A Meaty Subject
Fifteen years ago, one of the top three or four recurring complaints in New Hampshire and Vermont agricultural circles was the lack of livestock slaughter and meat processing facilities to handle the cattle, hogs and sheep that operators of farms of all sizes were eager to bring to market.
Producers and their allies in government constantly lamented the great difficulty farmers had in getting their animals converted into roasts, steaks, chops and hamburger that they could then sell to their neighbors or in stores and restaurants.
It was possible then — and is now — to have meat animals slaughtered and processed in what are called “custom” slaughterhouses, a few of which have long been sprinkled across the landscape in both states, but the meat has to be stamped “Not for Sale” and can only go back to the animal owner’s home freezer. Or the animal owner can hire an itinerant butcher to come to the farm and dress it out in what is commonly called barnyard slaughter.
Either way, under federal law, the meat cannot be sold to the consuming public.
The great barrier in all of this has always been the need for meat to be processed in a government-approved facility under supervision of government inspectors. Vermont has tried to address this problem by operating a state meat inspection program, while New Hampshire had a similar state-based program only briefly back in the 1970s before deciding it would be fine if the federal government took sole ownership of the task.
The problem for state meat inspection programs like Vermont’s has always been that the meat products can be sold only within the state, even if the state program is fully as rigorous as the federal one. The major meatpackers have long been successful in swatting away attempts by states to have their inspection programs recognized as satisfactory for interstate shipment of products.
Today, the situation has changed quite a bit for livestock producers in the Upper Valley region.
In each state a handful of custom slaughterhouses have upgraded themselves sufficiently to be accepted into the federal meat inspection program, and two much larger entities have come online with full federal supervision. Now, if a farmer wants to legally sell beef, pork or lamb to a local restaurant or through a grocery store, there are federally inspected slaughter plants within about an hour’s drive that can put the “U.S. Inspected and Passed” seal on the meat cuts.
Rising demand for locally grown meats can be credited as much as anything for this significant change in the Upper Valley’s production environment. Instead of animals invariably being pushed aboard tractor-trailers and hauled to far off mega-slaughterhouses, more and more animals are being taken to facilities closer to home for processing.
And, so far, consumers are buying up what’s becoming increasingly available.
To sustain this trend, though, the local meat system must scale up animal numbers to assure reliable supplies year round, and focus more on consistent quality to keep consumers coming back.
The U.S. commodity meat industry assures shoppers of predictable, uniform supplies virtually every day of the year. Experience thus far shows that consumers are willing to pay a modest price premium for the locally grown item, but will tend to fall away if the cuts they want aren’t consistently available.
Twin State Facilities
PT Farm in North Haverhill is trying to address that challenge by developing a large operation in the town of Bath, N.H., where it raises beef and hogs that wind up at its sizable slaughter and processing operation in North Haverhill. Owners Pete and Tara Roy also buy animals that meet their standards from farms across New Hampshire and Vermont.
PT Farm has its own line of branded products, and it also handles a large volume of custom business from farms large and small that want meat for their own use and sale to neighbors.
Springfield, Vt.’s Black River Produce — for more than 30 years a purveyor of fruits and vegetables primarily to hotels, restaurants and institutions in the Twin States — two years ago opened a slaughter and processing facility that now employs 40 and has supply arrangements with more than 150 farms in Vermont, New Hampshire and New York state.
It currently markets about 75 percent of its beef, pork and lamb to the restaurant and institutional trade, but a line of Black River-branded retail cuts is showing strong growth in natural food stores and several high-end supermarkets.
For both of these ambitious meatpacking ventures, the key for the near future will be whether they can line up sufficient supplies of animals that meet their standards. For beef, both specify they want animals that are going to be graded “choice” with good marbling in the loin and rib eye while yielding an overall carcass with the right balance of muscle and fat.
So the question becomes: Will there be enough farmers with adequate feed resources, facilities and management skills to grow out and finish the volume of animals these operations want?
And the even bigger question, of course: Can the price premium for locally grown stuff work its way back to the farmer to make the undertaking profitable and sustainable?
Every aspect of agriculture abounds with risk, and price invariably is the most difficult risk to manage, for rarely is the farmer in a position to be the price setter, rather than the price taker.
Centuries of Change
The meat industry in these parts has gone through great upheavals in the past, and an expanding and prosperous locally focused iteration surely would join the continuum of change.
The early settlers and their offspring through much of the 19th century did a lot of barnyard slaughter and most every town would have a slaughterhouse or two, often tucked off to the far side of a farm. The coming of the railroads allowed shipment first of live animals to the Northeast from farms in the Midwest, and for a while slaughterhouses could be found even in many urban neighborhoods.
Cape Cod-bred Chicago meat baron Gustavus Franklin Swift figured out that it made sense to slaughter animals first and then ship their carcasses east, and the perfection of the refrigerated rail car made it happen, despite fierce opposition from the railroads and unions.
Swift opened a branch distribution facility in White River Junction, and the other “Meat King of Chicago,” Philip Armour, followed with one in Woodsville, both tied to the railroad. They catered to the dozens upon dozens of general stores and mom-and-pop markets that were the backbone of the retail food business for half a century in the Upper Valley.
Trucks would take over the long-distance movement of Midwestern meat in the 1960s, and chain supermarkets such as First National and Super Duper would come to dominate the food trade hereabouts, followed later by outfits such as Purity Supreme and Grand Union.
The meatpackers would move their vast slaughter plants out of Chicago; St. Paul, Minn.; and other Midwestern cities and relocate them farther west on the Great Plains to shed union contracts. Instead of shipping entire carcasses east, they would break them down, carve out the bone and excess fat, and ship only the muscle tissue. Chain grocery stores would develop their own systems for servicing their stores, and eventually the Swift and Armour plants in the Upper Valley disappeared.
Many meat brands disappeared along the way, too. Upper Valley folks of a certain age probably can remember names like Wilson, Morrell, Tobin First Prize, Rath Blackhawk, Dubuque and Handy’s. Interestingly, Swift would go into a sort of eclipse before coming back today as one of the four dominant national meat brands. It’s owned by JBS, a giant Brazilian food empire, which, along with three other corporations — Tyson Foods, Cargill and U.S. Beef — controls about 85 percent of the overall U.S. meat trade.
Clearly, locally produced meats won’t make any kind of dent in those behemoths. But if the economics can work for both the producers and processors, then together they can continue to write another interesting chapter in the Upper Valley’s meat story.