Bringing it home
Local meat processing is on the rise as more consumers want to know where their food comes from
BENSON, Vt. -- As John Wing shows a visitor through his chilled cutting room at Over the Hill Farm, he knows he's at the forefront of a movement. "Eat locally" and "know where your food comes from" are hot catchphrases. And what Wing and his five-man crew do each day -- slaughtering and processing beef, veal, pork, lamb, buffalo, and goat -- is vital to that movement.
It's a touchy subject. Consumers connect a slaughterhouse with enormous operations in the South and Midwest and shudder at reports of how animals are treated. Selling meat from naturally raised, humanely treated animals has become a solid niche market in New England.
"This is the meat of the future, no doubt in my mind," Wing said.
But getting that meat from the pasture to the dining table takes a slaughtering facility. In the populous states of the Northeast, those are few in number and dwindling, partially because of the pressures of development.
Wing and his family built their rambling, red-frame $1.75 million facility in the hills west of Rutland five years ago after he couldn't find anywhere nearby to have his pasture-raised cattle processed. There are many small processors in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, but only a handful are certified by the US Department of Agriculture, which -- among other specifications -- requires an inspector be on site during working hours. Without that certification, meat cannot be sold to the public. As a result, some small operations process meat and game only for private use.
Interest in buying locally is widespread, said Kent Lage, assistant commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, and consumers will pay more to get meat that is processed close to home. Most of the animals taken to small plants like Over the Hill are raised naturally, many under protocols such as those of Northeast Family Farms or Azuluna Veal that specify no hormones be given to animals, the animals be allowed outdoor pasturing and freedom of movement, and they are treated humanely from birth to slaughter.
Beef and pork raised this way can cost twice as much as commercially raised and slaughtered meat. But there isn't much price resistance from consumers, said John Stowell, director of fresh meats and sustainable programs for dis tributor Dole & Bailey.
Direct sales to consumers is the leading growth area in agriculture in Massachusetts -- the state's 6,075 farms make an average of $24,800 a year per farm through farmers' markets, farm stands, and other direct sales. But the one USDA facility open in Massachusetts, Blood Farm in Groton, processes only 100 to 110 animals a week. A larger facility in Athol, owned by the Adams family, burned last December. Another one, in Rutland, Vt., burned last July.
Barney Blood, whose family has had a slaughterhouse in West Groton since before the Civil War, said he is processing meat for some of the Athol plant's customers but added, "I want to take care of my old customers first." Right now, he said, "we do a lot of pigs for barbecues."
Wing's Vermont facility processes animals from as far away as Connecticut and New York, averaging about 100 to 250 animals a week. By comparison, the mammoth Smithfield Farms processing operation in Tar Heel, N.C., has the capacity to process more than 30,000 hogs a day. And Tyson Fresh Meats in Holcomb, Kan., processes 6,000 head of cattle a day.
Still, Over the Hill's business is growing steadily, Wing said. Fall is the busiest season, but "we're as busy this spring and summer as we were last Nov. 1," he said. Customers range from small farmers who sell their products at farmers' markets to Dole & Bailey, which provides meats to high-end restaurants, gourmet markets, and food-service operations at Yale University and other schools.
John Stowell, director of fresh meats and the sustainable program at Dole & Bailey, said Over the Hill's attention to detail and its willingness to cut and package meat the way the customer wants distinguish the slaughterhouse. For instance, he said, "Yale wants everything packaged consistently, They want a chuck roll cut into three pieces and butterflied."
In Massachusetts, as elsewhere, the demand for slaughtering facilities is offset by community concerns, said Lage of the state agricultural department. It's difficult finding a location with the required water supply and sewage facilities that is situated away from residential areas, where a slaughterhouse might draw complaints about noise and traffic. The state has helped Adams Farm's owners with grants and advice for the $3 million processing plant being built to replace the one that burned. Beverly Mundell, one of the farm's owners, said the plant, which is scheduled to open late in the fall, will be "more modern and updated" with triple the capacity of the original, which processed up to 500 to 700 animals a week. "We have no worry at all" about there being enough business for the larger plant, Mundell said. "The phone rings off the wall" with inquiries from customers, she said.
Part of the draw of small slaughterhouses is that they are willing to meet the concerns of customers, from kosher butchering to ethnic specifications to following protocols for humane treatment and other requirements.
For Wing of Over the Hill Farm that means trying to keep the stress-level of the animals low. Getting the animals to the farm the night before slaughter means they're at ease, Wing said. But the reasoning goes beyond humane treatment. Wing and others believe such care affects the taste of the meat.
"I think meat quality is determined on the kill floor," said Wing. If the animal is chased or upset prior to slaughter, he said, adrenaline is released in their systems. That makes the meat "tough and the taste goes off," he said.