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Local meat producers face economic challenge

ANNIE HARLOW

The economics of (local meat) processing is really hard. It’s always going to be a higher price point than a commodity feedlot. You have to entice customers to see the value in local meat, and in the value-add of good animal husbandry.
— Annie Harlow, food retail specialist

Part 2 of a 2-part series. Read the first story here.
ADDISON COUNTY — Vermont Food Collaborative (VFC) in New Haven includes a retail storefront on Route 7 and a state-inspected processing facility in the back. Its mission is to market Vermont-raised livestock, foods and goods; educate the community; and work with producers, butchers and educators to provide a full-circle program of farm-to-plate training for the next generation.
Jennifer Kennett and AnnaJo Smith, who founded the Route 7 business in 2019, also provide a number of logistical services to VFC’s more than 30 producer-members, including scheduling butchering appointments with Maple Ridge Meats, and then picking up the carcasses for processing back in New Haven.
“Scheduling slaughter is the hardest piece,” Kennett told the Independent. “It bogs the system down.”
In this way, VFC offers a part of the solution to what has been identified as a statewide problem: Companies offering meat processing services in Vermont are having difficulty meeting demand from meat producers.
The problem was clearly spelled out in the Vermont Agricultural and Food System Plan 2021-2030, which was recently released by the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund through its Vermont Farm to Plate Initiative. The plan lays out 15 strategic goals to achieve by 2030 to increase sustainable economic development, keep the working landscape healthy, provide more locally grown healthy foods to Vermonters and improve racial equity.
“Meat Slaughter, Processing, and Products” is identified as a place that needs work.
As the Independent reported last week, Vermont has 3,600 livestock producers but only 170 commercial operations offering slaughter, processing, wholesale distribution and animal food manufacturing. There are 1,700 retail outlets for those products.

RETAIL
At VFC on the corner of Route 7 and  Campground Road in New Haven, Kennett and Smith are trying to fill some gaps
In addition to state-inspected processing, Kennett’s husband and son, Tom and Calvin, operate a custom cutting operation at VLC called The Farmer’s Blade, which serves smaller farms that produce for their families and neighbors.
Offering curbside pickup during the pandemic has helped grow VFC’s business, Kennett said, but COVID-19 has put a damper on its producer and consumer education programming.
Despite that, Kennett had some very good news for the local meat processing industry, especially regarding the shortage of local meat cutters.
The Vermont Food Collaborative has partnered with the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury to develop 16-week courses in meat cutting and food production.
“These will be full-circle programs,” Kennett said, “with internships to help students understand the whole industry.”
Students will receive certification upon successful completion of the courses.
In the meantime VFC is working to promote its producer-members’ products, not only in its retail store, but now also next door, at the newly opened Community Cabin, where offerings include crafts and other goods. (The Independent will introduce readers to the Community Cabin in a future story.)
Kennett pointed out that even though VFC has a network local producer-members, it is not a members-only retail operation. The Vermont Food Collaboration is open to everyone, and if a customer needs something specific, VFC staff will find a way to get it for them.
For more information about the Vermont Food Collaborative, visit vermontfoodcollaborative.com.

ECONOMICS
The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets believes that advancing Vermont’s slaughter, meat processing and product sector can begin to happen sooner rather than later.
“There are some goals (including meat processing) we can try to achieve within the next year,” said Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts at the Feb. 8 press conference announcing the release of the Food System Plan. “(Gov. Scott) has proposed in his budget spending about $3.6 million in the Working Lands Enterprise fund. If approved by the Legislature that should help with some of the issues with processing they were having with meat.”
This was welcome news for food retail specialist Annie Harlow, a member of the Farm to Plate strategic team who focuses on getting food to market.
Harlow hopes the proposed funding will provide more butchering and processing opportunities throughout the state so that producers won’t have to drive so many miles to seek those services, she told the Independent.
“The economics of (local meat) processing is really hard,” she said. “It’s always going to be a higher price point than a commodity feedlot. You have to entice customers to see the value in local meat, and in the value-add of good animal husbandry — real animals that are better cared for.”
One of the industry’s perennial questions is, “How do you get food into the marketplace with the least amount of handling?” she said. “Labor costs money. Every time food is touched, the price goes up.”
On top of that, for smaller operations it can take a while to develop a customer base for niche or value-added products.
“Patience is easier to have when you’re well-capitalized.”
Harlow cited the increasing importance, especially during the pandemic, of farm stands and CSAs, which have became a key component of the Vermont food system’s resilience in the face of restaurant shut-downs and other interruptions.
“People were actually able to increase their production because of CSAs and farm stands,” she said. “For example, Last Resort Farm (in Monkton), which normally does garlic and roots, expanded to include doughnuts, eggs and local meat from other producers.”
Harlow also sits on the board of the Addison County Relocalization Network. The organization, known as ACORN, recently released “Eat Local VT,” a free app that helps people find and connect with hundreds of local food producers in the community.
As of last week, a search for “meat” in the app produced 17 results in the Middlebury area, including Agricola Farm, the Vermont Food Collaborative, Vermont Livestock Slaughter & Processing and Maple Ridge Meats.
For more information about the Eat Local VT app, visit acornvt.org/app.
Despite the emergence of robust local systems, engagement at the state level will be needed to make significant progress across the entire sector.
“The continued growth of local meat production depends on sufficient, well-operated, inspected slaughter- and processing establishments, and producers understanding their co-dependency with these establishments,” according to the Food Systems Plan brief. “Solving the bottlenecks in the industry should be a priority as we look to expand the agricultural economy in the state.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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