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Bison farmer Dale Healey ran short of product because his slaughterhouse was booked.
Bison farmer Dale Healey ran short of product because his slaughterhouse was booked.

Local meat boom exposes slaughterhouse shortage

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Tonight, local beef, lamb, and pork farmers are gathering at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Canton to discuss a problem that they're happy to have. Increased interest in local grass-fed and free range meat has created a shortage of slaughterhouses in the North Country and across the Northeast. There are only three USDA-certified abattoirs in northern New York, two in St. Lawrence County and one near Saratoga Springs. As David Sommerstein reports, meat processors see a big opportunity and a big risk.

The Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County is hosting a meeting tonight at 7 to discuss the shortage of slaughterhouse facilities in the region.

One note to this story: bison farmer Dale Healey is retiring, but he says it had nothing to do with the slaughterhouse shortage.

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Tri-Town Packing co-owner Tom Liberty may expand, but he's worried the locavore movement may be a passing fad.

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David Sommerstein
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Meat producers like Dale Healey have a lot to be happy about these days.  Healey has raised bison outside Potsdam for more than 20 years.  Last holiday season was a record-setter.

We had such a run on the meat this fall that we got wiped out early.

Healey called his slaughterhouse to make an appointment to butcher more buffalo.  But they were booked solid.

Perhaps three years ago, we were able to call and get in within two to three weeks.

This is where we stock all our bison meat.

Healey stores the cuts in four freezers in his garage.  This winter, three are empty.

Some bison roasts on hand, a little bit of sausage, and jerky.  Until we can get more animals, that's our supply.

With concerns over E Coli, feedlots, and healthy eating, people are buying more local meats.  Farmers are struggling to keep up with demand.  But between consumer and producer, the slaughterhouse is the bottleneck, especially in the fall when hunters and farmers are hustling to get their animals butchered.

Danny Baker raises pigs, beef cows, and goats on CrossIsland farms on WellesleyIsland.

They're born in the early spring.  You're raising them through the summer.  You don't want to keep them through the winter.  You want to slaughter them in the fall.

Farmers now have to book months in advance.  But that's hard to do for the small farms that serve this growing niche market.  Grass-fed beef and lamb farmer Veronica Lamoth of Beartown Farms in Antwerp says she stores her own meat in a few freezers.

You cannot take like 10 cows at a time and expecting to have all the space.

Local meat is still a tiny sliver of overall meat consumption.  But the slaughterhouse shortage is big enough that it's registering with policy makers.  U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told the New York Times "it's pretty clear attention needs to be paid to this."  The USDA has already started to certify mobile slaughterhouses that serve large rural areas.

Jessica Zeihm is spokeswoman for New York's department of agriculture.  She says the ag commissioners of all the Northeast states have met about the problem.

New York and New England are very ideally situated for grazing and for raising livestock.  But every opportunity there usually are challenges and one of the greatest challenges that the Northeast is facing is the lack of USDA inspected facilities.

There are two kinds of slaughterhouses in New York.  Custom ones are where a hunter can bring a deer and a farmer can take a cow for their own use.

To sell meat in a store or at a farmers' market or to a restaurant, the meat has to be processed at the second kind, a USDA-certified slaughterhouse.  There are 48 in all of New YorkState.  And many of them just make their own products, places like Glaziers in Malone or Croghans in LewisCounty.

In northern New York, there are just three open to farmers.

This is our aging cooler here.

Tom Liberty co-owns Tri-Town Packing in BrasherFalls, one of those three.  He points at 38 hanging sides of beef.

We don't buy any of these.  They're all brought in by area farmers who either use them for their home freezer or they sell 'em.

Farmers from Watertown to central Vermont use Tri-Town, paying to truck their animals hundreds of miles because there aren't any alternatives.  Liberty says volume started to spike three years ago, but only at a certain time of year.

People that wanted something done in December, I was booked.  So now we're doing those in January and February.  If it wasn't for November and December, we could do it all.

Tri-Town has been approached by ag officials and economic developers about expanding.  But Liberty is waivering.  Taking on a million dollars in debt is a huge risk, he says, when the business is so seasonal, and when the local food movement may turn out to be a fad.

I have no idea if this volume will still be here in a year or two or not.  Your guess is as good as mine.

Ag leaders are trying to make the case that local meats are here to stay.  Kirby Selkirk raises lamb in FranklinCounty and used to work for the Farm Bureau.  He ran out of lamb last fall because Tri-Town was booked.  But he says he understands processors' trepidation.

Cause we're talking a lot of money.  And then, help.  You've gotta have some very skilled people in there.  Now are they going to depend on Kirby and all the others that are coming in here to continue bring our animals to them and if not, what are they going to do?  It's a huge risk.

St. Lawrence County farmers are exploring reopening a shuttered abattoir in Briar Hill, near the Thousand Islands.

A slaughterhouse near Saratoga Springs, Eagle Bridge Meats, recently took the plunge and upgraded to become USDA-certified.  State ag department spokeswoman Jessica Ziehm says the initial results couldn't be better.  They're already booked up.

For North Country Public Radio, I'm David Sommerstein in BrasherFalls.

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