Jamie Cruz is looking ahead to spring and the Easter season with more than a little trepidation this year.
She and her mother raise lambs, Angus beef, and other livestock at Springdell Farms in Littleton, and four generations of customers rely on them for the Greek Easter lamb. But this year, finding dates to have their lambs slaughtered and processed in time for holiday feasts is stressful, especially after a fire in late December leveled one of only two USDA-inspected meat-processors in the state.
“We have high demand for our product,” says Cruz. “People are very interested in where their food comes from. But the biggest downfall is the lack of meat processing.”
Theirs is a tale repeated across Massachusetts — plenty of demand for locally raised meats but long waiting times for slaughtering or long hours driving to reach out-of-state facilities. The local food movement has been a boon for farmers, but for meat producers in particular, the system for getting their product to the table has not kept pace with rising demand.
Their problems were brought to the forefront in late December with the devastating fire that destroyed the meat processing facility at Blood Farm in Groton, the closest facility for farmers in Central and Eastern Massachusetts
“It’s a good time for farmers in Massachusetts, but it could be a hell of a lot better,” said Brad Mitchell of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, a farmers’ trade group.
Selling produce or eggs directly to consumers is an easy proposition compared to selling meat because of federal and state regulations. All red meat – beef, lamb, goat, and pork — must be slaughtered in a facility with a US Department of Agriculture inspector on site. A second step, the processing of the slaughtered animal, which includes hanging the carcass and cutting the meat, is usually done at the same facility and can take anywhere from a few days for small stock such as lambs, pigs or turkeys, to a month for beef.
Blood Farm has since reopened its slaughterhouse, but only one day a week. The meat processing plant — where aging and cutting was done — was destroyed, so farmers have to find another facility for that lengthier process.
That leaves farmers with only one other US-inspected slaughterhouse and meat processing plant in Massachusetts, Adams Farm in Athol; the next closest are in Vermont, New Hampshire, or upstate New York. Rebuilt with state help after a fire in 2006, multimillion-dollar Adams Farm is trying to increase capacity by adding more hours of USDA inspection.
But farmers complain that getting into the existing slaughterhouses can take months — additional time that drives up their costs, interrupts other farm chores, and increases the risks of losing sales. The delays, and uncertainty they cause, farmers said, will ripple through their business more months, years even.
“I cannot sell June meat in December,” said Charles Dance of Open Meadow Farm in Lunenberg. “I need to have confidence when I start raising a calf that two years out I’ll be able to have it slaughtered and processed in a timely fashion.”
Dance and others are now having to spend much more on feed to keep their animals alive longer — four head of cattle, for example, can eat 180 to 200 pounds of feed a day during the winter. The extra time and weight aren’t going to improve the meat’s flavor; in fact, it would add to the hanging weight farmers have to pay the processing facility.
Already some customers of Springdell Farm did not get their scheduled meat allotments this winter because of the Blood Farm fire. Cruz was able to get a few dates at Adams Farm in April to process some of her lambs, but not enough.
“We’re not sure we’ll be able to fill all our orders,” Cruz said.
Another Blood Farm customer, River Rock Farm in Brimfield, is hauling its cattle to Westminster Meats, a slaughterhouse outside Brattleboro. River Rock manager Charlie Sayer said he is relieved to have found an accommodating facility. But it comes at a steep price: His costs have doubled as Westminster is twice the distance as Blood Farm and it charges more to slaughter and process the animals.
Moreover, Sayer said, switching to a new slaughterhouse so late in the season introduces uncertainty over getting all his livestock processed in time.
“You spend a lot of time and effort on raising the animals, in their diet and care. And then you hand it over,” said Sayer, whose customers include fine restaurants such as Davio’s and Craigie on Main in Cambridge. “To all of a sudden up and change teams, it’s a challenge.”
River Rock lost 2,000 pounds of retail-ready meat in the Blood fire, as well as five other animals in the facility.
Small farmers should be rejoicing in their new-found popularity. Instead of selling to wholesalers at lower prices, many Massachusetts farmers can command premium prices by selling directly to high-end restaurants or through buying clubs such as community supported agriculture plans and farmers’ markets.
The number of farmers’ markets in the state has almost tripled since 2003. A decade ago there was not a single farmer’s market that sold meat or poultry; now some 30 percent have at least one stand selling meat. And there are almost 900 farms in Massachusetts raising five or more beef cattle and 145 with 10 or more pigs.
But the infrastructure for small farmers raising livestock has not kept pace, even though “the demand for an artisanal slaughtering business is definitely there,” said Ryan MacKay of Lilac Hedge Farm in Berlin.
One reason is the cost of real estate. Land is expensive in Massachusetts, and in the past few decades huge amounts of farmland have given way to development. It would probably take millions of dollars to find a site where the neighbors will not object to a slaughterhouse next door and build a state-of-the-art facility. That steep cost is probably the main reason no business has offered to invest in a new slaughterhouse.
Mitchell believes the shortage of slaughterhouses would receive more attention if Massachusetts moved oversight of livestock-processing from public health to the agriculture department. Maine did so, Mitchell said, and subsequently doubled the number of USDA-inspected slaughterhouses in that state.
Meanwhile, the Blood family has received an outpouring of support from customers, private foundations, nonprofits, and state agencies, all of whom are trying to help the venerable farm get back on its feet.
Other farmers are taking an active route. Kate Stillman of Stillman’s at the Turkey Farm is building a meat-processing facility on her property in Hardwick. At any one time the farm is raising 200 to 300 beef cattle and thousands of turkeys and chickens. She will still have to have her animals slaughtered in a USDA-inspected facility, but that work has been much easier to schedule than openings at processing facilities.
The facility will be expensive — as much as $500,000 — and the paperwork is time consuming, but having her own in-house meat processing will give Stillman greater control over her business; the addition of experienced meat cutters will allow her to offer special cuts and services, and she will also have more leeway in how she ages, cuts, or smokes her products.
“We have great customers, but they demand the best,” said Stillman. “Sometimes I feel I can’t meet their expectations when I have to rely on an outside business that might have problems. This way, I will have control and hope to be able to have 100 percent accountability to my customers.”