Push to Eat Local Food Is Hampered by Shortage
EAST MONTPELIER, Vt. - Erica Zimmerman and her husband spent months pasture-raising pigs on their farm here, but when the time came to take them to slaughter, an overbooked facility canceled their appointment.
With the herd in prime condition, and the couple lacking food and space to keep them, they frantically called slaughterhouses throughout the state. After several days they found an opening, but their experience highlights a growing problem for small farmers here and across the nation: too few slaughterhouses to meet the growing demand for locally raised meat.
In what could be a major setback for America's local-food movement, championed by so-called locavores, independent farmers around the country say they are forced to make slaughter appointments before animals are born and to drive hundreds of miles to facilities, adding to their costs and causing stress to livestock.
As a result, they are scaling back on plans to expand their farms because local processors cannot handle any more animals.
"It's pretty clear there needs to be attention paid to this," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an interview. "Particularly in the Northeast, where there is indeed a backlog and lengthy wait for slaughter facilities."
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the number of slaughterhouses nationwide declined to 809 in 2008 from 1,211 in 1992, while the number of small farmers has increased by 108,000 in the past five years.
Fewer slaughterhouses to process local meat means less of it in butcher shops, grocery stores and restaurants. Chefs throughout the Northeast are partnering with farms to add locally-raised meat to their menus, satisfying a customer demand. But it is not always easy.
"There are a lot of people out there who raise great animals for us to use, and they don't have the opportunity to get them to us because the slaughterhouses are going away," said Bill Telepan, chef and owner of Telepan, a high-end restaurant in New York.
Mr. Telepan's veal supplier, Duane Merrill of Walton, N.Y., said there was no slaughterhouse in Delaware County, "and it's the size of Rhode Island." Mr. Merrill said he also had difficulty finding adequate transport for veal cattle down to New York City.
Brian Moyer, director of Rural Vermont, a nonprofit farm advocacy group, uses the image of an hourglass. "At the top of the hourglass we've got the farmers," he said, "the bottom part is consumers and in the middle, what's straining those grains of sand, is the infrastructure that's lacking."
Vermont, a locavore's paradise, is seeing increased demand for the facilities from both small-scale meat producers and dairy farmers, who are facing some of the lowest milk prices in years and are trying to diversify with beef cattle.
"People are trying to figure out how to get a little more money out of their herds," said Randy Quenneville, program chief for the Vermont meat inspection service. "And with the interest in stuff being local, wanting to know where their food is coming from and how it was raised, there are more people looking to do this."
The state has seven operating slaughterhouses, down from around 25 in the mid-1980s, Mr. Quenneville said. One is a state-inspected facility, meaning that meat inspected there cannot be sold over state lines.
Two slaughterhouses recently closed, one destroyed by a fire and the other shuttered because of animal cruelty charges. The closed facility is expected to reopen soon.
Mr. Quenneville said a number of small, family-owned slaughterhouses started closing when strict federal rules regarding health control went into effect in 1999. Large corporations like Cargill also began to take over much of the nation's meat market.
He and Mr. Vilsack are both urging farmers to band together and open local cooperatives or mobile slaughter facilities. The Agriculture Department is financing some mobile units and helping to build a regional facility near the Quad Cities in Illinois and Iowa. Helping small farmers, Mr. Vilsack said, will improve struggling rural economies.
"We recognize that the buy-local food movement is a significant economic driver in rural communities," he said.
But building a regional facility is not always easy. As the locavore movement and self-butchering movements grow, so do cries of "Not in my backyard."
Some residents in the quaint town of Woodstock, Vt., raised more than $1 million to buy a water buffalo farm whose owner wanted to convert it into a slaughterhouse. Some said the facility would have been too big for the town. Vince Galluccio, who helped organize opposition, was concerned that waste from the proposed plant's feed lot and manure piles would run down a hill and into town. Now the owners plan to turn the property into a dairy farm and educational center.
Mr. Galluccio says the state needs more slaughterhouses and hopes to help build one that would be a better fit for the community. "We're not against slaughterhouses," Mr. Galluccio said. "But you wouldn't open up a discotheque next to a church."
Some would not open a "slaughterhouse" anywhere, preferring to discard the term in favor of the French "abattoir." There are hurdles, whatever the name.
"You need skilled management and work force, a cooperative town, a good supply of water, a good way of getting rid of waste," said Ed Maltby, a spokesman for Adams Farm, a slaughterhouse in Athol, Mass., that reopened in 2008 after a fire. "It's not a problem that can be easily solved."
The mobile units have been popular for poultry, and many farmers are trying to replicate the system with larger animals. Cheryl Ouellette, a farmer from Tacoma, Wash., known as "the pig lady," helped secure a U.S.D.A.-certified mobile processing unit with $250,000 in local conservation money. It opened in August and expects to process 10 animals - mostly cows, pigs and sheep - each day.
In Washington, Ms. Ouellette said, some farmers were driving animals more than 300 miles to slaughter. "Farmers had problems, butchers couldn't get U.S.D.A. carcasses to sell in meat cases, and chefs couldn't get local meat," she said. "Here there are no small processing facilities left for that food to get into commerce."
The mobile unit goes from farm to farm with a U.S.D.A.-approved butcher and inspector aboard. It contains heaters, potable water and dumps wastewater at RV stations.
Ms. Zimmerman and her husband, Kevin McCollister, would like to see the rules relaxed on farm slaughter. Their slaughterhouse is an hour and a half away - long enough for the pigs to be stressed and not in optimal shape for processing, Ms. Zimmerman said.
"We have a product that people really wanted; we should have a system that would allow us to produce it as efficiently as possible," Ms. Zimmerman said. "There's not enough room for all the people like me."