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$1M fuels slaughterhouse growth

RYAN CUSHING, MEAT cutter at Vermont Livestock and Processing, stands in a freezer with sides of beef, lamb and pork processed at the Ferrisburgh plant last week. The facility currently slaughters and butchers around 1,800 cows a year, though that number could triple as the plant expands.  Independent photo/Steve James

FERRISBURGH — A million-dollar federal grant will enable a Ferrisburgh slaughterhouse to greatly expand and better serve the demand for local meat.

Vermont Livestock Slaughter and Processing will use the $1,096,655 in federal grant money to enlarge its Depot Road facility, allowing the business to expand processing capacity and workforce, modernize equipment and provide more value-added services for customers.

Carl Cushing, owner of Vermont Livestock, said the project is positive for both the family-owned business and its customers, particularly because it creates more opportunities for local meat producers to have their animals processed in the area.

“The grant is extremely important to us because it helps give us the opportunity to expand as we are and be able to increase the capacity for more people in the area and to penetrate more of the markets,” he said.

“It’s helping us, but it’s also helping those (cattle, pig and lamb producers) that we serve.”

CARL CUSHING
Independent photo/Steve James

The grant came through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Meat and Poultry Processing Expansion Program.

Typically, in order to sell cuts of meat and value-added products like sausage or bacon, producers must have their animals slaughtered and butchered in a USDA or state inspected facility. As of 2021, Vermont Livestock was one of nine of these facilities in the state and, according to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, it is the only plant in Addison County that offers both meat slaughtering and processing services.

“From here, (farmers) would have to go to Benson, or Braintree or Saint Johnsbury,” Cushing said of options for slaughtering and processing facilities in the state. “So, we cover a pretty good region.”

Vermont Livestock currently processes beef, sheep and pigs for hundreds of commercial and residential customers in Vermont, New Hampshire and New York, most of whom are Addison County farmers. The plant currently butchers around 1,800 beef cattle a year, while Cushing said the amount of lamb processed each year is slightly lower than that, and pork processing numbers are slightly higher.

PHYSICAL EXPANSION

The federal grant will fund a physical expansion of Vermont Livestock’s facility at 76 Depot Road in Ferrisburgh. Three main goals of the project include expanding the plant’s processing capacity, allowing Vermont Livestock to offer more value-added products with new manufacturing systems, and improving the building’s energy efficiency.

Work on the 12,000-square-foot expansion began earlier this year and will be completed in three phases — hopefully by next June. The first phase consists of building a new hoop barn to keep animals prior to slaughter. The next phase of construction will expand the slaughter floor and cooling area. Expanding and modernizing this area will include adding new cooler and freezer panels, a gravity-fed rail hanging system and new slaughter equipment. Work on this part of the building will also include envelop upgrades to improve energy efficiency.

Cushing said the new equipment will allow Vermont Livestock to offer more services for its customers.

“There will be some value-added products like hammered patties, which have been a big request, and the linking of sausage. That is a new one for us, because the equipment we’ve had was antiquated,” he said. “We’ll be able to assist our customers in getting their products into the markets in a more competitive way.”

And there’s potential to add more improvements to the facility in the future, such as equipment for curing and smoking.

“We don’t have that in the plan yet, we’re going to have to walk before we run here. Hopefully at some point we’ll have that available for our customers as well,” Cushing said.

The third phase of the project will reconstruct the front end of the building, creating more room for offices and conference rooms. Cushing said another part of the project is installing a solar array to offset the facility’s electricity use, which is one of the plant’s larger expenses.

By expanding processing and cooling storage areas, the project will increase Vermont Livestock’s processing capacity. Cushing said the hope is to at least double the number of animals they’re able to process, a possibility that has excited a lot of customers.

“Some people that we’ve done work for and weren’t able to get in this year have asked ‘Can you put me in for 2023, if not, can you put me in for 2024?’” he said. “People know this is happening and I’m sure that it’s going to help a lot of folks.”

Among these customers is Dustin Brace of Brace Farm in Ferrisburgh. The Brace Farm consists largely of a dairy operation, though in recent years they’ve begun raising beef, pigs and chickens. Brace said the farm has been going solely to Vermont Livestock for processing since it started to raise livestock. He’s currently on the plant’s cancellation list, with his next appointment set up for two cows in January.

TWO OF THE 10-member workforce at Vermont Livestock butcher an animal at the Ferrisburgh plant last week. The company hopes a physical expansion will enable it to double the size of its workforce.
Independent photo/Steve James

Brace hasn’t looked for a butcher other than Cushing, but said he’s heard from others in the industry that getting a spot at a butcher can be difficult.

“My friends say that everybody is in a pinch,” he said. “Carl expanding will create more opportunities for people to get their beef cut up and processed locally.”

Brace believes the expansion will have a greater impact as well by allowing for more local meat to reach consumers in the county.

“If they have more appointments open for people locally getting their cows processed, it’s good for the whole community. We don’t need to be bringing in meat (to the county) that we don’t know where it comes from or how it was raised,” he said. “The people that buy our hamburgers know me, they know how well kept the farm is and how I treat animals with the utmost respect. (The expansion) will keep everything more local.”

LOOKING FOR WORKERS

Along with expanding its physical space, Vermont Livestock is looking to grow its workforce, hopefully by doubling its 10-person team. While many of these jobs will become available once construction on the expansion is completed, Vermont Livestock is looking to fill some positions as soon as possible. Cushing said no prior experience in the field is necessary, and there’s flexibility for potential employees to find a job at the plant that’s right for them.

“We will train for any job that we have. They just need to come in with a desire to work and learn,” he said. “If we see someone that’s going to work better in one position than another, we intend to recognize that talent and assist and encourage them in making that happen.”

Filling these positions will be a key part of maximizing the plant’s new capacity. Cushing said he’s aware of the difficulty other employers have finding workers, but he’s hopeful Vermont Livestock will be able to grow its workforce and maximize the opportunity to meet a demand for meat processing in the region.

“Getting people into this line of work is a bit of a challenge, but we’re confident that we can get people in,” he said. “All around, (expanding) is a good thing. It’s well beyond me, it’s for the people that are going to be able to take advantage of this.”

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