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Fingers to the bone: As demand for local meat grows, processors feel the crunch

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Posted on October 29, 2009 |
By Kathryn Flagg



web_rupswideshot.jpg
RUPERT LAROCK MOVES a quarter side of beef from the cooler to the cutting room in his Sudbury custom-cutting butcher shop. LaRock is part of a network of producers, slaughterhouses and butchers working to make local meat more accessible to consumers. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

Editor’s note: In the second of two installments looking at slaughterhouses in Vermont, we’re taking a look today at the growing market for local meats, the challenges facing small meat producers, and the ways farmers are trying to make meat production more profitable. See the first article in the series here.

ADDISON COUNTY — Rupert LaRock bustled into his butcher shop, donning first his long, white coat and then a bright red rubber apron. He hauled open the door to the cooler where quarters of beef hung in a row, waiting to be carved into cuts of meat.

“This is a nice little cow,” LaRock said, giving the first quarter — part of a Holstein brought in to be butchered by a Middlebury customer — a tug.

The meat hung from a massive hook connected to a series of metal tracks that ran along the ceiling, and that tug sent the piece of meat swinging out of the cooler and into the processing room. After sharpening his knives, LaRock picked up his saw and began the tough work of breaking down the quarter.

LaRock has been cutting meat since he was 14, when he learned the trade from a butcher in Forest Dale. Now, at 56, he runs his own butchering business, Rup’s Custom Cutting. It’s a specialized niche in the world of meat processing: LaRock only processes animals slaughtered on their owners’ farms, which means his cuts are meant solely for personal use by the animal’s owner, and can’t be sold at retail.

Still, LaRock is busy: The compact, ebullient butcher is booked into March, and many of his customers schedule their slaughters and processing dates a year in advance.

As more consumers take an interest in knowing where and how their meat is produced, small-scale local meat production is on the rise in Vermont, and at butcher shops like LaRock’s that means the schedule is tight.

But at each step of the way, consumers and producers alike are pointing out that the state’s infrastructure still has gaping holes that make local meat production challenging. Be it the shortage of butchers and slaughterhouses or the inflexibility of federal regulations, getting meat from farm to table is sometimes easier said than done.

ON-FARM SLAUGHTER
LaRock, for one, thinks on-farm slaughter is best for the animals. He said he can see a difference in the color of the meat that comes from an animal slaughtered on the farm, something he chalks up to the lack of adrenaline in animals slaughtered in the normal surroundings.

“He’s in his own environment. We send a couple of guys out. He doesn’t get worked up, heated up. We just come there, and the next thing you know it’s over,” LaRock said. “He’s just a lot more relaxed. It makes for better meat. It’s wicked good for an animal.”

It’s not just better for the animals, in LaRock’s mind — it’s also good news for the farmer.

“They know exactly what’s going on, and they see who is handling their meat,” LaRock said.
But the regulations are strict: On-farm slaughter can only be used for a farmer’s own animal, and the meat taken from an animal killed on location can’t be sold.

LaRock thinks that regulation will have to change, and soon.

“It is too bad. As sure as we’re sitting here, you’re going to see them change it,” he said. “We don’t have enough federal plants. They’ve just got to open it up a little bit.”

That’s what groups like Rural Vermont, a farmers’ advocacy group, are angling for.

Brian Moyer, the executive director at Rural Vermont, said his group will certainly be lobbying to change the on-farm slaughter rules this legislative session. But they’ve hit a stumbling block: The Vermont Agency of Agriculture is concerned that if the state loosens its on-farm slaughter regulations, and falls below minimum USDA standards, the state could lose important USDA funding.

For Moyer, that’s frustrating news.

“It is a priority for us,” he said. “There is such a demand for local food production, but there has to be a way that farmers can enter the market. Small farmers can’t be held to the same standard as Tyson Meats. We have a one-size-fits-all regulatory system that everybody’s expected to adhere to, and it doesn’t make sense.”

One of the biggest problems in outlawing on-farm slaughter for retail meats, he said, is that it created the “hourglass design” that the meat industry in Vermont faces now.

At the top of the hourglass is a growing number of small, diversified farms in the state, he explained. At the bottom of the hourglass is a similarly growing number of consumers who want the products being grown and raised on those farms.

But in the middle are regulatory, processing and distribution barriers.

“We have too few processing facilities, and an ever shrinking number of people who are skilled to do that kind of work, and we have some regulatory restrictions that make it difficult for farmers and consumers to get meat.”

Moyer doesn’t want to do away with regulation for retail meat altogether — and in fact, on-farm slaughtering is already regulated to some extent. LaRock’s processing facility, for instance, is inspected every month by state meat inspectors.

THE RETAIL BUSINESS
For the time being, though plenty of farmers swear by on-farm slaughter, the regulations simply make it impossible for those producers who wish to sell their meat as retail cuts at co-ops, farmers’ markets or even directly from their own farms.

That’s where the state’s network of small slaughterhouses comes into play. Vermont has eight inspected facilities right now where animals can go to be slaughtered and processed. They vary by size, though all are “small” when considered from the perspective of most slaughterhouses. The largest slaughterhouse in Vermont processes around 600 cows a year.

The meat producers using these services run the gamut from hobby farmers raising just a handful of animals to much larger operations.

On the smaller end of the spectrum there are farmers like Teresa Smith, who lives in Panton. Smith and her husband are both teachers, and one generation removed from farm families.

Smith started raising her own pigs around five years ago, after discovering how difficult it was to track down local meat. It was easier, she said, to just start doing it for themselves. Slowly, that operation has grown, and now the Smiths raise pigs, beef, chickens and turkeys.

“I like to know where my food comes from,” Smith said.

There were certainly challenges at first, chief among them the issue of fencing. Animals, Smith quickly learned, are quick to escape if they have the opportunity. The farm also requires a great deal of time, which is difficult to work in given the Smiths’ full-time jobs.

Now, Smith raises four or five pigs each year. Some of those are sold directly to customers as halves of whole pigs, and other meat is butchered and sold from freezers on the Smith property as retail cuts. They call their operation “The Farmer’s Table,” though the name will soon change to “The Farmhouse Table.”

“The interest has been steady,” Smith said.

Some of that interest came from Margy Levine Young, a Cornwall resident who has purchased pigs from Smith for the last few years.

The Young family switched to local vegetables around 10 years ago, first buying a share in the “community-supported agriculture” (CSA) program at Will and Judy Stevens’ Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham, and then growing a large number of vegetables in the family’s own garden.

Then, Young read Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and what she learned about industrial pork, beef and poultry farming disturbed her. After making the switch to local produce, the “next step,” Young said, was to tackle the meat problem.

The Youngs weren’t the only ones to jump on the local pork bandwagon: They brought a few friends along for the ride, too. By the time they’d arranged to buy a half of a pig from Smith, friends had signed up for orders, too. A few years ago, on Halloween, the Youngs got the call: The meat was ready. They headed to Panton, and picked up laundry baskets filled with frozen cuts of pork. Then, Young said, they went “trick or treating” around the county, dropping off orders at friends’ homes.

Young couldn’t be happier with the pork, and both she and Smith said the difference between the locally raised meat and store-bought meat is obvious. In fact, when a group of students from Vergennes Union Middle School toured Smith’s farm, she organized a blind taste test, and her ground beef won out over the highest quality beef she could buy from the supermarket.

It’s still more expensive than buying “the industrial stuff,” Young said, and buying in bulk certainly has its challenges. There are cuts her family is still eyeing in the freezer, trying to decide just how to cook. But Young likes that feeling, in the same way that she likes having a garden.

“That’s kind of a fun challenge,” she said.

Plus, she takes comfort whenever she hears about the latest “contagion” to hit industrial food sources, be it contaminated spinach or peanut butter or recalled beef.

“You think, ‘Not my problem,’” Young said. “That’s just kind of a nice feeling.”

MARKETING LOCAL MEAT
Plenty of farmers are selling far more animals, though, than the relatively small number Smith raises.

Darryl Kuehne, a Benson farmer and animal health specialist with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, markets lambs and humanely raised veal in New York City along with 11 other New England farmers. They call their marketing group Fancy Meats from Vermont, and the 12 farmers have gone in on a truck together and hired a driver. Once a week, that truck heads down to New York City and Boston, taking carcasses to upscale restaurants where the animals are butchered.

Though the marketing group expands the definition of “eating local” beyond Addison County or even Vermont, they’ve found that sending meat to the cities is a way to make raising meat more profitable.

“If you try marketing your animals through an auction, you lose a lot of money,” Kuehne said.

“It’s a win-win situation for the farmers and the restaurants. New York is an “endless market,” Kuehne said, which means there’s plenty of room to grow. The restaurants are delighted by the supply of fresh meat, which oftentimes was slaughtered just two days before arriving in the city.

And the farmers make more than three times what they would have earned for their meat had it gone to auction: Eighty or 90 cents a pound liveweight at auction becomes more than $3 a pound liveweight after direct marketing. The marketing group certainly has higher expenses, but the extra effort pays off.

A SHORTAGE OF BUTCHERS
But the biggest problem that Kuehne and his marketing collective runs into is the shortage of slaughterhouses in Vermont. After a Rutland slaughterhouse burned in 2006, the Fancy Meats from Vermont farmers are faced with taking their animals out of state to be slaughtered.

“Right now we’re having to go to Albany and Massachusetts to have our animals slaughtered,” Kuehne said. The biggest problem is that many of the smaller slaughterhouses in Vermont have long waiting lists, and Kuehne’s group needs a facility that is flexible, and can process a certain number of animals ever week. He can’t call a plant six months in advance to schedule a slaughter date.

Kuehne isn’t the only farmer voicing concerns about the infrastructure for processing local meats.

Lee and Lisa Terrier run a dairy farm in Middlebury, and have started selling USDA-inspected beef from the family’s small storefront.

“The local slaughterhouse is currently booked out through March of 2010. Obviously there is a need for a larger or more USDA inspected slaughterhouses,” the Terriers wrote in an e-mail.
The Terriers, who raise their own animals but don’t do any on-farm slaughtering, said they’d like to see the slaughterhouse they use expand, though a larger business would raise concerns for them about the quality of the butchering and the possibility of mixed up orders.

And back at Rup’s Custom Cutting, LaRock is also quick to point out not just the shortage of processing plants but also the shortage of butchers in the region. No one knows how to cut meat anymore, he said. He put an ad in the paper looking for help recently, and only got two responses. In a recession, that baffled the butcher.

In their shop this week, LaRock and his team hustled to finish their work. The business runs year-round, but LaRock takes off for six weeks every November to head out hunting with his son. His wife, Jeanne, says she has a lot of homework to do over that six-week holiday: The couple is installing a smokehouse at the custom cutting plant, so that they won’t have to drive to Barre every week to drop off bacon and ham.

He’s also seen some major changes in the butchering industry during his 42 years on the job, which included a 30-year stint at a major supermarket, where he worked as the meat manager. He saw his team of meat cutters decimated after grocery stores moved from butchering quarters of meat to unpacking boxed meat, and the respect the job once commanded doesn’t seem to be there anymore. There’s not enough money in it, he explained, and it’s a labor-intensive job — which means younger butchers are few and far between.

“This is a dying trade,” LaRock said. “My age group, we’re a bunch of old warhorses, and there’s nothing coming up behind us. There’s no one.”

It’s not just a shortage of butchers and slaughterhouses that the state is facing: Meat inspectors are also short-handed.

Randy Quenneville is the meat section chief at the Agency of Agriculture. He and his team of inspectors regularly cover both slaughterhouses and processing plants in Vermont.

“We’ve been asking for more positions for quite some time now,” Quenneville said. He’s seen the number of facilities that the team inspects jump dramatically over the last four years. There are slaughterhouses to inspect, and processing plants that handle meats, jerky and smoked goods, as well as 25 custom processing plants (like Rupert LaRock’s) and more than 1,400 retail stores that need to be inspected.

Now, the agency is more “complaint-driven” than proactive, Quenneville said.
“We’re doing what we can with what we have,” he said.

A GROWING MARKET
In the meantime, customers are increasingly flocking to local meat, even if the infrastructure for slaughtering, inspecting and butchering that meat is floundering.

LaRock said that, in the six years he’s owned his own business, he’s seen the interest in local meats grow substantially.

“It’s wicked,” he said. “It’s going to get worse, too.”

Earlier this week, he worked alongside two other meat cutters — Hazel Hillier, who LaRock joked is the only woman meat cutter in the state of Vermont, and Scott Curtis, who LaRock trained when he managed the meat department at a Hannaford supermarket. Meanwhile, his wife handled cuts of lamb butchered that morning, wrapping the meat in white paper before freezing them. The butcher shop was cold and clean. (“It’s got to be like a hospital,” LaRock said.)

It takes LaRock four hours to process an entire cow — which might seem like a long time at a bigger slaughterhouse, LaRock said, but he does his job with care.

His customers appreciate that. They like knowing where their animal was raised, and they like knowing it’s in good hands at Rup’s.

He’d viewed a segment on the History Channel recently with a statistic that stuck with him: One pound of hamburger that heads to a chain store could include parts from as many as 1,700 cows.

“Could you imagine? Eating 1,700 animals?” he scoffed.

“People want to know what they’re eating,” LaRock said.

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