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Slaughterhouse One

Farmers struggle to find a place for their meat

By Jessica Arriens
Sentinel Staff

Holly Gowdy of Brookfield Farm in Walpole visits with some of her livestock. Gowdy is looking forward to construction of a new slaughterhouse in nearby Westminster, Vt.

In 2006, two New England slaughterhouses were destroyed within eight months of each other: Adams Farm Slaughterhouse in Athol, Mass., and Fresh Farm’s Beef Slaughterhouse in Rutland, Vt.

Flames engulfed the buildings, smoke billowed from the roofs, and Holly Gowdy had bad news for her customers.

“We had people lined up to buy our meat, and nowhere to send our animals to be processed,” said Gowdy, who runs Brookfield Farm in Walpole with her husband, Christian.

It’s a small organic-certified farm, where they raise Angus beef cattle, sheep and pigs. The meat is sold commercially, at the Bellows Falls farmers’ market and to individuals.

“I had to call my customers and say, ‘We can’t slaughter the animals, I can’t get you your meat,’ ” Gowdy said.

The fires may have been nothing more than coincidence, but the problem they caused for Gowdy hints at a larger predicament, the bane of livestock farmers in New Hampshire and across New England: the lack of slaughterhouse facilities.

The times, however, may be changing.

A new slaughterhouse is set to open in Westminster, Vt., later this year, and a bill in the N.H. House would exhume a long-gone state meat inspection program.

Both of these would help ease the pressures on New Hampshire livestock farmers, who often cope with long travel time and high demand when visiting slaughterhouses.

There is only one U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved slaughterhouse in New Hampshire: Lemay & Sons Beef in Goffstown.

“Sometimes there are no bookings because it is a particularly busy season, and there is no way to get (farmers’) animals processed,” said state Rep. Tara A. Sad, a Democrat from Walpole, who is one of the sponsors of the meat inspection bill, which hasn’t encountered any opposition.

“This is not a good situation in an agriculture state … It just is not a way that encourages expansion of any kind of meat processing or local food production, which is what we’re trying to do here in the state,” she said.

Unlike meat inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — which can be sold anywhere in the country — state-inspected meat must be sold in the same state it was slaughtered in.

Not every state has its own inspection program — Vermont does, but New Hampshire doesn’t

Granite State farmers who slaughter their meat in Vermont must have it USDA-approved.

New Hampshire disbanded its state inspection program in 1977.

“I think at the time it was a cost-cutting measure,” said Robert Johnson, executive director of the N.H. Farm Bureau Federation.

Sad’s bill puts the state veterinarian in charge of a new Meat Inspection Service, which would train inspectors according to U.S. Department of Agriculture standards.

The bill met some confusion from the Executive Departments and Administration Committee, Sad said, but rather than kill the bill, the committee retained it, and is set to release a report on it by November.

In the meantime, some farmers can turn to Vermont Meats, a newly formed business set to open a slaughterhouse in Westminster.

Last month, Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas announced that $648,000 in Vermont Community Development Program funds will be given to help finance the slaughterhouse, which will be USDA-approved and slaughter beef, pork, lamb and poultry.

“The southern part of the state especially has been in great need of additional meat processing capabilities,” said Roger Allbee, Vermont’s secretary of agriculture, in announcing the grant.

New Hampshire farmers will likely benefit from the slaughterhouse as well, said Johnson, since it will be another option, one much closer for some farmers.

Gowdy lives 5 miles from the site, and has been closely following news of its creation.

“There is a need for this sort of facility,” she said, citing one of the first meetings about the slaughterhouse, where 100 farmers attended, far more than the expected 25.

Gowdy now travels to a slaughterhouse in South Royalston, Vt., a 21/2-hour trip, one-way.

When fuel peaked near $5 a gallon last summer, whatever minimal profit margin she made “was quickly evaporated.”

“Having a facility that’s more readily available and easily accessible for farmers … we’re still not going to make a fortune, but every little bit helps,” she said.

Shorter travel time also means less stress for the animals.

“They’re not used to riding,” said David Weaver, manager of Pitcher Mountain Farm in Stoddard, which sells free-range, grass-fed chicken and Highland cattle.

Weaver travels to a slaughterhouse in Sharon, Vt. — a three-hour round trip — and agrees New Hampshire farmers need a closer USDA-approved slaughterhouse.

“If there was more slaughter capacity, the industry would grow,” said Johnson of the Farm Bureau.

And it would be able to cater to the burgeoning population of consumers concerned with eating local, eating organic, eating grass-fed meat, a population local farmers have witnessed.

Rebecca A. Elliott owns Russell Hill Farm in Marlow with her husband, Guy. The duo have a small herd of beefalo — an animal that is a mix of buffalo and bovine.

Customers find her merely through word of mouth, but “more people are interested in natural-grown beef now,” she said.

“I have more than enough customers to market my meat.”

Ruth Holmes, who runs Sunnyfield Farm in Peterborough with her husband, Daniel, has also seen this boost in demand.

Farmers and consumers can’t benefit from this growing interest, however, without a local slaughterhouse — be it from a new facility in Westminster, or from a new state inspector.

“I would love people to understand that problem,” Holmes said.

“To have local, they have to support a local slaughterhouse.”

Jessica Arriens can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1433, or jarriens@keenesentinel.com