According to the USDA, Americans are producing and eating more locally-raised food every year. But the market for local meat has trailed behind the market for local produce. Until recently, reasoning has been that there’s a shortage of local slaughterhouses. But as three slaughterhouses open their doors in NH this year, industry-wide studies show that more slaughterhouses may not be the answer, after all.
Pete and Tara Roy ran a small slaughterhouse in Vermont before they decided to expand. They turned away good customers for five years straight. So about a year ago, the couple built this, bigger meat cutting plant across the river in N. Haverhill, New Hampshire. Pete Roy has a bandana tied tight around his head. As he leads me onto the kill floor, one of his five kids trail behind us.
Roy points to a pneumatic lift and giant stainless steel saw. He says considering the capital it takes to build a new facility at all, it was go big, or go home.
We got 10,000 feet here we had two in our other plant, this is way bigger. Our capacity, the infrastructure is here to kill 40 or 50 beef a day, we don’t have the equipment or the manpower, nor do we have the demand, but we built the shell, the infrastructure is all here to grow significantly.
Like all USDA slaughterhouses, the Roys’ facility had to include an office and a separate bathroom for a full time USDA inspector.
To run such a big plant, they also need more employees. At the old place, they had eight. Here, the family employs 24. But, Roy says, so far they only have enough business to slaughter three days a week. They’d like to be doing it 5 days a week. Pete’s wife Tara says “we have so much invested, there’s a lot more to lose.”
The typical pig costs a farmer $200 – that includes a fixed slaughter fee, and variable processing fees, by the pound.
Tara says when they opened a year ago, there was just one other game in town. “It would have just been us and LaMays,” she says a little wistfully.
See as long as anyone can remember, there has been only one USDA slaughterhouse in New Hampshire: LaMay and Sons, in Goffstown. But after the Roys opened their plant, a third USDA slaughterhouse opened in East Conway. And a fourth is scheduled to open in Barnstead, this fall.
LaMays says they turn away customers all year long.
And the way farmers see it, these new slaughterhouses are a long time coming. Many say there’s been a slaughterhouse shortage.
Ray Conner says LaMay’s “is crazy-booked, in season.” She has a farm in Pittsfield with 15 pigs and a few hundred chickens. Like a lot of farmers in New Hampshire, she wants to raise her pigs on pasture in the spring and summer, then take them to slaughter in fall. She does not want to keep them alive in the winter:
It’s more feed, they don’t gain weight when they’re cold, and they don’t move around, and there’s lots of poop. For me, that’s like, antithetical to my farming.
But during the autumn busy season, slaughterhouses across New England turn away small farms like hers. They just aren’t as lucrative as the bigger farms. Last winter, Conner couldn’t get an appointment until January. Her pigs were in snow.
A bigger farm, with say, 20 beef cows and 50 pigs might not have such a hard time. But most livestock farms in New Hampshire are really small, like Conner’s. Until the new facilities started opening up, farmers drove one, two, even three hours to a slaughterhouse in VT, Maine, or Massachusetts. Conner says she can only fit four pigs in her trailer.
Each drive to slaughterhouses is between $60 and$ 90, and then I have to go back to drop off the cuts, you’re looking at 4 trips, that’s… $250 and almost a week’s worth of my hours.
Small farmers like Conner say getting booked, getting to and from, and getting what they want from slaughterhouses is a big headache.
That’s why she says more competition is really good news. She can’t wait for Russ Atherton to open his new facility in nearby Barnstead. Atherton is a former dairy farmer who hopes to help the little guys like Conner break into local retail markets.
“I’m so excited about Russ,” Conner says, “because then I can literally go over there, and have a relationship with him, and if I’m upset, I feel like I can say so, and if I’m not and I’m happy I can say so, we can have a relationship. Whereas if they’re in Maine or NH or Massachusetts or they’re in VT, I’m not going back to chat, you know?”
But it’s complicated. While farmers rejoice about all the new options, some researchers are concluding that more slaughterhouses may not be the answer. The USDA recently commissioned Lauren Gwin, a professor at Oregon State, to look into the so-called “slaughterhouse shortage.” Since slaughterhouses cost a couple million to build, and are expensive to operate, Gwin says having a lot of them is often inefficient:
For the processor to start that equipment, he’s got to have enough of a volume to go through it.
In VT, a meat processing task force has decided that building slaughterhouses is not the answer to inefficiencies in the meat processing system.
At Pete and Tara Roy’s plant in N. Haverhill, a meat cutter saws chunks off cattle carcass, and passes them to a line of butchers who cut and package it. Pete Roy says getting the new, larger slaughterhouse off the ground has been “tougher than I expected.”
Roy says he’s not sure there is enough livestock in NH to support four USDA slaughterhouses. “I think there will be some failures,” he says.
Lauren Gwin says Roy may be right. But if more processors aren’t the answer, she says, something still has to change.
I’m not sure it serves local food ultimately, to have all these local farmers in all their small trucks, shipping all these animals in small batches up and down the road all the time.
She says the market will be happiest when small farmers join together to share transportation costs. And, she says, farmers need to work with slaughterhouses to coordinate their livestock schedules well in advance.
For his sake – Pete Roy says that kind of consistency is good for everyone.
As for the future of those three new N.H. slaughterhouses? We’ll just have to wait, and see.