Vt. struggles to satisfy local meat demand

FERRISBURGH — It’s not a glamorous industry, but these days, the services of Vermont Livestock Slaughter and Processing in Ferrisburgh are in high demand.
“Right now, we’re booking into fall of 2012,” said Carl Cushing, owner and a retired state meat inspector. “We turn away about as much as we do.”
Cushing’s operation is one of only seven animal slaughtering and meat processing operationsin Vermont (also including Buxton’s Custom Cutting in Orwell) and 28 across the New England region. Chelsea Lewis, agricultural development coordinator for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, said existing plants just aren’t filling the regional demand, which has risen along with a recent uptick in demand for local meat.
Lewis recently completed a study, published in the “Journal of Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems,” of slaughter and processing capacity across the region. She said solving the shortage of slaughterhouses isn’t as simple as one might expect.
“It’s not as easy as just building more facilities,” she said. “I think if that were the case, it would have happened already.”
In fact, Lewis found that only about 38 percent of the total kill-floor capacity in New England is used on an annual basis, while between 66 and 78 percent of processing capacity is used.
These data, said Lewis, demonstrate that some slaughter facilities are actually underused. It’s the processing end, where the meat is cut and packaged, where the pinch is being felt, since processing takes double the time and more expensive equipment.
In Ferrisburgh, Cushing said the business is as efficient as possible, but it’s limited by storage space in the walk-in refrigerators. At the Depot Road facility, slaughter goes on two days a week with three people. The other three days of the week, five to eight people slice the meat into ribs, bacon, steak, sausage and other forms familiar to the customer.
For many in New England, there are also seasonal bottlenecks in demand for slaughter. Lewis said many in the livestock business prefer to slaughter their herds in the fall and early winter so they don’t to have to feed the animals all winter. This means slaughterhouses are typically in low demand during the late winter and early spring.
In that respect, though, Lewis said times are slowly changing. Rising demand for local meat and more year-round farmers’ markets mean more opportunities for livestock producers in the area to sell year-round.
And for Cushing, business is booming. Early next year, he is aiming to begin work on an expansion that will increase capacity by about 30 percent early. Right now the facility slaughters and processes between 1,300 and 1,400 cows, 1,600 pigs and 350 lambs every year.
Still, Lewis found that existing New England facilities could handle the slaughter of between 63 and 84 percent of the animals on the market, but that processing facilities could only handle between 29 and 43 percent of current demand. Instead, many larger livestock businesses must send their animals out of the region to get them slaughtered and processed.
Cushing has a long view of the meat slaughter and processing industry in Vermont. His first jobs as a teenager were on slaughterhouse floors, and he later moved on to meat inspection; he eventually was director of food safety at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. Cushing said in that time, he’s seen the industry undergo enormous changes. In 1975 small slaughter facilities were booming, with 32 slaughterhouses in Vermont alone.
As the meat industry shifted to large-scale production, Cushing said a rise in food safety concerns — and an accompanying rise in regulations for slaughter and processing operations — put many small operations out of business. Back when he began in the businessin the ’70s, Cushing said salmonella and E. coli just weren’t big concerns.
“Now, most regulations that we have are necessary,” said Cushing. “There are always people who see it as money and not food, but the regulation is there to represent the consumer.”
Those regulations mean a slaughter and processing facility has to operate as efficiently as possible to survive.
“It’s a complicated business,” said Cushing. “It’s high volume, low profit.”
And it’s a position that requires years of training. Cushing said on any given day, the people on his cutting room floor — many who, like him, began working in the business at a very young age — have a combined 250 years of experience.
Lewis said the Agency of Agriculture is working to create a skilled meat cutter training program for the state, since finding trained workers is another difficulty that slaughter and processing facilities face.
Lewis also said the Agency of Agriculture will be working with current facilities to help them increase efficiency, and to encourage collaboration between slaughter facilities and offsite custom and artisanal meat processors.
Above all, said Cushing, it’s about finding people committed to the business of slaughter and processing, and to its role in Vermont agriculture. That’s why he picked the life he did after his retirement from the state.
“I did this by choice, because I believe this is a crucial part of Vermont agriculture,” he said. “By raising slaughter capacity, we can keep lands open. It will allow Vermont to play the role that so many people see us in.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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