HARTFORD, Conn. – With few slaughterhouses in New England equipped to process beef on a large scale, Paul Miller ships cattle from his dairy farm in eastern Connecticut about 300 miles to a meatpacker in Pennsylvania.
Miller said he'd prefer to send the cattle — about 150 to 250 head a year — to a local slaughterhouse so he could sell locally produced beef, save on transportation costs and avoid long rides for calves that lose weight during shipping. New England agriculture officials prefer that too, as they aim to increase food production to make the region more self-sufficient should disasters ranging from massive snow storms to terrorist attacks make impossible to bring in food.
But the stumbling blocks for farmers and meat processors are many: Setting up a slaughterhouse is a big investment, and local zoning rules bar such businesses. Meatpackers in New England say it's hard to compete price-wise with slaughterhouses in other states, and they have trouble keeping skilled meat cutters and other workers. As a result, New England has only 28 slaughterhouses, said Chelsea Lewis, agriculture development coordinator for the Vermont Agency for Agriculture. In contrast, Wisconsin alone has about 285 small meat processors.
The region's state agriculture departments have commissioned a $47,500 study to look at ways to address the problem. It's meant to help New England's dairy farmers diversify with sales of beef, provide local, organic meat to meet consumer demand and help restore self-sufficiency to the region. It will focus on ways to establish markets for local farmers to sell beef to schools, hospitals and other institutions.
Lewis said it will measure the level of demand, determine how much institutional buyers are willing to pay for local, organic meat and assess whether beef can be produced New England at a cost competitive with that of meat brought in from elsewhere.
Peter Orr said he thought the study should look at whether there are enough beef producers in New England to justify more slaughterhouses there. Many farms have been displaced by development, and New England relies on food brought "over a handful of bridges" on New York's Hudson River, he said. But demand for local products has grown recently as consumers seek assurances that what they buy is safe.
"Over the past five to 10 years, there's been a consistent interest of people to buy local, and agriculture is in a renaissance," Orr said.
Like Miller, Orr sends his cattle to Pennsylvania for processing. He called it a "classic example" of food production in New England: Cattle are raised locally, shipped out of the region to be processed and brought back for sale.
Wilson said it will look at whether New England's existing slaughterhouses are operating at full capacity and where production bottlenecks occur. For example, animals typically are slaughtered in the fall after grazing during the summer, resulting in high demand at one particular time of the year and a lack of activity at other times, she said.
The uneven workflow makes it difficult to keep skilled workers because many plants don't offer full-year employment, Wilson added.
Dan Mandich, owner of Westminster Meats, a small slaughterhouse that opened a year ago in Westminster Station, Vt., said tough federal beef production standards, high capital costs for slaughterhouse startups and the amount of labor needed are obstacles to opening more processing plants. But he said demand for locally produced meat is encouraging.
"There's a real drive here to eat local food, local produce, local meats. It's different with vegetables. You just pick them," Mandich said. "It's a big to-do to get this thing going."
Meat that comes from his slaughterhouse is more expensive because it's hung for two weeks to improve flavor, making the process longer than at operations that kill and process animals the same day, Mandich said. He buys animals from local farmers who take the meat back and sell it to restaurants and supermarkets.
Other states also are looking at ways to boost local beef production. The University of Georgia is studying the market in the Southeast, and Maryland agencies and groups are developing pilot projects to boost the use of locally produced protein foods such as beef, pork, poultry, dairy, eggs and seafood in Maryland health care facilities.
Cornell University has bought steers for the past year from nearby farms and raises them at the university's teaching and research center. The animals are slaughtered in Pennsylvania, then meat is brought back and served at three to five dining facilities on the university's Ithaca, N.Y., campus. Cost is always an issue.
The dining centers are "used to pretty cheap prices," said Matt LeRoux, agriculture marketing specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension. Because of the smaller scale of local beef processors, the challenge "is always prices," LeRoux said.
Miller, who owns Fairvue Farmers in Woodstock, said that even when small slaughterhouses get going, the cost of complying with New England's tough inspection rules makes it hard for them to keep going.
"We want to have a quality food product for our consumer but when you force ... expensive upgrades or have an inspector on hand it's uneconomical for the little guy to be in business," Miller said.