A chart at a Montpelier farmer’s market vendor shows various cuts of beef. Photo by Tom Brown/VTDigger

Vermont beef farmers have been reporting a processing backlog for years. But when Black River Meats converted a former Ben & Jerry’s plant in Springfield to a slaughterhouse and processing plant in 2013 and expanded capacity six-fold, then-owner Mark Curran thought the state’s processing problem had been solved.

“We went from the whole state being able to do 10 or 20 animals a day to doing 70 or 80 a day,” Curran said.

But demand for locally raised meat, especially beef and pork, continued to rise. Interest in local food in general, particularly produce and cheese, has been moving steadily upward since the 1990s. But Curran said he didn’t see a noticeable interest in local meat until around 2010. In response, he built the Vermont Packinghouse in Springfield.

Then, after the Covid-19 pandemic changed buying habits last year, meat producers saw another sharp increase in demand.

“We’re hitting the bottleneck we hit in 2014 that we thought we solved by building this — by Vermont standards — very large slaughterhouse,” Curran said of the Packinghouse. “It’s now backed up, and we have the same problem again.”

Other Vermont meat processing operations are reporting backlogs as well, some extending all the way into 2022. So now agriculture groups like Farm to Plate and state officials are looking for a way to raise processing capacity again. 

A long-term strategic plan issued Monday by the Department of Agriculture and Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund aims to raise capacity at slaughterhouses and meat processing facilities 25% from 2021 to 2030.

“We need another plant, preferably in Addison or Franklin county; that’s where the animals are,” said Curran, who is one of the original board members of the Vermont Fresh Network.

Curran is a veteran of the local food movement. He sold his 40-year-old Black River Produce distribution company in 2016 to Reinhart Foodservice of Chicago. He sold his Springfield slaughterhouse to Lorentz Meats of Minnesota in 2014, but he still owns the building, and he’s a major customer now as he builds up his new meat business, Precision Valley Food Specialties. He’s working with about 10 Vermont farmers.

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Lately, people have been asking Curran if he’d be interested in building another meat processing plant.

“No, this one is headache enough,” he said of the Packinghouse.

A push for more processing

Lately, the biggest push to increase meat processing capacity has come from Anson Tebbetts, the secretary of agriculture. Tebbetts tried last year to get about $2 million from the state to help build or expand slaughterhouse capacity. He made his case several times before the Joint Fiscal Committee as it looked for places to spend several million in leftover federal CARES Act money in the fall.

The committee declined the agency’s requests, but in January the governor included $3.6 million in his proposed budget for the state’s Working Lands Program, which Tebbetts hopes will be used for meat processing training and infrastructure, including investments in privately owned plants to increase efficiency, productivity and safety.

Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said she supports the use of the Working Lands Program to promote economic development in agricultural areas. She said it would be up to that program’s board to decide how any appropriation should be spent.

“I certainly have heard and understood the cry for additional meat producers; I think we’ve been hearing about that for some time,” she said. “The Working Lands process has a great way of looking at what the needs are and analyzing the ability of the proposer for funding. I am hopeful that whatever we do, they will apply that deep analytic process to make sure that we’re making the right investments in our rural economy.”

Vermont has nine meat processing plants now, said Julie Boisvert, the Agency of Agriculture’s program section chief for meat inspection.

There are several more plants proposed. A USDA-certified meat and poultry slaughterhouse is due to open this month in Wilmington, with an allied processing plant due to open in Bennington in a year. Within a year from now, its capacity will be comparable to that of the Packinghouse, Boisvert said.

“This will be really huge for the people in the southern part of the state, especially the ones who can’t get into the Packinghouse and are looking for alternatives,” Boisvert said.

Meanwhile, Westford has a state-certified processing plant opening in March, and Charlotte has a poultry slaughter and processing plant opening in June or July. 

Alburgh has a state-certified slaughterhouse and processing plant opening in the summer, Tebbetts said. 

He added that the Mettowee Conservation District in Poultney is helping a farmer to start a slaughterhouse by the summer. 

And four custom processors are talking about opening in Richford, Orange, Enosburg and South Royalton, he said.

“All these are very small, but they will be able to help with the processing,” Boisvert said. “The slaughterhouses just can’t keep up with the processing.”

Lawmakers have questioned why — with demand so high — these operations can’t expand without help from the state. They can’t afford to, said Tebbetts, who is testifying this winter in several committees in favor of appropriating the Working Lands money for meat processing.

“The margins are always very, very tight for slaughterhouses,” Tebbetts said. “It’s all about volume and getting enough through the system. It’s kind of like a restaurant model; you need to move a lot of people through efficiently.”

He said private investors would probably show interest if they knew there was capital available from the state.

“We had one major facility, they said if they got major infrastructure improvements, they could increase output by 30% to 40%,” Tebbetts told the House Appropriations Committee Feb. 4. “And that has a wonderful ripple effect because if you can get more animals processed, that means more animals around the land, you know, farmers can diversify.”

Seeking alternatives to dairy

Diversification is a major goal of the Agency of Agriculture as it looks for ways to help Vermont farmers survive and thrive. The agency said in its 2020 Food System Plan that the state had nearly 1,400 grass-fed beef operations in 2017 with more than 15,000 animals, an increase of 37% over 2012.

Managed properly, grass-based beef and other livestock farms improve water quality, sequester carbon, encourage biodiversity and add to the state’s visual appeal, the report said.

Supporting the local processing plants also bolsters food security, Tebbetts said. Consumers learned early in the pandemic what happens when the large meat processing plants nationally close down, limiting supply in the supermarkets.

“It’s probably not a great policy to have only four or five major plants across the country,” Tebbetts said. “We would rather have a more regional aspect, or Vermont aspect, to that.”

Tebbetts has proposed that no Vermont processor receive more than $750,000 from the Working Lands funding and that the money also go toward meat cutter apprenticeships and other workforce training.

Curran said hiring workers is one of the most difficult obstacles faced by Vermont Packinghouse.

“They have 70 people working here, and they could use 10 more tomorrow,” he said.

Vermont might be in line for some U.S. Department of Agriculture funding for slaughterhouse expansion in the coming year as well.

Curran’s goal for his new company is to help Vermont farmers prosper.

“There are dairy farmers working their tail off and not making any money,” he said. “Everybody knows that that’s not the future. We think protein production is a good alternative.”

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