Meet the Meat Hubs
Two New Facilities Aim to Increase and Strengthen Local Meat Production
Written onAugust 19 , 2013
Black River Meats
A year ago, Bryce and Debbie Gonyea were operating a small hog farm in Danville, selling their pigs to Vermont Salumi and private customers, in addition to selling young piglets for families to raise for their own consumption. Bryce had recently retired from three-and-a-half decades in the agricultural insurance business and was creating a stream of retirement income through farming.
Then Pete Coleman of Vermont Salumi mentioned Black River Produce and their new meat-processing facilities to Bryce, and connected him with Black River’s business development manager, Sean Buchanan. After a trial run, in January of this year, Bryce began supplying the company with pasture-raised pork for its new line of meats.
Black River, a Springfield-based food distribution company, had been distributing local meats since 2009, including quail, venison, poultry, and beef. But the company knew it was nowhere near meeting the demand for high-quality, locally produced meat for the company’s retail and restaurant customers. So the company took stock of its relationships with customers, its distribution system, and the ready market.
“We wanted to create a meat program that was branded by Black River,” Sean says. “This matters to us because any time anyone picks up a piece of meat they know they can pick up the phone and find out where their meat came from. We can even set it up for them to go to the farm.”
As it was developing its own meat label, called Black River Meats, Black River purchased an unoccupied former Ben & Jerry’sfacility in Springfield so it could process meat itself. (For now, the slaughtering takes place at already-established Vermont slaughterhouses.) The company is now buying beef, pork, and lamb from at least six Vermont farms for its new label and began processing in the new 43,000-square-foot facility in April.
“We just wanted to get open,” Sean says. “Every two weeks we’re adding another employee, we’re scaling up, adding on other farmers. Right now we’re just working to meet current demand: our program is based on selling out every single week.”
As of mid-August, the company was preparing to release its line of sausages to natural food stores, co-ops, and independent supermarkets. First up were maple breakfast, country, Umbrian, and hot and sweet Italian sausages. More adventurous creations, such as a “curry wurst” and a Merguez-style lamb/pork sausage, were in development. Also in the works was increased “patty production” that would get pre-formed hamburgers and sausage patties into grocers’ freezers. And there were plans not far down the road to introduce nitrate-free bacon and to work with partners to dry-cure meats for high-end items such as pancetta and dry salami.
Black River isn’t doing all of this to displace local farmers already selling meat or to take business away from existing processing facilities, Sean explains. The company’s goal is to displace commodity meat on store shelves. It’s doing this by building new markets in Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, and Massachusetts, and by giving farmers an opportunity to increase the size of their operations without having to make prohibitively expensive on-farm investments.
“We didn’t really want to take on meat processing at this scale, but we knew that no one else was going to,” Sean says. “The smaller places do a great job, but when they fail, it can impact farmers tremendously. We knew that if we can help build the infrastructure, it lets producers and farmers scale up because they know they’re always going to have access to markets.”
Black River’s approach works well for the Gonyeas, who pride themselves on the choices they make on their farm and the pastured pigs they produce. Their Deer Run Farm will sell between 250 and 300 pigs to Black River this year, and Bryce Gonyea says that reflects what Black River means to his operation, and to Vermont overall.
“The processing facilities weren’t available at any magnitude until Black River opened,” Bryce says. “Without that facility I wouldn’t be anywhere near the size I am now.”
He goes on to say, “Black River is going to provide the opportunity for ag producers, especially the young, to do something beyond dairy. They’re going to create increased ag activity in Vermont. They’re providing a market and a distribution system. Producers can count on them taking a certain number of animals a week and that lets farmers plan with a little more precision, instead of just ‘Gee, I hope I can sell some pigs this week.’”
Mad River Food Hub
There’s no shortage of ingenuity and creativity on Vermont farms. But within the borders of this small state, food processing infrastructure, equipment, and access to distribution can be in short supply, and without them, it can be hard to bring even the best concept to fruition.
That’s where the Mad River Food Hub has stepped in. Nestled against a hill right off Route 100 in the Irasville Business Park in Waitsfield, the 4,000-square-foot facility has expanded, ginned up, and been open for business since October 2011.
The Hub is an incubator for farmers and food producers who want to experiment with new products or to launch a new business. Food Hub staff provide business and technical support, help develop recipes and test ideas. They also assist with distribution of products locally.
“If a customer has an idea they want to experiment with, we help them do that,” says Hub founder and CEO Robin Morris. Some experimental ideas have become soup shipped to Boston, premium sausages and bacon sold through CSA shares, and a range of other items.
“We want [farmers and food producers] to come in because we believe we can help them be successful,” Robin says. “Farmers will learn about business, they’ll learn about meat, and they’ll learn about food safety.”
Operations Manager Jacob Finsen is available to advise his Hub customers on how to get their process as efficient as possible and keeps an eye on their activities to ensure that the highest standards of food safety are maintained. He also offers culinary prowess and something unique among meat processors in Vermont: assistance with developing proprietary recipes for sausages and other value-added products.
“With other processors, if farmers want to turn their meat into sausage, they don’t have control over the recipe and the ingredients,” Robin says. “But here, Jacob develops unique recipes that can be replicated whenever they’re doing processing here. It’s important because farmers know that, for example, the Italian sausage they sell with their name on it is unique to their own farm.”
Jacob and Robin also know that for many of their customers, price matters greatly because the scale of operations for most Vermont farms is so small. “We price the rooms so that farmers can make money,” Robin says.
When it comes to meat, approximately six of the 40 farms and food processors that have used the facility in its first year-and- a-half have been meat producers. The facility is licensed by the USDA for meat processing (no slaughtering takes place), which allows meat products made there to be sold across state lines (and thereby to much larger markets), provided the meat was slaughtered in a
USDA-inspected facility. It is believed that the Hub is the first shared-use, commercially inspected meat processing facility in the country, and eventually it could become the first commercially inspected dry-cure facility in the state.
During a tour on a slow day this past summer, folks from Vermont Raw Pet Food were busily making their specialty pet food from scraps of Misty Knoll and Stonewood Farm chickens, and local fruits and vegetables.
One farm that has taken advantage of the Hub’s knowledge and services is Winter Moon Farm of Corinth. Says farmer Gabe Zoerheide, “We get our animals slaughtered at The Royal Butcher, and then Jacob [Finsen] does the cutting for us there in Waitsfield. … So far it’s just been Jacob’s recipes, and we’ve worked with him on some of those. We have five types: garlic, breakfast, sweet and hot Italian, and chorizo. We’re hoping to get in the queue for the dry-curing too.”
“I’d heard about them through the grapevine,” Gabe adds, “and was interested in the model, in how small farms can begin to investigate value-added activities. It’s a wonderful model, how you can get involved without putting out tens of thousands of dollars.”
Gabe muses that meat processing “is a tough business to run, and probably not as glamorous as it should be. Even here in Vermont, sometimes the person who you talk to on the phone [at a slaughterhouse or cutting facility] is not the person who ends up cutting your meat and then you can end up with surprises. But at Mad River, it’s just me and Jacob, who comes with a culinary background and really cares about the quality of what he does.”
Of course, what the Hub offers isn’t right for everyone. “We’ve had producers come in for an evaluation day and then tell us that they realize they don’t want to proceed with their proposed ideas,” Robin says. “But we regard that as a success because we helped them get the information to help them make the right decision for themselves and their business.”
Robin jokes pointedly, “We have a horrible business plan. If we get our customers to be more efficient, they pay us less money. When they succeed, they leave us and do their own processing.”
“Still,” he continues, “our mission is to be sustainable. We’ll never accept [philanthropic or grant] funds for operations.” In 2012, the operation made a $300 profit. “Touch wood—it’s going okay,” he says.