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April 24, 2012

Meat Repeat: Another Vermont Farmer Looks to DIY Butchering

SugarmtnfarmWhen I reported on LaPlatte River Angus Farm last week for our cover story on the local meat industry, farmer Jim Kleptz told me about plans to fire up a family-owned slaughterhouse on recently acquired land in Milton. The reason? Kleptz and his sons want complete control, from raising a calf to slaughtering the steer to, finally, packaging and selling the meat. 

Well, add another farmer to the roster of those considering the DIY-approach. Walter Jeffries and his family (pictured) have been painstakingly building a butcher shop and abattoir from the ground up at Sugar Mountain Farm, the 70-acre farm in West Topsham where the family raises pastured pigs and other livestock. The family's been at it — slowly but surely — since 2008. Back then, a series of slaughterhouse-related headlines prompted them to build their own facility. A Rutland slaughterhouse burned to the ground. A Grand Isle plant shuttered its doors after being outed for inhumane treatment. The family's St. Johnsbury butcher was talking of retirement. For Jeffries, who had turned a homestead hobby into a family farm, the trend didn't bode well.

"We were looking at that from the point of view of, 'Wow, we've got all these pigs in the field, and if we can't find a place to slaughter them, we'll be strung up,'" Jeffries said.

It's been slow going. In 2009, the family tore down an old hay shed, poured the insulated slab foundation, and began putting up walls. Construction was piecemeal, because to a very large degree the family has funded the operation upfront. They pulled $32,000 from a savings account they'd set aside for a future greenhouse. They routed the cash flow from their pork sales toward the project. A community-supported agriculture "pre-buy" drummed up capital from customers, and friends and neighbors pitched in with personal loans. Had a bank been willing to loan money for the project, Jeffries would have taken it, but the farm made do without. In the most recent bid for funding, Sugar Mountain Farm has taken to Kickstarter to rally the troops. With the help of more than 230 contributors, the farm has already raised more than $20,000 of its $25k goal. 

So far the family is on track to open its meat-cutting facility — the first phase of their overall plan — this summer. Jeffries estimates they'll have spent $150,000 by that point. The family then plans to add a slaughter facility and eventually a smokehouse. The ultimate goal is to improve quality control, and save money — currently about 50 percent of what they could make on each animal goes to slaughter, butcher and smoking costs.

Until they're approved to slaughter their pigs at the new building, Jeffries' wife Holly will continue to drive their pigs to a Massachusetts slaughterhouse, a weekly trek that starts at 2 a.m. It's a trip the family is eager to give up.

In the meantime, Jeffries says he's looking forward to taking over butchering — especially before the busy fall season rolls around. That's when slaughterhouses in the region are slammed with animals fattened on pasture over the summer and ready to go to market in the fall. Sugar Mountain Farm sends pigs to slaughter every week, so they're guaranteed a butchering spot even during busy times. But Jeffries says quality takes a hit during the peak season — slaughterhouses have to bring on new help, and mistakes get made. Jeffries, his wife, and 19-year-old son Will have all apprenticed for 18 months under master butcher Cole Ward, and they look forward to introducing unusual cuts of meat or special charcuterie once the butcher shop and smokehouse are up and running. 

Meanwhile, in other meat processing news, the Addison County Independent reported last week that a local entrepreneur has funding in place for what could be the state's first mobile slaughter unit for large animals. A trailer for processing poultry already exists, but this unit would accomodate cows, pigs and other large animals. Owner Mark Smith told the Independent the trailer has already been ordered, and he's scouting the Route 7 corridor near Middlebury for a location for his butcher shop.

Smith's philosophy is in line with Jeffries'; he believes that butchering animals on the farm is more humane than trucking livestock over long distances to a slaughterhouse. On-farm slaughter proponents have argued the same thing for many years in Vermont, but because slaughter and meat-cutting facilities need to be state- or federally-inspected in order for farmers to sell the meat, on-farm slaughter hasn't gained much traction beyond hobby or backyard farmers. The work-around, under both Jeffries' and Smith's plans, is to bring the inspected facility to the animal, rather than taking the animal to the facility.

Jeffries' butcher shop is coming online during what by all accounts appears to be a time of renewed interest in Vermont meat processing. When I asked him if building his own facility made sense, given the heightened interest in butchery, he didn't miss a beat: "Definitely," he says. "I think the way for the world to go is a lot more small facilities."

Photo courtesy Sugar Mountain Farm.

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