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Jeff Liberty, the next generation of Tri-Town Packing in Brasher Falls.  But there's too much paperwork and not enough skilled meat cutters.
Jeff Liberty, the next generation of Tri-Town Packing in Brasher Falls. But there's too much paperwork and not enough skilled meat cutters.

A good knifeman is hard to find

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The "buy and eat local" movement continues to grow. In at least one instance, it's struggling with success. More people are eating local beef, lamb, and other meats for health, safety and economic reasons. And more farmers are raising the animals. But in between consumer and producer, there's a shortage of slaughterhouses. Local abattoirs used to dot the North Country landscape. But consolidation in the food industry and onerous USDA regulations have pushed many out of business. Another problem is a lack of skilled meat cutters. In part two of a series on the slaughterhouse shortage, David Sommerstein reports.

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David Sommerstein
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Tom Liberty of Tri-Town Packing in BrasherFalls has been in the butchering business for more than 30 years.  He used to have a lot of company.

We had Capellinos in Gouverneur.  We had Perrettas in Malone.  We had Perrettas in Brier Hill.  There were a lot of places where young guys learned to do this sort of thing.

Today Tri-Town is one of only two USDA-certified meat processors in hundreds of miles.

In the cutting room, men hack away at slabs of meat with big knives and saws.

Liberty's known as an expert meat cutter.  He has a bushy white mustache.  His smile makes his eyes look mischievous and young.  But he says he feels old, tired of byzantine USDA regulations, wary of an old plant that needs a facelift.

My brother's 68.  I'm sixty.  And those two gentlemen in there that are very skilled, their average age is 59. So if you look around here, it might be time to sit on the porch.

Liberty tried to hire some younger workers to step in.

Three people that told us they were meat cutters.  They're not here.  They're unskilled.

Across the industry, there's a growing recognition that good knifemen are hard to find.

There are shouts coming from all directions.

Eric Shelley runs New YorkState's only meat processing training program at SUNY Cobleskill.  Shelley says long gone are the days when people learned to cut meat at the local grocery store.  Today all that's done at huge plants that process thousands of animals a day.

We've industrialized and the industry has industrialized to the point where most of the fabrication, the small cuts, are being made in large plants.  It's a lot easier to put something into a cry-vac bag then put it into a box and it can then be shipped on a truck than a swinging side of beef, let's say, or a whole lamb carcass.

And the federal government's meat processing regulations have become supersized to match the industry.  The smallest abattoir has to follow the same rules as those processing giants in the Midwest.  A USDA inspector has to be present at all times.  The plant has to file a highly technical document called a HACCP plan.

Jessica Ziehm is spokeswoman for New York's department of agriculture.  She says the rules are important for food safety.  But it can cost millions to open a new slaughterhouse.  And then it's hard to find skilled people to work there.

Once you do have an establishment set up, with an inspector, with a HACCP plan, with all the requirements that go into putting together this facility, finding skilled labor certainly is a challenge as well.

In BrasherFalls, Tri-Town's future rests with Tom Liberty's son.

This is my son, Jeff.  Nice to meet ya.

Jeff Liberty is 25, soft-spoken and hard-working.  Even he can't cut like his Dad.

I can help with the pigs.  I can probably help.  But to do what he does, no.

Jeff hangs long strings of smoked venison jerky on a rack.  This is the future, he says, processed products like jerky, smoked cheeses, bacons, sausages that add value to the meat.

Jeff is still deciding how much he wants to inherit the family business.  If so, he sees himself more as a manager.  As for the actual meat cutting...

I don't know if it's something that I need to know how to do.  But we need to find people that do know how to do it.

A lot of farmers rely on Tri-Town to butcher their animals.  So do consumers who want to know where their meat comes from.  They're all counting on people like the Liberty family to find a new generation of knifemen.

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

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