the fire at Adams Farm, a group of farmers in the Brattleboro area began meeting to determine how to expand slaughter capacity in the region. At this writing, more than 400 producers from Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York have responded to a questionnaire about the need for slaughter services. Many have identified the lack of slaughter capacity as the main factor limiting an increase in their production.

That’s certainly the case for me. I currently produce about 135 lambs for market each year. I could easily triple that with the land I currently have access to. But if I were to increase my production, the lack of local slaughtering capacity would mean that the majority of my lambs would have to be sold at a commodity auction, where the highest bidder would purchase them for a much lower price than my direct customers pay. Selling to direct customers means I can stay in business; selling to auction threatens my livelihood.

But hauling lambs six hours round-trip to the slaughterhouse a few times a year also threatens my business: I lost money on every lamb I direct marketed in 2007, in large part because of the fuel costs associated with hauling my lambs and meat to and from upstate New York three times. My customers were understanding when I increased my prices last year, but I didn’t feel I could ask them to cover the entire cost of what I hope will be a single-year problem. It has been heartening to attend meetings with fellow producers and even members of the Localvore community who not only get that there’s a problem, but who actively want to do something about it. It’s pretty easy to get a group of farmers to complain about something; getting them to agree on a problem and the best path to a solution can be a little like herding cats. But it seems the cats may want to be herded in this case. It’s frustrating to look at a project planning chart and see that the very best we can hope for is a plant that might open in 2009 or 2010 if everything goes well.

As I write this, the results of those producer surveys are being tabulated. Within a few weeks we should have a pretty good handle on exactly how much demand there is for a local slaughterhouse or even a meat processing plant (which takes meat from slaughterhouses and turns it into retail cuts). That’s the first step. Next step will be figuring out how to site, staff, and run the place, and how to raise the capital needed for such a project.

In the meantime, bear with your local farmers as we try to deal with this critical piece of the local food infrastructure. We’re working to fix it, and, with a little luck, make it better than it was before 2006.

I’m hoping that more folks will be able to put my lamb in their freezers, that I’ll be able to price my products fairly, and perhaps make a living at this sheep business. And maybe the next time I drive over Hogback, I’ll be able to enjoy the view.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Good Lord, have mercy on our souls

This is too much. People killed a human being trying to get at the cheap plastic crap in Wal*Mart on Long Island. They couldn't wait until 5:02 a.m. No. They had to be the first ones at the friggin' trough.

There's a 34-year-old man dead in Long Island. Shoppers trampled him to death. They knocked him down, ran over him and pounded him to death with their feet.

I hope the blood stains don't wash out of their sneakers anytime soon.

'Tis the friggin' season to be jolly.

Remember this: There is nothing in any Wal*Mart worth killing for. And if you work at one of these hell holes, remember this: there is even less in Wal*Mart worth dying for. If they rush the door, let them stampede. Just get out of the way.

On behalf of my fellow humans, I apologize. I am ashamed.

Xmas tenticles

Oh, ow. My hair hurts.

Xmas has now crapified Thanksgiving. Several chain retailers were open yesterday, in case the American Consumer just couldn't wait until 4 a.m. today for the "door buster" sales.

When I was riding home from our dinner at my parents' house, listening to NPR at about 6:30 p.m., they played an interview with a woman who was camped out outside some big box store so that she could be first in line when they opened the next day. Lady, everything inside that store is crap. There is nothing in there that you need. You are going to have the honor of being the first little piggy at the trough so you will have the bestest chance of getting the choice lumps out of the swill. You go, girl.

People on one of the Border collie web forums started trading tips about where to get jingle bell "srunchies" to put on their dogs' legs and collars in early November. Why you would want your dog to jingle four times for every step it takes is beyond me, and what self-respecting dog would allow such nonsense is an even more troubling question. But it seems there are enough people who want it that these things are mass produced and are now apparently widely available. I hope the dogs are ripping the scrunchies to shreds as soon as the owners' backs are turned; that we can count on dogs to restore sanity to the world.

I've heard reports that some Lowe's Home Improvement Labyrinths had XMas crap on display in late September. I saw XMas decorations on a private residence in October -- before the leaves were off the trees, before there had been a frost. Just a couple of weeks shy of a quarter year before the actual holiday.

People! Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

I used to love Thanksgiving, and I still do. But it is under seige by the same commercial boogerheads that have destroyed XMas, Halloween, and all the other holidays of the year. To the barricades! Defend this last bastion of non-commercialized, reverent celebration! Don't buy crap you don't need with money you don't have! At least not for one day out of the year.

All kidding and annoyance aside, please, take a moment out of your busy schedule of consumerism, contemplate what you have, give thanks for it, and pass a little bit of it on. Sure it's a day after Thanksgiving, but you were too busy filling out your advance order at Amazon dot com yesterday, so do it today.

And listen to this commentary by Willem Lange.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Honor thy meat

At this time of the year, we’re approaching harvest of the lamb crop. I don’t like to use that euphemism for slaughter, but it is becoming more and more common as civilians try to reconnect with their food supplies – an effort that I try to support with all my energy. If a little bit of euphemism is needed to blur the line of sight between the conscience and the appetite, so be it. (That clever turn of phrase is from Maxine Kumin’s poem, Taking the Lambs to Market, published in her 1992 book, Looking for Luck.)

When I started this business, most of my lamb customers were older than me. They were remembering what lamb was like when their parents or grandparents kept sheep when they were kids. While many of those folks are still with me, more and more, I’m finding that my new customers younger than me. Not just because I’m getting older, but because young families are starting to feel that they need a better connection to their food supply than an array of Styrofoam trays in the meat department at their local supermarket.

But they’re still not 100 percent comfortable with the fact that they’re eating an animal that was once alive, and buying it from someone that had a personal relationship with it. Here are some common questions from people who are negotiating this road:

Q: “How do you eat meat from animals you knew?”
A: “I don’t like to eat meat from an animal I didn’t know!”

Q: “How can you slaughter those sweet lambs?”
A: “Precisely because they are so sweet. And juicy, and nutty, and …”

Q: “Don’t you feel bad when you take them to the butcher?”
A: “No. I feel pride in a job well done. I feel thankful for the lambs, the ewes and rams that produced them, the sun and the wind and rain and minerals in the soil and all the other millions of things that have come together – yet again – to put high quality protein from happy, healthy animals in your freezer.”

What always strikes me as odd is the fact that most of these people have fewer questions about the meat displayed so tidily in the back of the supermarket than they do about my lamb. They are faced with the choice of mindlessly picking up a package of steaks at Price Chopper or thinking with me about how they want a whole lamb carcass cut up. Sure, the Price Chopper thing is easier on lots of levels – less planning, it’s ready to cook tonight – but even the ones who know the production system that produced that steak seem to be able to turn off that part of their brains long enough to get the stuff cooked and eaten.

My lambs live a very good life that ends very quickly. The feedlot steer that produced those steaks at Price Chopper probably lived a life where slaughter would be a relief of suffering rather than the quick end to a good life.

But still, in a time when people have lost touch with their food, I suppose that if it helps to talk about harvest rather than slaughter, processing rather than butchering, and schedules rather than kill dates, it’s a small price for me to pay. It’s interesting how many people who start out worried about being responsible for the death of a cute and happy lamb end up being lamb customers. You can almost see the change in their body language when they make the decision to overcome their squeamishness and place the order.

I don’t ever want to give the impression that I take slaughter lightly. When I hand over my lambs to the care and custody of the place that will end their lives, I do everything I can to ensure that the end will be quick and painless as possible and involve as little fear and stress as possible. There are good food science reasons for doing this: meat from frightened animals can be tough and taste off. But that’s not why I take the care I do. It’s because these are my lambs. They’re good sheep. They’ve done all that I’ve asked of them. There’s no way I’m going to let the last day of their lives be any worse than it has to be.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fiddlehead, the bottle lamb

Today I've read a couple of AKDD's posts about her experiences raising bottle lambs on her excellent blog, Vet on the Edge, and it put me in mind of some of my bottle lamb experiences. I should state from the outset, I hate bottle lambs. Hate them for many reasons. First and foremost, because they represent the failure of a ewe to mother her own lamb, which usually means either that I have failed in management or she has failed in mothering. The implication of this is that one or the other of us has broken our contract. Either I have been remiss in my shepherding, or she has let me down.

The economics of bottle lambs are horrifying. Lambing is, in many ways, the end of a cycle as well as the beginning. When a newborn lamb hits the ground, I have put all the time, effort, and expense of a winter's feeding into its mother with the expectation that she will produce a lamb or two (or occasionally three) to pay for all that keep, and perhaps, return a little profit to my enterprise. In my flock, the cost of production of a newborn lamb is about $70. Over the next six to 10 months, I will continue to spend money on it -- even if the mother is raising it -- in the form of labor, supplemental feed, veterinary supplies, wear and tear on my truck, etc., etc. By the time it is ready to go to market, I will have a total cost of production of about $100 to $105, and if I'm lucky I'll get paid $125 for him.

Add two bags of milk replacer -- about $90 -- to the normal cost of producing a market lamb, and I've gone from making $25 to losing $70. In other words, I have lost my margin on three other lambs just to pay for the rearing of that one. And that is to say nothing of the fact that caring for one orphan takes more time than tending to 50 lambs being reared by their dams. During lambing, my time is a precious resource. Bottle lambs take my attention and focus away from the lambing flock, which can precipitate more problems, or let little problems turn into larger ones.

So when I came across Fiddlehead for the first time an hour or so after her birth, I was only slightly upset that she was dead. Fiddlehead was a tiny lamb, one of two born to a 12-month-old ewe lamb. Most ewes that young only have a single lamb; few will have enough milk to raise two lambs even if they are both vigorous. At that age, the dam herself is still growing, so less of her energy can be directed to reproduction and lactation than when she is fully grown. Fiddlehead's twin was full-sized and vigorous, full of colostrum and raring to go. The dam was attentive to both lambs. She was pawing and nickering at the small, lifeless heap in front of her nose. I picked her up and held her up to my ear, and, lo and behold, there was the hint of a breath sound and, yes, a heartbeat. Damn.

Now when I say tiny, I mean it. This was a lamb that could fit in the palm of one of my hands and not drape over the edges. She tipped the scale at 2 pounds, one ounce. Thirty-three ounces. She had no chance of survival. A normal newborn lamb weighs four to five times that much. She was unable to stand. I told myself the humane thing to do was put her down. I was carrying her to my truck for just that purpose, when two ladies out for a walk and enjoying the pastoral scene spotted me and my dire cargo.

"Do you think it'll survive?" one of them asked hopefully.

"Not very likely," I replied.

Fiddlehead begged to differ. She lifted her limp head, summoned what little strength she had in her under-developed lungs and bleated loudly.

"Oh! How sweet!" came the chorus from the roadside.

"Damn." I thought to myself. "So much for the quick and painless death option." Sure, I could have just taken her off and done the grim deed out of their sight. But I am a shepherd. If a lamb -- however wretched -- wants to live that bad, I try to find a way to give it every chance.

It was 48 hours before Fiddlehead could stand. Three more days before she could suck on her own. I carried her around in my jacket or shirt pocket. But once she got her feet under her, she was as full of life and obnoxious as a only bottle lamb can be, following people around and butting dogs and cats that dared get in her way.

I lost a packet on her. She never grew well. Never amounted to much. I should be angry at myself for letting those ladies guilt-trip me into making a bad economic decision. Instead, I'm glad that they helped me stay a shepherd.

But I still hate bottle lambs.