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.

No comments:

Post a Comment