Strengthening the “weakest link” in the local meat infrastructure

Friend of the Ethicurean Sam Fromartz looks at a new wave of small slaughterhouses that are appearing in Virginia. He focuses on True & Essential Meats of Harrisonburg, a new partnership of former landscape architect Joe Cloud, his mother, and Joel Salatin (of Polyface Inc., who was profiled in Omnivore’s Dilemma). True & Essential, which is currently processing animals from more than 100 different farms, aims to create a more transparent slaughterhouse, one that results in better treatment of the animals and a better alternative for local farmers. Farmers hope to see benefits such as more money in their pocket and less logistical messiness (e.g., transporting their animals far shorter distances). True & Essential is not alone in Virginia, and Fromartz mentions several other new processors, distributors and farmers who use their services. For most of these operations, direct marketing to restaurants and the general public is a foundation of their business. (Washington Post, with more at Chews Wise)

8 Responsesto “Strengthening the “weakest link” in the local meat infrastructure”

  1. The USDA has three levels for recognizing meat processing plants:
    - Meat Processing Plants – The Smithfields and Tysons
    - Small Plants – A great many
    - Very Small Plants – All the ones here in New England and much like discussed by Sam Fromartz.

    The USDA has a lot of helpful information for the Very Small Plants here:

    I have found that site invaluable. We are working on building something even smaller, a nano-scale meat processing facility offering on-farm slaughter, butchering, sausage making, curing and smoking for just our small family farm here in Vermont. Our project is an order of magnitude smaller than the USDA Very Small Plant size yet they have been quite helpful as has our state department of agriculture. It used to be said that you had to get big but what we’re doing fits our farm’s needs and will save over 360 hours a year of driving long distances to get to the “local” slaughterhouses.

    Doing just for our farm simplifies the regulations, paperwork, insurance and a lot of other details. It keeps the offal here on the farm to be composted, returning the nutrients to the soil of our farm. It saves petroleum and transportation. It means I know my animals are getting humanely treated, because I handle them. It also means the cutting is done the way my customers need it and shortens our order delay time – another benefit for customers.

    A key to nano-scale is that it keeps the costs down which means we can do the labor ourselves, both of construction and operation. This means more money stays here on the farm and it provides a future and security for the next generation.

    Like the farms mentioned by Sam we market directly to individuals, stores and restaurants rather than selling through wholesalers. We sell a high quality, humanely and naturally raised pastured pork delivered fresh year round. That’s our niche and our focus. This puts us close to our customers. Integrating the USDA/State inspected on-farm slaughter and butchering into our farm will give us more control and security for our farm.

    Funding is a bit of a catch, banks don’t want to lend even though we have lots of equity. So we’re bootstrapping it with some help from customers, local merchants and friends. Construction is slower that way but it gets the job done in a community supported agriculture type way.

    It used to be that there were thousands of nano-scale local butcher shops serving individual farms, towns and neighborhoods. Time to bring them back. Customers can make the difference to increasing our food security by making it available locally from pasture to plate.


    Walter Jeffries
    Sugar Mountain Farm, LLC
    Pastured Pigs in the mountains of Vermont

  2. Thanks for the detailed comment about your situation, Walter.  You wrote: “Funding is a bit of a catch, banks don’t want to lend even though we have lots of equity.” I’m curious about the funding.  Are you seeing any activity from the “Slow Money” community in funding such enterprises?  For example, a group of small-scale investors putting together a loan at below-market rate interest rates, with the expectation that they’ll get less yield while helping create worthwhile enterprises (as opposed to buying a Citibank CD that goes to make loans to huge housing developments or for executive bonuses).  Or venture capital that is aimed at supporting the local economy?  I’ve been meaning to learn more about these types of financial organizations but keep putting it off.

  3. Hi Mark,
    Yes, I’ve talked with several people at Slow Money. Unfortunately they have no money. They did ask if I could donate to their cause so they would then have the money to fund projects like ours in the future. Unfortunately, everything we have is going into our project so that isn’t a possibility at this time.

    We have had customers who have bought CSA-PreBuys of pork to be delivered after we get our butcher shop opened and in exchange they get free processing saving about 30% on the cost of a pig. See:

    We have also had several local businesses that have given us greatly extended terms on supplies for construction. The farmer who supplies our winter hay gave us a loan of almost $7K and we have gotten a couple of other small loans. Each of these little bits help get us towards our $150K goal.

    At the moment we’re waiting for snow to go – we’re still frozen in. While we wait for things to unfreeze so we can start pouring concrete again I continue looking for funding and we save our pennies each week from our pork sales.

  4. Joe says:

    Walter – Have you looked around for any community-based lending organizations or micro-financing organizations?  It has taken me a while but I have located a few of them in the Appalachian region.  Now to actually do a project!  They have a much lower threshold of  lending requirements than the typical bank. BTW, T&E is actually a “Small” plant, not a “Very Small” plant in USDA parlance.  With 20 employees, we cross the category threshold. Joe aka joe.blueskies

  5. We haven’t found any organizations could lend for our project yet. I continue to look and talk with various ones. If you have any leads, please do let me know. We have had a number of individuals who’ve bought the CSA Pre-Buy pigs and Decade of Pork which is helping to move our project forward. It’s a process. :)


    Sugar Mountain Farm

  6. bruce king says:

    Walter, look into the USDA FSA program.  They have loans both for the initial purchase of land, which problem you’ve already solved, and for equipment and operating costs.  They don’t pay attention to your credit score if that’s an issue, and one interesting criteria is that they want you to be turned down by one or two conventional lenders before you appply. 

    You pay for these loans with paperwork, but the interest rates offered (2%) and the amounts offered may just solve the problem for you. 

    I believe you’ve already got a business plan written, and you’ve taken steps to make this more real, so it would seem to be a good fit for you.

    I’m working through this same process to add another 40 acres to my farm, and the rates are very attractive to me; anything I can do to reduce my payments is good. 

    Plus I’m betting that we are headed for a period of inflation far in excess of the 2% rate quoted, so we’re likely to get a positive return on the loan.  They’re effectively paying you to borrow money.

  7. azure says:

    A local farmer who sells at the farmers’ market (north central coast of OR) told me that they are building a small onsite slaughter house as they are expanding the kinds of meat they offer.    They started out selling just chicken (& eggs) & perhaps duck,  I think they’re planning on expanding to goose, goat & perhaps mutton/lamb as well (she told me all this last fall).    Her hours at a local store have been cut back & her husband is retiring, so they decided to see if they could make their place produce more income.   She said that the local USDA person has been very helpful, as has a state employee (not sure what agency).   They are getting some assistance in putting solar panels on their barn roof, & some assistance w/financing the slaughterhouse as well.  

    I’ve been buying a chicken or two (I don’t eat much meat) from her for a couple of years, & she’s gone out out of her way to make it easy for me to pick up chickens I’d purchased (prepaid) but couldn’t pickup on the last FM day because I was out of town.   We met outside of her workplace.    She & her spouse invite classes from local schools to visit their farm, meet some animals.     I hope the expansion works out for them.   There’s a mobile butcher that has set up a storefront in a warehouse part of town as well–there has not been an independent butcher in the area for 30 years or more, although a small supermarket (used to be family owned) made its own sausage, & did some of its own smoking for a few years before the family decided to sell to a state chain.   Not sure if the new owners kept the local meat aspect of the market going.  

    I live in a semi-rural county that is (still) trying to make a successful transition to resource based (timber, fishing) to —-something else.   Still some timber, still some fishing & crabbing, some tourism, some gov’t, etc.     Fairly high UE, although supposedly last month the county UE was lower then the state UE (which would be a nice change).      The state has the 16th highest rate of UE for last month.    We could use some local ag generated jobs.

  8. Janet in Maine says:

    In the ’70′s while in high school in a rural suburb of Sacramento we raised a pig and when it was time to be butchered we called a guy who came out in his pick up truck. He had fashioned a winch in the bed of his truck and had other equipment. He shot our pig (I was in the house hiding with my ears covered…I loved that pig) and then bled it and gutted it right in our field.  My dad had already given him instructions of which butcher shop he was to take it to and they already had all the cutting instructions. It was very easy. The pig did not have to be taken out of it’s environment so it was relatively calm at the time and we didn’t need to find a trailer to get it to the butcher.  I honestly think if it would be this easy to have the animal butchered more people would raise their own animals for food. I would think a mobile butcher would keep busy.