A Boost to the Butchers
Written onDecember 01 , 2009
In March 2009, in an attempt to help strengthen Vermont’s meat-processing infrastructure, the Vermont Farm Viability Enhancement Program awarded $40,000 in grants to four facilities. For recipient Tony Brault, it was perfect timing; he had been planning to add on a spiffy retail area to his slaughterhouse. But for grantee Gary Barnes, who runs a meat market, the amount he was awarded would barely begin to cover the cost of adding on a separate processing area for wild game, so as of this writing, he had not collected the grant funds. Nevertheless, the grants helped both of these meat facilities in northern Vermont, with and without funding, and here’s how.
Tony Brault has cut things all his life, everything except his own hair, and he’s so busy lately, he hasn’t gotten around to letting someone else at it. One of his earliest memories as a kid in the Northeast Kingdom is “standing on an overturned soda crate, cutting meat beside my grandfather with a butter knife so I couldn’t injure myself.” Back then his grandfather owned a slaughterhouse in Troy, and there were others in nearby towns Orleans, North Hyde Park, and Richford.
Now Brault is the owner of that Troy slaughterhouse, and a third generation meat cutter. He is also the father of the fourth generation, as his son is also working at Brault’s Market, a custom slaughtering, cutting, packing, smokehouse, and curing facility and store.
To get there, a customer will turn off Route 100, by the Brault’s sign, and cruise down a long straight lane that leads directly to a wide building. If you’d stopped there last year, you would have parked your car in front of an unwelcoming, but kempt building, and let yourself in by a door that seemed as much a private entrance as it did “the door to the store.” Now, thanks to the VFVEP grant money, a customer will find a handsome edifice with a few windows and a door that leads to the spacious renovated meat shop.
Even though Brault’s has expanded to meet demand, putting in a new kill floor in 1989, the facility has just about all the business it can handle right now. Brault’s currently slaughters 700 beef, 1,500 hogs and 600 lambs per year for individuals and commercial entities, including another grant recipient, the Enosburg Meat Market.
To be eligible for part of the $40,000 pool of grant money, businesses had to be involved in meat processing, storage, marketing, and/or distribution of meat products. They also needed to have an airtight business plan demonstrating fiscal responsibility. And the business had to be headquartered in Vermont. Eleven meat processors completed the comprehensive application, and $20,000 was the maximum amount that could be awarded to any one facility. Although funds could be requested for a variety of projects, three out of the four grant winners applied to fund expansion: Brault’s, The Royal Butcher in Randolph, and Enosburg Meat Market. The fourth recipient, Vermont Smoke and Cure in Barre, requested funds for a piece of equipment that would increase their production. The $40,000 grant was divided among the four businesses.
According to Ela Chapin, program director of the Vermont Farm Viability Enhancement Program, the program provides assistance to about 50 farmers every year, with an emphasis on preserving working landscapes by helping farmers develop or revamp business plans. The VFVEP commenced overseeing this new funding opportunity when a private foundation volunteered to supply funding for fortifying agricultural infrastructure—in this case, meat-processing businesses.
Royal Larocque, owner of the Royal Butcher said, “Basically we’re using the grant to widen the doors and pour a graded concrete floor so we can move a pallet in and out of the facility.” Until the grant-funded project is complete, the only way they have to move carcasses, which can weigh up to 200 lbs., in and out of the building is on their shoulders. And for Vermont Smoke and Cure, the bacon slicer they purchased with their grant money enables them to go from making 50 slices per minute to 400 slices per minute. “It’s a big help,” stated Chris Bailey, the CEO. He now has a greater capacity to serve the small local farmers who use his processing services.
The new retail facility at Brault’s has a slicer, a meat case, a food-grade band saw, and bags of their famous leathery spicy beef jerky on the counter. Brault said they’re still putting the finishing touches on the retail area meat case. Nevertheless, a customer will currently find a carnivore’s larder of ham, Canadian bacon, boneless pork loin, West New York strip, western rib eye (read: feedlot beef), local T-bone, water buffalo rib eye, franks, and sirloin top butt, all purveyed by Brault’s sister. And they can help themselves to even more in the new self-service freezer.
With the new retail space taken care of, Brault now can devote more space to his smoke room, where he hickory smokes pork bellies, churning out hams and bacon.
On the other side of Jay Peak, on a side street in Enosburg, there’s another meat processor, another business that has also been an integral part of its community for more than half a century.
Enosburg Meat Market is owned by Eric Tully and Gary Barnes, who bought the business in December 2008. Inside on a recent visit, by two rolls of white and brown butcher paper and meat stamps hung by their handles, I saw a thirtysomething Eric Tully wrapping bright red meat in white rectangles of paper: “top round, custom cut.” Gary Barnes was running the slicer. Off to the side of the meat case was an enormous wooden door, and within was a walk-in freezer where stacks of meat lockers, like super-size dresser drawers, could be pulled out to store meat. At one time many communities in Vermont had meat lockers, but few remain. Yet here, families can rent a locker to store a year’s worth of beef.
Despite the high volume of customers Barnes cited the costs of complying with government regulations and other factors, and said, “It’s a money pit is what it is. See that new cooler? That was 6,000 dollars.” And yet, when asked about his profession, fraught with complications, regulations, and big expenditures, Barnes declared, “This isn’t work.” He’s got beef and pigs at home, and cuts wood.
Barnes applied to the VFVEP for $16,000 to build an addition around the back porch cutting area so he can have a space dedicated to processing wild game. Current regulations prohibit wild and domestic meats from being processed in the same area at the same time; Barnes currently doesn’t have ample room or equipment for simultaneous processing. (Nothing is killed at the facility; they don’t have a license for that.) As we eased out the far door of the cooler to the back parking lot, I saw a worker beginning to gut a deer shot in Canada. Only a small awning sheltered him from snow that was spraying in on the wind like sand.
The VFVEP only awarded the Enosburg Meat Market $5,000, which is not enough to cover the cost of the shed. Yet sound financial planning is the central principle of the Vermont Farm Viability Enhancement Program, and Barnes agrees. Upon submitting the grant application, he expressed to Chapin that whether they received the grant or not, the process of undergoing a financial analysis of the business and working with a business advisor was worth as much or more than the Meat Market might receive in funding. He said working with Steve Densham of St. Albans’ Vermont Small Business Association Development Center was “extremely helpful…I’ve never done anything like that.” And in fact, Barnes is still in contact with his advisor. He called him up the other day because he needed a knife supplier, and couldn’t remember the name. “He got back to me: Poli Brothers Cutlery; done.”
Back at the front of the shop, the customers kept filing in through the door. An elderly woman, all wrapped up against the cold, specified four cube steaks. Then she told me, “I buy them here because they don’t shrink when you cook them like they do from the supermarket.”
She asked Eric Tully to mark the one that had been frozen, and he drew a smiley face above the word “freeze.” He showed the package to her. “This okay?”
Photo of Tony Brault of Brault’s Market by Julia Shipley