More local food could increase New England's climate resilience. Animal processing capacity isn’t
This story is part of special Earth Week coverage from the New England News Collaborative on how climate change is affecting food systems in our region.
Jeff Backer and Dave Viola are raising about 400 pigs on their farm in Northwood, New Hampshire. The pair sell specialty sausage and salami to customers throughout New England. But they’ve had some trouble getting appointments to bring their animals to the slaughterhouse and process their meat into the products they sell.
Backer and Viola are not alone. Farmers across New England have been stymied by a regional lack of animal processing facilities. In New Hampshire, there are only four USDA licensed slaughterhouses, according to a legislative report from 2021. The state has no USDA inspected facilities for poultry slaughter and there are only three facilities in all of New England that process birds from New Hampshire.
And as increasingly frequent climate change-fueled disasters threaten our food system globally, advocates and academics say it could help to eat more food that’s produced closer to home, including meat. But right now, there aren’t enough facilities to process animals – that is, slaughter, butcher, and pack the meat into consumer products.
Building more infrastructure for meat processing may seem counterintuitive to climate goals because the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says eating less meat overall could have a big impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
But in the U.S. almost 90% of people eat meat. Local options for animal products could be an important part of meeting New England consumers’ current needs and strengthening the regional food system – especially if producers are using more climate-friendly agricultural practices.
Smaller-scale livestock farmers say it’s been difficult to deal with the lack of processing infrastructure. But in Kennebunk, Maine, in a plain-looking warehouse off the highway, Backer and Viola are trying to address the shortage by starting their own kind of processing facility – one that could model a new option for New Englanders facing similar issues while raising livestock on smaller farms across the region.
Backer and Viola have been talking about starting an animal processing facility since they started their business, even though they haven’t always had enough animals to have a steady appointment with a slaughterhouse.
Backer used to call a slaughterhouse on the day his pigs were born to make a date for their meat to be processed. Then, one day, he called to make a slaughter appointment for his animals, and the facility told him they were booked out for the next year. That was a problem because pigs take six months to raise, and the quality of their meat goes down as they get bigger.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, things got even more difficult for Short Creek, because they started to have more animals on the farm than they could accommodate.
“We had animals on the farm here that were ready to go to slaughter. And we were kind of set up to handle a certain number of animals at one time and up to a certain size. And the slaughterhouse kept pushing the dates back,” Backer said.
Dave Viola said the struggle to secure a date during the pandemic led him to start seriously thinking about starting the new processing facility. Now, he’s getting 6000 square feet of warehouse space ready to use.
Short Creek is using a model Viola has been thinking about for years as a possible solution to the lack of local capacity: separating the slaughtering from the processing.
They won’t slaughter animals – that’s not really where the bottleneck happens, Viola said. Turning a carcass into the packages of meat that go to consumers takes most of the time at overbooked facilities, and that’s what Viola and his team will do in Kennebunk.
The new facility isn’t that big – their raw storage cooler is just big enough to hold twelve pigs and four cows. And they don’t necessarily see their work as a climate solution, Viola said. It’s just a good business decision for them.
It hasn’t been easy to start a processing facility from scratch. Viola said supply chain issues delayed their opening, and hiring people for the highly skilled work of butchering animals during a labor shortage has been difficult.
And they may run into further challenges down the road due to the seasonality of the industry, Viola said. Late October through December is the busiest time at slaughterhouses and could be busy for his processing facility as well.
“Our hope is to develop strong partnerships with other producers in New England who are kind of similar in size to us and can bring steady business throughout the year,” he said.
The facility will be ready to open by the end of spring. And the increased capacity their facility provides for animal processing in the region could help with the larger effort in New England to produce more local food and build climate resilience.
“In a climate changing future, present and future, we're seeing things like heat waves, droughts, fire regimes, a whole number of weather related disruptions that are affecting the parts of the world where a lot of our food has come from in the past few decades,” said Lisa Fernandes, the communications director at Food Solutions New England.
That group has long been working to encourage more local food production in New England – their 2014 “food vision” called for the region to produce 50% of the food we consume by 2060.
But it will be a challenge to meet that goal, or get to a more short-term vision the group has – 30% regional food by 2030. Right now, Fernandes said. New Englanders consume only between 10% and 12% regionally-grown food.
Nonetheless, Fernandes says building more capacity for New England animal farmers is one particular sticking point, as the national and global food system has consolidated into larger operations.
“If we want to rebuild a semblance of a regional food economy, we need to identify those parts of that system that maybe we once had that we no longer have,” Fernandes said. “Processing infrastructure for livestock and healthy local meat production is one of those gaps in pretty much every New England state.”
Food Solutions New England is not prescriptive about whether people should eat meat at all, but their vision includes a New England that eats less meat.
Backer and Viola at Short Creek farm agree – Backer said he’ll tell people at the farmer’s market that he thinks people should eat less meat and “better meat.”
Large agricultural operations have major opportunities to decrease their contributions to climate change. But with support from regional networks, small-scale farmers can produce food in a way that works better with the New England environment, Fernandes said. They can be more adaptable to the effects of climate change, and more likely to adopt new practices that help reduce greenhouse gasses.
But ensuring access to local food that benefits everyone – not just people who have historically had access to it – is a larger issue, Fernandes said.
“More local food production, even if it's done in a really climate-sensitive way, I think would still be a failure if we haven't addressed food insecurity and a lack of racial equity in the food system,” she said.
Systemic racism has shaped farming across the United States and in New England. Local food is often too costly to be a reliable option for many people. And the future that Food Solutions New England envisions would take widespread change. But Fernandes said it’s not all or nothing – we’ll still be getting some food from far away.
“But if we don't have to rely on that as much, then we have less vulnerability and more resilience,” she said.
Some New Hampshire farmers have already gotten a taste of how vulnerable the region could be as global disruptions muddle the food supply chain.
Jeremiah Vernon raises chickens on his family’s farm in Newfields, New Hampshire. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, demand for his meat skyrocketed.
“We had people here who were like, baring their souls about how thankful they were that we had food on the shelves,” he said.
He said his farm tried to open an online store, but the volume of orders overwhelmed their platform. Their freezers were breaking from being opened and closed so much.
Things have died down a bit since the start of the pandemic. But as climate change-fueled disasters move through the country and the world, Vernon thinks his farm could provide some community resilience.
Like Food Solutions New England, Vernon envisions a future where people eat less meat. He also acknowledges his meat costs more than at the supermarket – a price, he said, that reflects the labor that’s required to properly care for an animal.
Right now, it’s expensive to pasture-raise his birds, and make sure the animals are well cared for. And when it’s time to slaughter them, he drives all the way to New Jersey. As fuel prices rise, the cost of gas for his truck is becoming more of a burden.
But he said providing special products – just like the sausage and salami Short Creek’s new facility will produce – will give his consumers something new.
“The sausage, the ground chicken patties that have fresh herbs in them…it’s like 10 cents worth of ingredients but $2 more per pound,” he said. “Just that convenience is worth it to the consumer.”
Another local grower excited about Short Creek’s new operation is Keira Farmer. She’s been raising bison and cows for about two decades, and she said processing capacity has been a challenge in New England the whole time she’s been in the business. The processors are working hard, she said, but it’s a difficult business – especially during the pandemic when workers spent long hours to keep the facilities going.
For Farmer, networks between food producers are important to building a stronger local system. She runs a farmer’s market to help other producers in her area sell their goods and tries to make her meat available to anybody, regardless of what they’re able to pay.
Short Creek’s operation, especially their value-added products, like specialty sausages, are exciting – but as she starts to see increasing interest in both farming and eating local food, the need to expand capacity is much bigger.
“I think it's definitely something that needs to continue to be tackled and discussed by farmers and also at the state level,” she said.
For Farmer and Vernon, the pandemic created more challenges for animal processing, but it also showed them the extent of local demand for their food. And as they continue to adapt to a changing climate on their farms, Short Creek’s new facility provides a new option that could help bring part of their operation closer to home.
Copyright 2022 New Hampshire Public Radio. To see more, visit New Hampshire Public Radio.