As Vermont invests in slaughterhouse capacity, much more is needed to meet demand
The Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets made a historic investment this year in farming and forestry infrastructure.
And thanks to the onetime influx of COVID relief money, more than $1 million went towards expanding Vermont’s meat processing capabilities.
Higley Hill slaughterhouse in Wilmington got almost $75,000, which the business will use to expand its capacity.
Higley Hill was open for a few years with a custom license, which means they processed animals for farmers, but the meat could not be sold.
Higley Hill manager Hogan Sennett says since meeting the requirements of a USDA inspected facility — which allows farmers to sell the processed meat commercially — he has all the business he can handle.
“There’s absolutely no question that once we’ve gone USDA, the phone has been ringing off the hook,” Sennett said. “We were able to, since we started operating under inspection, basically fill our 2022 calendar in a matter of months. So we’re pretty much booked out for the remainder of this year.”
“The entire kind of sector has not been — has not seen the kind of infrastructure investment that is needed in a long time. And so there is a constraint on the growth of livestock operations and poultry in Vermont, based upon the slaughter capacity that they can find in state.”Abbey Willard, Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets
The meat processing industry was one of the larger parts of the state’s agricultural economy that benefitted from the one-time federal aid.
But Abbey Willard, who’s with The Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, says there’s still a long way to go.
“The entire kind of sector has not been — has not seen the kind of infrastructure investment that is needed in a long time,” Willard said. “And so there is a constraint on the growth of livestock operations and poultry in Vermont, based upon the slaughter capacity that they can find in state.”
A recent report found that Vermont should increase its slaughterhouse capacity by 25% in the next eight years.
The number of beef cattle and pigs in the state has more than doubled in the past 10 years, as the hunger for local meat grew.
But the number of people working in slaughterhouses, as well as modernization investments, have not kept pace, and Willard says it could cost $15-20 million to meet the need.
The problem isn’t just that the state needs more slaughterhouses.
Willard said slaughterhouses and processing facilities are running at less than full capacity due to a shortage of freezer space and outdated equipment.
Willard says some of the federal money is being used to start a meat processing program at Vermont Technical College.
“We continue to identify this as an infrastructure investment priority from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture’s perspective, and looking to, you know, state dollars to make investments ongoing, and exploring other federal resources,” Willard said. “So we haven’t given up that this is ... we have not solved this problem, and I wouldn’t say that this has been removed from our priority list yet. This still sits at or near the top.”
“And a lot of folks are trying to utilize the good land that we have here, and what that land produces, so they’re providing a good quality product and they can be proud of it. And that’s kind of where I’m at with… I want to be able to help that.”Carl Cushing, Vermont Livestock Slaughter and Processing Company
Carl Cushing owns Vermont Livestock and Slaughter Processing Company in Ferrisburgh, and his company got $100,000 from the Working Lands fund.
Cushing has been cutting meat in Vermont for more than four decades, and he’s seen the demand for local meat increase, even before the pandemic, when he says it really took off.
He says the state grant will help move along a planned $5 million renovation at his facility.
“We would be bigger. It’s the building that restricts us, and that’s why we’re trying to rebuild and to be able to help more people,” Cushing said. “The need is out there, but we’re in it to make a change, so we hope to double what we’re doing now and possibly get to triple what we’re doing.”
The company is working out of a slaughterhouse that has been in operations since the 1950s.
Cushing bought the company about 15 years ago, and he says the young farmers he works with see a future for the Vermont livestock industry.
He says he wants to do what he can to preserve the rich farmland in the Champlain Valley, and the people who live there.
“These people believe that they can expand their operations simply by being able to have a supply that they know they can get processed to put it into the marketplace,” Cushing said. “And a lot of folks are trying to utilize the good land that we have here, and what that land produces so they’re providing a good quality product, and they can be proud of it. And that’s kind of where I’m at with… I want to be able to help that.”
Cushing says he hopes to start the renovation this year, and open up the new expanded space in 2023.