Farms in Berkshire County make up nearly 12 percent of all farmland in Massachusetts – which makes the farm-to-table movement a big deal for the regional economy. Area farmers are calling for something they say is glaringly missing – a slaughterhouse.
In August, Berkshire Grown took officials from the state Department of Agricultural Resources on a tour of Berkshire County farms to see what many locals consider Massachusetts’ farm-to-table Mecca in action.
“What we do have is some of the highest number of direct sales to farmers," Berkshire Grown Executive Director Barbara Zheutlin says. “That means people buying directly from a farmer.”
The organization has been a pioneer for 20 years in the modern farm-to-table movement. In the summer months, you can find a farmers market almost every day somewhere in the Berkshires.
But farmers say something is missing. At Square Root Farms in Lanesborough, state Commissioner of Agriculture John Lebeaux spoke with owner Michael Gallagher, who asked — what about the meat?
This is a map of USDA inspected meat and poultry processing facilities in the Northeast, according to the USDA FSIS.
“We have a state slaughter license that lets us slaughter all of our own poultry on farm,” Gallagher says. “I would love to see a USDA-inspected poultry facility that would let us do some of the things that we aren’t allowed to do slaughtering on farm.”
“I admit I wasn’t aware of was a seemingly strong desire to get some type of either animal slaughter facility or some kind of transfer facility out here,” Lebeaux says. “And honestly that is something that hadn’t made it into my ears yet.”
Lebeaux points to the state Department of Public Health as a resource in getting a slaughterhouse off the ground. DPH tells WAMC that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is the industry regulator. It doesn’t matter what state the slaughterhouse is in – it can serve any customer.
“We’d also like the law to change in Massachusetts though that farmers can slaughter more than 2,500 birds a year,” Zheutlin says. “Just next door in New York, they are.”
In 2012, small farmers were restricted to a 1,000-bird limit in New York. But now, under a USDA Mobile Poultry Processing Unit, small farmers can slaughter up to 30,000 birds a year, as long as they adhere to state health codes.
In Massachusetts, farmers can also be licensed units, but with greater restrictions.
“And also selling parts too,” Galleghar says. “In New York, they cut up chickens and sell someone a boneless, skinless breast instead of just a whole chicken. And in Massachusetts, we are stuck just selling whole chicken. We could do the parts and do them in a safe and clean way.”
“There has been a lot of conversation around it over the years, including relatively recently, and I think where we are in part is that there is clear interest and need from farmers,” Paxton says. “But it’s not totally clear whether there is enough supply from those farmers to keep a place open and to really support the capital investment that it would take to open up a facility.”
Jamie Paxton is program manager at Berkshire Grown. She attended a summer forum for farmers to discuss poultry farming held by another Great Barrington-based nonprofit, Berkshire Agriculture Ventures.
“And there was definite interest expressed there about a USDA facility, and they were going to look into the next steps,” Paxton says.
One farmer was from Q Farms – a poultry processing plant in Sharon, Connecticut. The small plant provides 4,500 birds a year to western Connecticut, eastern New York and Manhattan, and Southern Berkshire County.
“They built a USDA facility on farm, and they got their USDA approval, but the town has some limitations,” Paxton says. “Essentially where it is now is they are not allowed to process any animals other than their own.”
Owner James Quella says his USDA-inspected farm is being restricted by the town’s zoning ordinances, and may move north if the Berkshires become more welcoming. Quella says he’s keeping an eye out for a feasibility study from Berkshire Agriculture Ventures.
“Personally I was surprised that you have to do a study – it’s fairly obvious that the demand was there, but I guess they feel the need to do their due diligence,” Quella says. “Since that meeting I have not heard from them. I have not heard any progress has been made.”
As of now, Paxton says no one is stepping forward to get the ball rolling.
“We kind of need the person or the organization who’s really interested in diving deeper into this and crunching those numbers and figuring out if there really is a business there and if we can really support it as a community,” Paxton says.
The same holds true for meat processing, according to Jazu Stine, owner of Red Apple Butchers in Pittsfield.
“There are only so many certified USDA kill facilities. Everything we handle has to go through one of those,” Stine says. “There is catching up to do in terms of if more people want to eat this way. We are going to have to rebuild some of that infrastructure back on the smaller scale it used to be. But yet there is nothing in this county.”
Stine says his closest competitor, aside from supermarket chains, is an hour away in Northampton or Albany. But restaurants in the area regularly look for farm fresh meat.
“There is a step in-between farm and table that we just don’t have,” Stine says.
Hilltown Pork is a quintessential, small USDA-inspected slaughter and meat processing plant in Canaan, New York. It’s where Stine gets most of his meat.
90 percent of USDA facilities are the same size as Hilltown Pork, but the closest is at least three hours away.
The 1,900-square foot facility is the No. 1 swine slaughterhouse in New York. It processes 200 pigs, 70 lambs and goats, and 15 cows a week on a budget of $1.5 million a year – half of which is used for in-house purchasing and sales. There are five or six larger plants in the Midwest that control 90 percent of the business.
General Manager and Director Ben Beckwith says his facility is booked six months in advance.
“And it’s not just us,” Beckwith says. “It’s any other facility such as Milers, the two Bloods in Athol, Massachusetts are all in the same boat: the dire need is more facilities and/or grants, especially for New York existing plants, to expand, which are not there at this point.”
The facility employs 19 including two drivers to travel to small farms and farmers markets.
Like in Massachusetts, once certified by the USDA, the slaughterhouse needs a state license and inspections, too.
“We always have one [inspector] on hand any hours of operation that we are here operating , they are here,” Beckwith says, “you know, eight hours a day; five days a week; overtime, if needed. We also have a veterinarian that is here.”
In Massachusetts, the state health department has its own Food Protection Program, which conducts inspections to uphold state standards.
According to the program, there hasn’t been any interest in a USDA meat processing facility in Berkshire County and staff have not been contacted by any interested parties requesting licensure.
“It would actually help our business because what you find is the bigger farmers that are local they can plan better – so if they are going to be doing 300 hogs a year, and expect to bring to market, then they know how to plan better. They know the ages of their animals. But if you are dealing with really small farmers then maybe they are only doing five lambs, or six pigs and maybe two beef a year. They can’t plan as well, so what ends up happening is they want to sell their products but: they end up finding that they are getting too large, or too old; it’s costing too much to feed them; they don’t want to deal with them during the winter time; and they can’t get spots with us. So, what they end up doing is they just end up getting out of it and taking them to auction and selling them at auction, which doesn’t help any of us,” Beckwith says. “You know, we want to see – the more successful the farmers are, obviously the more successful we are.”
Nationwide, local proprietors have been pushing back at the factory farm model that has come to dominate the American food industry — in a sometimes ugly manner.
Stine, from Red Apple Butchers in Pittsfield, points to what he calls horrible videos on YouTube of slaughterhouses and butcher operations that discredit the entire industry. He says it doesn’t represent what he does for a living.
“I think there is a generational thing that has happened we got – it didn’t used to be that this would have been a unique thing. There were numerous butchers doing what we are going in this very city two and three generations ago,” Stine says. “What is unique is essentially kind of questioning why we ever got away from this, you know? And is large consumer produced meats in supermarkets is that actually better? Did that help us, you know? Was that a growth step or was that a step backwards?”
Paxton, from Berkshire Grown, says fixing this problem is not going to be easy. It’s not even clear where such a slaughterhouse could be sited in the Berkshires.
“It is totally a chicken or the egg [scenario] whereas like the farmers don’t have reliable processing that they feel good about that they can scale up,” Paxton says. “And so therefore they can’t, they start raising more animals and so then when people kind of look around and say all of the animals that are being raised are being processed by the facilities we already have so why do we need a new facility.”