Last night, more than 200 people piled into a meeting about the idea of a mobile slaughterhouse operating in Litchfield County, Connecticut. You might have thought that such a concept would draw a great deal of community resistance here in southern New England, and based on last night's meeting you would have been greatly mistaken. The room was packed with local livestock producers, farmland advocates, town officials, land trusts, and people with a keen awareness of the need for viable rural livelihoods if we are to retain our rural landscape. It was unlike any other meeting about the future of agriculture I have ever attended in this region.
The impetus for this gathering came from my friend and Litchfield Greenprint supporter Eliot Wadsworth, who for thirty years has owned and operated White Flower Farm, a mail order nursery in with more than 350,000 customers nationwide. Eliot has seen the market for his products change dramatically from bare root perennials to potted plants which require far less irrigated land and no refrigeration. He looked at his well watered fields and coolers and began to investigate the potential to raise top quality livestock and developing a wider market for hormone free, grass fed and corn finished organic meat products. He found that he could produce beautiful meat, prime cuts of Angus beef and lamb and that other area producers were interested in developing similar products for market. What they lacked were meat processing and packaging services.
This is a critical problem not only for New England but across much of the United States, where just 4 mega-corporations process 80% of America's meat. There is increasing demand for locally-produced meat, raised without antibiotics or hormones, and people are willing to pay a premium for the security of knowing where their food comes from and who produces it. They also care about supporting local agriculture and the regional farm economy. At the same time, most farmers sell animals, not meat, and the revenue they generate is considerably below what they might realize if they were able to sell their USDA certified, market-ready beef, pork and lamb directly to retailers and consumers. At a time when Connecticut loses a dairy farm or two every month and farmland is converting to houses - the final farm product - faster than it is conserved, the future of agriculture in this region depends on diversified farm livelihoods and and slaughtering and packaging facilities would seem a critical component of that effort.
Yet there are almost no USDA certified slaughter facilities left in our region. One was lost to fire, another was shut down. Even if you produce a quality product, there is nowhere to take it to be processed in numbers that make it worth the trip. Part of the solution to the lack of smaller, regional processing facilities may be a mobile slaughterhouse an idea pioneered and advanced by the Lopez Community Land Trust who were facing the daunting challenge of getting livestock processed that was raised in the San Juan Islands of Puget Sound when the nearest slaughterhouse was far south of Seattle (and has since closed).
"Pulled by a diesel truck, the refrigerated car is equipped to kill and process everything from birds to cows. It’s USDA approved and can meet small farmers at their doorsteps. It can handle only five to nine steers a day, but its small size is seen as a virtue by its farmer customers.
The farmers built their mobile slaughterhouse after trying to build a permanent one in the area and getting shut down by their neighbors.
On the outside, it looks like a large horse trailer. Inside, it has three sections for processing, refrigeration, and storage. One person can run the whole operation, and farmers pay $75 per animal. The carcasses are then taken to a facility where they’re cut into portions. Farmer Bruce Dunlop, who helped spearhead the cooperative of Washington farmers that built the slaughterhouse, says it cost about $150,000, versus the $400,000 he says a small permanent facility would have cost to build."
The offal is composted on-farm rather than expensively rendered as happens with a fixed facility. Animals suffer less stress and quality control is provided by on-site USDA inspectors who travel with the unit. The co-op in Washington is making a profit for its shareholders in its third year of operation. It processed 1,000 head of beef, pork and lamb in 2005 and produced $850,000 of market-ready meat. 2/3 of this figure was net income for the farmers themselves, who would have made just $180,000 for selling the livestock alone.
Bruce Dunlop addressed a standing room-only crowd last night at the Litchfield Inn where growers came from as far away as Martha's Vineyard to hear about the mobile slaughterhouse concept. The crowd also learned that a new, certified organic meat processing and packaging facility was starting up in Winsted, Connecticut and once it received its USDA approval hoped to be in operation this summer. The owner pledged to support the development of the mobile unit and package the meat it delivers from area farmers. Although it was late in the evening when the meeting concluded, people stayed for 1/2 an hour afterward to discuss what they had heard and the interest was simply remarkable. The meeting attracted farmers who do not, as a rule, attend regular meetings about the future of agriculture. This hit a chord, and is off to a promising start. The idea is catching on elsewhere, too, with several mobile units operating nationwide and another planned in Vermont.
Back in the 1830s, we had a livestock-based farm economy in the Litchfield Hills and across western New England and eastern New York. Merino Sheep were the main source of revenue, providing wool for the regions mills, but we were a meat and cheese producing region as well, with soils best suited for grazing livestock. All that ended after the Civil War, when western lands opened up for better farming and rail networks broad western livestock to eastern consumers in far greater volume than New England farmers could economically produce. Hoof and Mouth disease wiped out the flocks and by the late 1870s the future of agriculture looked as bleak in New England as the future of our dairy farms looks today.
It was dairy, and milk processing and transportation infrastructure, that saved our regional agriculture for the next hundred years, and something like these innovative meat processing and packaging facilities may help retain our agricultural landscape in the future. There is a lot of work ahead to bring this vision to reality, but an excellent start was made last night.