Going for the Kill
With slaughterhouses disappearing, Vermont meat producers are barely hanging on
Vermont gets a lot of mileage from its happy Holstein image. As a symbol, it rightly makes the connection between the state's agricultural economy and its aesthetic appeal. There's a grislier side to that picture postcard, however, and it's hanging from a hook. Anyone in Vermont who raises — and grazes — animals ultimately requires the services of a slaughterer. Dairy farmers regularly supplement their milk checks by turning their "cull" cows and bob calves into saleable meat.
But local slaughterhouse options are dwindling. In 1984, there were 20 commercial slaughterhouses in the state. That number is now down to nine. Last week Vermont's largest facility, in Swanton, shut its doors. The next largest, Fresh Farm's Beef in Rutland, could well close down if the current owner doesn't find financing to buy out his ex-partner. The regional picture is just as bleak: This month Tyson Foods is shutting down slaughterhouses in Maine and New Hampshire.
Vermont slaughterhouses were in trouble long before the mad-cow scare, which has precipitated many new regulations on the kill floor. The final blow for Swanton was a prohibition on slaughtering "down cows" or "downers" — the term used to describe animals that are too sick or lame to walk. The "mad cow" found in Washington State last December fell into that category.
Things were "approaching a crisis situation" back in April 2003, according to a report issued by the state in association with the inactive Vermont Association of Meat and Poultry Processors. At that time, approximately two-thirds of the estimated 140,000 Vermont animals destined for slaughter were being killed out of state — a trend that is inconvenient for large farmers and impractical for small ones.
It doesn't take an ag expert to figure out that trucking two cows to slaughter in Pennsylvania is not cost-effective. Typically, the farmer simply sells his animals to the out-of-state facility, which sets the terms and moves the meat. State officials estimate that it results in "losses of millions of dollars to the state's agricultural base."
"Every time we ship an animal out of state we are losing — the farmer's losing an opportunity, we're losing processing jobs and we're losing value down the line," observes Steve Justis at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. Ultimately, this exportation threatens Vermont's livestock industry, which keeps agricultural land open and contributes to Vermont's greatest asset: its working landscape.
Lydia Ratcliff gets the connection. She's a livestock producer from Ando-ver who has created two co-ops that sell Vermont meat to high-end restaurants in Boston and New York City. Members get most of their slaughtering done at Fresh Farm's Beef in Rutland. She says she'd be hard-pressed to survive if co-owner Nick Greeno walks away.
In a letter on his behalf to the Vermont Economic Development Authority, Ratcliff writes, "I have heard from many sources that virtually all of the slaughterhouses in Vermont are in deep trouble — or are actually for sale. The same is true for New York State."
Farmers pay high slaughter and processing costs in Vermont because of a number of factors, including aging equipment, high energy-costs and a shortage of trained workers. Because of the small size and number of facilities, they also deal with scheduling problems; the slaughter business in Vermont is seasonal. It's virtually impossible to get an animal killed in the fall without a reservation at least six months in advance.
Local beef farmers have had to get creative. Jim Kleptz of LaPlatte River Angus in Shelburne slaughters weekly in Williston, at a non-descript facility on Route 2A — the smallest slaughterhouse in the state. Four years ago, he put up money so Craig Harrington could buy the place, which had been through numerous owners over the past 10 years. In exchange for unlimited access to the plant, Kleptz composts all the waste from the Williston facility. Slaughter-houses used to get paid for the offal. Now they pay 20 bucks a barrel to have it hauled away. Kleptz's son John also helps out with repairs.
Harrington, who is not related to the famous Harrington ham people, has no plans to expand the business. Or to invest in advertising, business cards or a fax machine, for that matter. "Just because other slaughterhouses are going out of business doesn't mean we're going to get bigger," he says one recent afternoon, without looking up from his work on a broken meat grinder. "It's back-breaking work, especially if the equipment is old. But there's no reason to get out of it. The work is there." The previous day's kill — a cooler packed with 36 sides of beef and eight lambs — proves his point.
The simple economics of supply and demand don't explain the Vermont slaughterhouse crisis. Despite the shortage of facilities, no one appears to be making a killing from killing. Even at full capacity, most operators barely make enough to survive.
That's because they're small, inefficient, undercapitalized, overburdened and relatively low-tech compared to their corporate counterparts to the south and west. Fresh Farm's Beef has never handled more than 34 cows, or 200 lambs, in a day. A Pennsylvania plant owned by the Kansas-based Excel Corporation knocks off 1800 to 2500 steers daily. That's a lot of hamburger.
Vermont slaughterhouses have to compete with those massive packing operations for meat customers. But it's not always worth it. For five years, Greeno was supplying the New York prison system with up to 12,000 pounds of hamburg and stew meat a week. He had to "beef" up his staff, from seven to 15, in order to service the customer. But he found he was losing money. He dropped the account, slashed his work force and is now back in the black.
Although he won't weigh in on the economics of that particular situation, the ag agency's Steve Justis suggests, "I know there is not a big mark-up on ground beef." Plus, many Vermont plants are slowed down by outdated technology. Staying up to code is costly. Working inspectors overtime costs $46 an hour. There's not much left at the end of the day to invest in additional cooler space or a new deboning machine.
Greeno has found niches where he could. He's as happy to supply a bag of hamburger to C.J's Pub in Rutland as tongues, livers, hearts, tails and cheeks to an ethnic meat market in Providence. Every week, he FedExes animal parts to Columbia University and the National Institutes of Health, to be used in research.
And he takes care of his customers, particularly the "custom label" ones. Greeno lets Ratcliff use his plant as a depot where other producers, such as Misty Knoll Farms, can drop off their ag goods for her to transport to the city. "He keeps track of all kinds of things," Ratcliff says, "and gets special things if a customer wants, like sweetbreads and veal kidneys." Greeno even helps load the truck.
Monty Adams of Montana Yankee Beef happily makes the drive to Rutland from his farm in Starksboro at least once a week. "Where I'm from, out west, it's not unusual to truck your animals 100 miles," he notes, adding that Greeno could take on more business if he had "more capacity in the cooler." He charges commercial customers $20 per animal for slaughtering and 50 cents per pound to cut it up.
Like most Vermont slaughterhouses, Fresh Farm's Beef draws very little attention to itself at the end of Park Street in Rutland. There is no obvious entrance to the ramshackle collection of low-slung buildings. But one unmarked door leads to a small, smoky "office" that serves as a break room for workers who come in to get warm — the kill floor and processing rooms are kept at under 50 degrees.
Thirty-six-year-old Greeno answers the business phone with nothing more official than a quiet "hello." But he wears a headset so he can work and talk at the same time. A pair of bloody white cotton gloves on his desk suggest he's been multi-tasking. A call comes in from a new customer — a dairy farmer in Randolph — who wants Greeno to take a cull cow off her hands. He agrees to buy the animal for 60 cents a pound.
"It walks and everything, right?" Greeno asks to confirm the animal is ambulatory. He stopped accepting downers way before the ban. "There is no way to humanely move a 1500 pound cow that can't walk," he observes. But he is concerned about the downer prohibition for two reasons: One, a mad cow walks before it keels over. "Had they slaughtered it the week before, there's a pretty good chance nobody would ever have known," he notes. In fact, Fresh Farm's Beef recently saw a walking animal that aroused suspicion. "They destroyed the cow outside, took it all apart, put it in barrels and trucked it to the University of Connect-icut," Greeno recalls. "It ended up being nothing but that's what they were looking for."
Secondly, bringing down cows to slaughter was a way of accounting for the animals. Federal or state inspectors examine every carcass that comes through the door of your local slaughterhouse. If an animal looks questionable, on the hoof or on the rail, they call the doctor. Every single downer got a vet check. "Now people are butchering all these cows on the farm," Greeno laments. "I think that's worse."
Some beef producers still slaughter their own animals, or hire someone to do it on the farm. But regulations specify that meat cannot be resold unless it's processed at a facility overseen by licensed inspectors. Meat from a "state-inspected" facility stays in Vermont. The federal sanction — which comes with a full-time USDA inspector — allows it to be marketed out of state. The Vermont Agency of Agriculture has been trying for years to streamline the process so state-inspected meat can be sold over the border.
John and Nancy Wing are experts on the subject of regulations. They've been up to their ears in red tape — and $800,000 in debt — since they converted an old milking parlor into a slaughterhouse and retail meat store on their farm in Benson, off Route 22A. The retired couple started the operation to meet their own meat marketing needs, but when the state ag agency got wind of it, "They said, Boy, do we need this,'" John Wing explains.
The state assisted the Wings in every way possible — "except to give us the money," Wing says, laughing. They offered technical assistance and marketing workshops. (State officials urge beef producers to "add value" to their products. An old Holstein makes a mean meatloaf.) But the sparkling new slaughterhouse is virtually empty because its federal USDA approval is still pending. It'll be at least two more weeks before the Wings can service larger, commercial clients.
The frustrating and costly delay has given Wing plenty of time to perfect his sales pitch. A former teacher, he enthusiastically makes the distinction between factory-farm beef and his grass-fed "natural" variety. "Most cows spend five months growing up in a feedlot," he says. "Our cattle get out three times a week — no growth hormones, no antibodies, no feed with byproducts." As with every small Vermont slaughterhouse, there is also more inspector time per animal.
Wing leads a tour of the facility, from the pig pens to the Cryovac machine. At one end of the kill floor, animals come in one by one from the outside into the "knock box," where they are shot with a stun gun. The cow's head gets sawed off before the carcass is suspended from a hook on an overhead rail and bled onto the concrete.
The animal proceeds down the track to the other side of the room, where it is skinned, gutted and split. A wheelbarrow-like "gut cart" serves to separate the vicscera. Presuming it passes inspection, the meat goes from "hot" cooler to "cold" cooler, where it can hang for up to three weeks to increase tenderness. To the same end, Wing strives to minimize stress on the animals. Like many livestock producers, he believes adrenalin — secreted as a result of unnecessary travel or rough treatment — ruins the meat.
Wing would have you believe his cows are perfectly contented when they meet their maker. And he may be onto something; If there were ever an ideal time to put a premium on humane slaughter and chemical-free cultivation, this is it.
The mad-cow crisis could actually be a boon to local beef producers and the slaughterhouses where they process their animals. "I think it's increased the private labeling," Greeno suggests, noting, "People feel a little safer" when they know where their meat comes from. Both Montana Yankee and LaPlatte River are selling well in Chittenden County.
Local restaurants are catching on, too. Ratcliff's operation, Fancy Meats From Vermont, now has a local supply run. A third meat co-op, Pride of Vermont, is thinking about taking over a slaughterhouse in Troy, which is also for sale. Even Swanton may have some life left in it. Last week officials from the agriculture agency and the Vermont Department of Economic Development met with the former owner to talk about refocusing the plant.
It may be too little, too late, though. Three years ago, the legislature earmarked $200,000 to help the slaughterhouse industry, but then-Gov. Dean subsequently slashed the item from the budget. Loans, workshops and business plans only go so far, according to Ratcliff. "We depend on these slaughterhouses to run our agricultural machine, so we ought to make some grants to upgrade them. They are more than a private competitive business," she adds. "I see them more as a public utility."
Investing in Vermont's slaughterhouses may be the ag equivalent of buying dams on the Connecticut River — a step toward sustainability. What's more absurd than buying cheap meat from Hannaford or Costco — out of Pennsylvania — that might have originated on the farm up the road? "Our little local slaughterhouses are fishbowls. They can't cover things up the way those huge places can," says Ratcliff. "Here you feel like you have some control over the product. You can speak to the owner. That's the kind of place I want to deal with. And better meat comes out of it."