Farmers Struggle to Satisfy Appetite for Local Meat
As more and more people begin thinking about where their food is coming from, many turn to local sources.
The growth of local fruit and vegetable markets bears that out.
And it seems to be the case for meat too.
Farmers would love to fill the demand for local meat.
But as part of NHPR’s food series this week, Elaine Grant reports that meat producers face a significant obstacle.
SOUND: CHEWING NOISES
It’s lunchtime at Miles Smith Farm in Loudon.
Buffy, one of farmer Bruce Dawson’s Scottish Highlander cows, is enjoying her hay.
She’s one of about 80 – mostly Scottish Highlanders and Angus – that Dawson raises on 36 hilly, windy acres.
Bruce Dawson, Miles Smith Farm: “The size of our herd, up until this year the largest it has been has been 25.”
Raising cattle on this scale is new for this former software engineer.
He changed careers two years ago after a few too many of his cows ……ended up in a family way.
He didn’t know what to do with all of them.
Bruce Dawson: “… so we did some investigating and found out it was an incredibly healthy meat to have, their meat depending on the cut is just as lean as white meat in chicken or turkey…”
Today they sell their beef to farmer’s markets, boutique grocery stores and restaurants.
Demand is good.
But one obstacle makes this new business particularly difficult.
There’s only one USDA-inspected slaughterhouse in New Hampshire and only a handful in the region.
And that means that farmers raising local meat have few and often troubling options.
Scheduling is obviously difficult, but it’s not the only issue.
Bruce Dawson: "We’ve been to most of the slaughterhouses in the area. We’ve been to LeMay Bros. in Goffstown, we’ve been up to a couple in Maine, and we finally settled on the one in St. Johnsbury. He’s very consistent, we get good quality packaging…and he treats our animals right."
Once a week, Dawson rises at 4:30 in the morning and drives one lonely animal on its two hour journey to become some of New Hampshire’s leanest steaks.
In 2002, cattle like Dawson’s contributed to the $20 million in livestock that New Hampshire farmers sold that year.
The most recent statistics show that five years later, the state’s annual livestock sales were still 20 million dollars.
That’s not because people don’t want the meat, though – quite the opposite.
Gail McWilliams Jellie: “The demand that we’re experiencing from restaurants and others, people are saying we would buy this if we could get it.”
That’s Gail McWilliams Jellie of the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture.
She says the reason livestock sales didn’t budge over five years…
Gail McWilliams Jellie: “…seems to be because there’s limited places where people can take their animals to be processed.”
And that’s not just the case for beef, pork and lamb.
Chicken farmers can’t find processing facilities either.
That’s one reason local poultry costs so much.
George Carpenter, Farm to Chef: “A local chicken is almost impossible to sell to a restaurant.”
George Carpenter runs Farm to Chef, a brokerage that helps farmers sell local food to restaurants.
George Carpenter: “If I was to buy a $12 chicken and drive it to even a restaurant that’s very high end … and say free range chicken -- $12 to me, I’ll do you guys a favor, $15 -- they’re going to look at me and go ‘Dude, no way. It’s a chicken.’”
There is some hope for local meat producers, however.
It comes from a low-slung, white-washed building in a corner of Westminster, Vermont, across the Connecticut River from Walpole, New Hampshire.
Dan Mandich, Westminster Meats: “Y’see, you could put three cows into this chute here…GATE SOUND…pull that back and you lock them in so they can’t back up and they have to keep going forward and then they go into the processing room.”
Dan Mandich owns Westminster Meats.
It’s the first new federally inspected slaughterhouse in northern New England in years.
Mandich is showing off the holding pens and chutes designed for what’s called humane slaughtering.
Dan Mandich: “…they just naturally walk along, we don’t even have anything to prod them with here, they just naturally walk along.”
Westminster Meats has been open for just three weeks.
About 20 sides of beef hang in a room-sized cooler, flanked by two whole pigs, sliced in half toe to mouth.
The phone keeps ringing.
Dan Mandich: “… You want to book an animal?...1:00 “How ‘bout on Monday June 21st [phone ringing]” FADE
For New England, it’s a big facility—20,000 square feet.
Mandich figures at full tilt his crew will be able to process 30 head of cattle, 60 to 70 pigs and close to 3000 meat birds a day.
In 2007, when Mandich decided to use this building as a slaughterhouse, he invited community members to a meeting.
More than 90 farmers and agriculture officials showed up.
Dan Mandich: "A lot of ‘em were talking about how they’d like to produce more product but they have nowhere to get it processed."
Like, for instance, Seth Holton.
Seth Holton, Holton Farms: “This is Holton Farms, it’s eighth generation vegetable farm, I’m taking it over from my father, who took it over from his father, it’s been that way for 270 years.”
Last year, Holton started a CSA in New York City, selling his own crops and reselling meat that he bought from other farmers.
This year, because of the new slaughterhouse, he’ll be able to raise animals himself.
He just bought his first 26 cows.
Seth Holton: "Dan up at this local slaughterhouse is reassuring us that he can go through 40 animals a week, so he’s gearing up to really take on a lot of volume, and that’s what we’re building our animal biz around is his capacity up there. ...I’m thinking we’re going to be up to 100 cows over the next year and a half."
And Holton has plans for them.
He’ll take some local, grass-fed beef to Harlem, in New York City.
There he plans to sell it at a discount to customers he believes rarely get the opportunity to eat meat grown just a few hours away.
It’s one way for Holton to grow his business beyond the shelves of local grocery stores and farmers markets.
And it’s one small, innovative step toward extending the regional food supply.