A lack of slaughter facilities is commonly cited as a key barrier to the growth of the local meat industry in New England. However, a new study led by a staff member of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Foods and Markets shows that existing facilities are actually not operating at full capacity during most times of the year.
The analysis showed that only 38 percent of the total kill floor capacity of New England slaughter facilities is used on an annual basis. On the other hand, use of processing room capacity (where meat is cut and wrapped) was much higher at 66 percent to 78 percent, demonstrating that it is processing, not slaughter, that may be presenting the bottleneck.
Facility owners attribute this underuse to the seasonality of the industry, which they cited as the largest challenge to their businesses. Data showed that plants experience a surge in demand from September through December when many producers want their animals processed to avoid winter feeding and housing. During the late winter and early spring, slaughter-facility demand drops significantly.
Survey data showed that labor availability offered another challenge to expansion.
The study published online last month by the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems also found that, were demand for local meat to increase to the extent that all of the large animal producers in New England wanted to process their animals within the region, existing facilities could slaughter 63 percent to 84 percent of all animals currently marketed but could process only 29 percent to 43 percent.
"The New England region will require additional infrastructure, particularly for processing, if regional meat production is to significantly increase," said Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross. "However, we must expand capacity in a way that is sensitive to the issues of labor availability and demand seasonality expressed by existing slaughter facility owners."
To this end, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets (VAAFM) recently launched a grant program that provides matching funds for capacity expansion at meat slaughter and processing plants.
VAAFM will also be working with the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development to develop a Skilled Meat Cutter Training Program. Additionally, the agricultural departments in the six New England states received funding through the John Merck Foundation and the Vermont Agricultural Innovation Center to identify institutional markets for regionally produced ground beef.
If successful, institutional demand should stimulate year-round throughput at regional processing facilities.
Reprinted in part from TheMeatSite.com