By Kathryn Flagg
Slightly more than three years ago, one bull, five cows and two calves arrived at the farm in Shoreham where I live with my husband, Colin Davis. In the years since, our herd has grown to 17. We — and here the credit falls almost entirely to Colin and his father — built fences and unloaded hay. We learned how to drive cattle, to rotate pastures, to undo the mistakes made when someone (me) let the cows escape their fences. We filled water troughs and bottle-fed the occasional sick calf. And on a recent Friday, we slaughtered the first four animals from our herd of Scottish Highland beef cows.
We did it on the farm, thanks to a visit from Vermont’s first large-animal mobile slaughter unit.
A year ago, slaughtering these animals on our farm would have meant hiring an itinerant butcher, who likely would have carved the meat as a carcass hung from the bucket of a large tractor. It would have meant the final cuts, wrapped in white butcher’s paper, would have borne the stamp “Not for Sale” — in other words, only for consumption by friends and family, or for sale on the black market that many ag officials acknowledge exists.
Instead, a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector looked on as butchers from New Haven’s Green Pasture Meats slaughtered three steers and one bull. The butchering happened inside a 36-foot trailer with its own generator, kitted out with clean water and electricity and heavy metal winches. In the afternoon, the meat headed to Green Pasture Meats, where it will hang and age for two to three weeks. And it most certainly will be for sale.
Just a few years after state officials and farmers bemoaned processing capacity as a major bottleneck in Vermont’s flourishing food landscape, the mobile slaughter unit — along with new slaughterhouses slated to go in across the state — is speeding traffic along.
“I think, just like we need a diversity of farms, it’s great to have a diversity of scales and models of meat processors,” said Chelsea Bardot Lewis, an agricultural policy administrator at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. “There have been some great, positive steps forward in terms of increasing capacity.”
The Green Pasture Meats trailer is the state’s first mobile slaughter unit intended for large animals — cows, lambs and pigs. Vermont previously experimented with mobile poultry slaughtering. In 2008, the state pooled $85,000 in legislative funding with private foundation money to purchase a custom-built, 36-foot trailer for a total cost of $93,000. The plan was to create demand for the service and then entice an entrepreneur to take over — so the state put the unit up for auction in early 2012. It went to Tangletown Farm’s husband-and-wife team of David Robb and Lila Bennett for $61,000. Last year, the farmers slaughtered 7,000 birds — mostly chickens and turkeys, but also some guinea fowl and ducks. This year they’re offering farmers custom processing under inspection.
The man behind GPM’s mobile unit in Addison County is Mark Smith, who entered the meat-processing world without much butchering experience. Smith, who’d grown up in Vermont and worked on farms, was seeking to branch out into a new business after work at his construction company slowed down. While visiting a friend who raises grass-fed beef in Colorado, Smith started thinking about the meat industry. He daydreamed about an “old-time butcher shop” where he could sell Vermont-raised beef, pork and lamb from a walk-up counter.
The dream would become GPM. But Smith quickly realized that to control the quality of meat coming into his shop, he’d need to control the slaughter and butchering, too.
“Straight-up common sense tells you that on-farm slaughter, where the animals aren’t being transported long distances … is a lot less stressful for the animals,” Smith said. He researched mobile slaughter units — MSUs, in industry shorthand — and settled on a design used in Washington State, often to slaughter livestock on islands in Puget Sound that don’t have slaughterhouses of their own.
Last May, Smith’s custom unit — a $225,000, 36-foot-long trailer — hit the road. Since then, Smith and his employees have focused primarily on slaughtering animals that they sell under their own label at GPM. They buy directly from farmers, mostly in Addison County, and sell the meat at a Route 7 storefront just north of Middlebury. Everything in their meat cases — with a few exceptions such as bacon and smoked meats — comes through their own slaughter unit.
A few months ago, the company started taking on other customers — such as Colin and me — who were looking to have a few animals slaughtered and didn’t want them trucked to another location. The MSU has also switched from state inspection (which meant meat could be sold only in Vermont) to USDA inspection.