Vermonters can't get enough local meat — and that's good news for beef farmers
Rambling over a gently sloping pasture in Charlotte, a stone’s throw from Lake Champlain’s edge, Jim Kleptz observes, “This is good grazing country.” It’s a warm day in mid-April, and he is visiting one of his several small herds of black Angus cattle that make up the now-sprawling LaPlatte River Angus farm. Kleptz and his sons run several hundred cows over 600 acres of leased land in and around Chittenden County. The field here is set against the backdrop of a few abandoned grain silos and empty dairy barns — leftovers from the pasture’s recent history.
An old-timer in the Vermont beef business, Kleptz has been raising cattle, first as a hobby and then professionally, since the 1970s. Some things have changed since then. After years of hand-wringing about the state of meat processing in Vermont — the perceived shortage of slaughterhouses, the dwindling population of skilled meat cutters and the exodus of culled dairy cows to out-of-state processing facilities are among the topics of concern — local foods experts say something is finally starting to give.
Consumers are asking for more local meat. Farmers are stepping up to supply it. Interested parties in between — from distribution specialists to would-be butchers — are moving in to fill the gap.
LaPlatte’s growth has mirrored that of the local meat industry. Kleptz moved to Shelburne to work as an engineer for General Electric, and in the early 1970s acquired a few cows. Why Angus? “It was just an accident,” he says — at the time he didn’t know much about raising cattle.
What started as a hobby is now a farm with 60 to 70 brood cows. When 10 acres in Shelburne weren’t enough for the animals, the family began leasing what were essentially backyards: odds and ends of pasture too small for neighboring dairy farmers to find useful. As “the dairy farmers started dwindling away,” Kleptz says, he and his three sons, Mark, John and Chris, seized the opportunities. With an almost encyclopedic knowledge of soils and grazing, Kleptz applied his training as a systems engineer to building an efficient, sustainable farm.
“We’ve got land all over hell,” Kleptz says, tallying up the acreage spread over Chittenden and Addison counties. More recently, the Kleptzes bought some 200 acres in Milton on which they intend to build a slaughterhouse. Controlling every aspect of raising and selling beef — from calving to meat cutting — allows them to explore innovative new ways to use the whole animal. For example, Kleptz is considering smoked dog food as one way to employ parts of the cow that aren’t popular for human consumption.
Local meat wasn’t always so enticing. Kleptz remembers trying to peddle beef at local fairs back in the ’70s and ’80s. Even the name was different then.
“They called it ‘native beef,’” says Kleptz, who struggled to convince customers to buy his product. “Native beef” meant culled dairy cows, which were bound for out-of-state slaughterhouses where they were turned into ground beef. Potential customers lumped Kleptz’s Angus cattle into the same category as old, tough milkers — and typically passed on the purchase. Kleptz even went door to door at one point, trying to sell frozen meat.
“It was a disaster,” he says with a rueful chuckle.
Some of the customers who now clamor for local beef weren’t interested then, either. Nina Lesser-Goldsmith, co-owner of Healthy Living Market & Café in South Burlington, recalls that when the store first opened its doors nearly 30 years ago, meat wasn’t part of the equation. Even after Healthy Living began selling it, customers typically didn’t want to see the stuff. The store stocked its meat in windowless freezers.
Now all that’s changed. Healthy Living hired a butcher, who breaks down animal carcasses into specialty cuts and in-house delicacies such as sausages and sauces. Ninety percent of the meat sold at the store is local — including LaPlatte beef, which Healthy Living has carried for three years. The store sells more meat than ever before. In fact, Lesser-Goldsmith says the only problem is getting enough.
“I don’t want to see it get to the level where it starts becoming factory farms,” says Lesser-Goldsmith. “But as a retailer, it does make it difficult for us when our farmers can’t fill the orders that we place.”
Consumer demand for local meat grows every year, according to Jennifer Colby, a farmer and outreach coordinator for the Vermont Pasture Network at the University of Vermont. But it “isn’t always matching the pace at which Vermont farmers are increasing their livestock.”
Because large livestock take about two years to mature, scaling up quickly to meet demand isn’t easy. Last year at this time, Colby says she heard from three people who couldn’t meet all the requests for their grass-fed beef.
But demand — even demand that can’t yet be met — is an exciting prospect for Vermont’s ag scene. And while Colby says there are still some “pinch points” in the system, particularly around processing and distribution, she says there’s an all-hands-on-deck approach to ramping up the industry.
Compared to the past, “now feels so much more positive,” Colby says. “At all levels of livestock production, we’re working on it.”
“Processing” the Problem
Colby’s optimism comes after years of doom-and-gloom talk about the slaughter industry in Vermont. Small farmers looking to butcher one or two pigs or cows complained about booking appointments six to 12 months out at some of the state’s far-flung slaughterhouses. Others worried that the small, aging facilities weren’t providing the most efficient or up-to-date techniques for killing animals.
These problems still exist, though they’ve arguably been overstated. Starting in 2009, and acting on the charge of the legislature, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund took a deep-dive look at Vermont’s agricultural network. It was clear at the time that energy was mounting in the local foods movement, but big-picture planning and large-scale investments were hard to come by.
The resulting 10-year Farm to Plate Strategic Plan determined that slaughter facilities in the state were not operating at full capacity. A survey conducted by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont found most were at between 30 to 80 percent — except during the busy fall, when summer-fattened livestock typically head to market. What emerged from the analysis was a far more nuanced understanding of the problems around slaughtering and processing livestock in Vermont.
It turned out slaughter wasn’t really the “pinch point,” as Colby calls it, that many thought it was. Navigating an animal across the kill floor takes a fraction of the time required to age the carcass, cut the meat and package the final product, aka “processing.” That’s where the Farm to Plate plan saw the industry’s greatest opportunity for improvement. The state didn’t necessarily need to pony up for a new slaughterhouse, but it did need to find ways to make slaughter and processing more efficient, consistent and profitable.
Policy makers and producers are still hard at work on that goal, but entrepreneurs aren’t waiting around. They’re jumping into the business. And a number of public-funding opportunities have sweetened the deal.
A combined total of $110,000 in public funding facilitated the official opening of the Mad River Food Hub in January: $50,000 from USDA Rural Development via the Mad River Valley Chamber of Commerce; $26,666 from the Vermont Agriculture Innovation Center; $15,000 from the Vermont Specialty Crop Block Grant Program; $10,000 from the Vermont Farm Viability Program; and $7500 from the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. The shared processing facility gives small-scale producers access to licensed processing equipment, such as refrigerated storage and specialty meat-cutting equipment. Hub founder Robin Morris says that new United States Department of Agriculture certification — slated to kick in on Monday, April 23 — will give producers access to out-of-state markets.
“There’s lots of farmers with ideas, but they don’t have access to a facility,” says Morris. He hopes the food hub will change that, pointing out that it’s tremendously expensive to open an approved, inspected facility. A shared resource gives more small producers a seat at the table.
In Addison County, longtime meat handler Carl Cushing is angling to construct a state-of-the-art, nearly 12,000-foot slaughterhouse in Middlebury. He owns Vermont Livestock, a slaughter facility currently located in Ferrisburgh, and has partnered with the nonprofit Castanea Foundation on the expansion effort. Cushing told the Addison County Independent that operating at both the Ferrisburgh and potential Middlebury sites could double what Vermont Livestock currently processes each week — somewhere in the neighborhood of two dozen beef animals, 30 hogs, and a few sheep and other smaller animals.
Cushing’s proposed facility would also provide some hands-on training in a new meat-cutting program for adults soon to be offered at Middlebury’s Patricia Hannaford Career Center. Director Lynn Coale says that the first classes, in collaboration with Vermont Technical College, could be offered as soon as this fall, though the entire curriculum will have to wait until the school has access to red meat and poultry slaughter facilities.
Meanwhile, more experienced butchers are sharpening their knives. In North Springfield, Black River Produce recently purchased a defunct Ben & Jerry’s factory to retrofit as a meat-processing facility. They won’t be slaughtering there, but will receive carcasses from slaughterhouses, such as Cushing’s, and break them down, package them and distribute the meat. Black River co-owner Mark Curran and the distributor’s local meat buyer, Tom Biggs, hopes Black River’s investment will signal to farmers that there’s room to ramp up their own businesses.
“This is a chance for everyone to start growing to the next level,” Biggs told Seven Days in March. “Vermont is a brand in its own self, and my goal is to keep this brand growing strong.”
Existing slaughter and processing facilities in the state are benefiting as well. The Vermont Agriculture Development Program is giving some slaughterhouse owners one-on-one business advice to strengthen their economic models. Despite high demand for these services, it’s not always a profitable business, says Vermont Agency of Agriculture ag development coordinator Chelsea Bardot Lewis. Most current business models run on a per-pound system, which prioritizes large animals such as cattle, while leaving some producers of goats, sheep and pigs at a disadvantage. Other processors are struggling to adapt their approach to meat cutting to a market that, more and more, is demanding sophisticated and unusual cuts of meat.
“It’s a changing business model,” Bardot Lewis says. “Everyone is learning, and the processors are learning as well how they might capitalize on this interest in local meat.”
Vermont’s slaughter and processing infrastructure appears to be changing for the better. But there are still big-picture questions to answer. Will the industry be one of small producers, peddling products with a distinctive terroir? Will consumer demand incentivize, or even require, larger-scale production? How big is big enough, and how big is too big?
Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund director Ellen Kahler, a champion of the Farm to Plate plan, says the industry is looking for the sweet spot. In the meantime, though, there are lessons to be learned from the commodity that still dominates Vermont’s ag receipts: dairy.
“It’s really about whether or not [meat] becomes a commodity, and who owns and controls the flow of those commodities,” she says.
And the dairy industry, at least in Vermont, has shown that bigger isn’t always better: Just as larger conventional dairies struggle to compete with cheaper operations in other parts of the country, farmstead value-added producers — such as cheesemakers — are finding more success.
Similarly, experts say that Vermont can’t excel on the commodity beef market: Input costs are high, and farmers here don’t have access to the same economies of scale that exist in other parts of the country. That leaves room for something in between — a system larger than individual farmers selling direct to customers, but still more specialized than the national beef market.
“I do think that scale is a very important part of the equation,” Kahler says.
Growers’ cooperatives are one intriguing option. Already some vegetable farmers have used this tool to make the jump from farmers markets to regional distribution to larger supermarket chains. Kahler points to Deep Root Organic Co-op in Johnson as an example; one of the oldest organic vegetable co-ops in the country, the collection of Vermont and Québecois farmers employs a hybrid approach. The farmers sell some of their vegetables directly to consumers, which yields the highest price for their goods. But the rest is collected at a shared facility and sent to grocery stores such as Whole Foods and City Market.
Another option is one of aggregation, which some businesses are already doing. Take Hardwick Beef, which sources grass-fed beef from individual farmers and then packages, markets and distributes it.
The identity-crisis questions of scale and terroir also get at the tricky balance that Vermont meat has to strike. Consumers want to support small, artisan products but often expect big, factory-farm reliability. Farmers and consumers point to the challenge of achieving consistency in a field that, as Colby puts it, is “inherently unpredictable.”
“We want individuality but also consistency,” she says. “How do you do both of those things?”
LaPlatte’s success suggests it’s not impossible. Restaurant buyers praise the Chittenden County operation for both the high quality of the product and the reliability of the operation. Some of that owes to the Kleptz family’s tight control over every aspect of the animal husbandry, from rearing to slaughter. It also has to do with their grazing practices. While cows are raised for most of their lives on grass and hay, they’re finished for three months on grain. That removes the problem of seasonable variation in feed.
At this time of year, “They’re waiting on grass, just like the rest of us,” Kleptz says, as one of the sprightly black calves bounds up and down the pasture, racing the fence line. This is when the leggy little creatures are at their fastest. Nearby, other brood cows linger over their resting calves, eyeing the cattleman passively.
Kleptz is wearing a wool cap and faded flannel. His pants are well worn and speckled with mud. Farming keeps him robust in mind and body, he says, and at 80 years of age, he plans to keep at it until he dies. Kleptz ambles over the pasture in search of a bull he finds especially impressive and, when he spots him, points out how sturdy and healthy the animal looks. Next, he pauses to admire one particularly fine-looking calf. Kleptz can’t quite put his finger on what it is that he appreciates about the cow, but he knows a good one when he sees it.
On the road back to his Shelburne home, Kleptz comments on how different the town — and all of Chittenden County — is today than it was when he moved here in 1971. The dairy barn up the road from his house is newly empty, its surrounding land portioned off into residential lots now under construction.
Farming turned out to be a great second career for Kleptz, but he warns that raising meat is unlikely to be a get-rich-quick scheme for anyone. Still, juxtaposed against empty dairy barns, could it be the next big thing in Vermont agriculture?
It’s a timely question, as the last big thing — conventional dairy farming — is hitting its latest stumbling block. The industry that accounts for an estimated 90 percent of Vermont’s ag income is caught in a boom-and-bust cycle of erratic milk pricing. One year might be a bumper year for farmers, who have no say over the price they receive for their milk. The next — like this one — may see prices dip below the cost of production, which means dairy farmers are going into debt for the privilege of selling their milk.
“It’s not my nature to go do all that work and then hope and pray that someone treats me right,” says Kleptz.
Pittsford farmer David Mills knows something about that. He runs a herd of approximately 300 Devon, Hereford and Angus cattle on Millbrand Farm, his former dairy farm. Asked why he decided, about 11 years ago, to stop milking cows, Mills suggests: “Read the newspaper.”
By that he means the economics of dairying just didn’t make sense. A new father at the time, Mills wanted more time to spend with his growing family. He says he probably spends just as many hours, if not more, maintaining his beef herd, but has more flexibility than he did. He’s not tied to a milking schedule, and if he wants to leave the herd for a day, he can.
Mill says that so long as a farmer knows how to feed a cow — and all dairy farmers do — he thinks the switch isn’t that tricky. For now, he’s not worried about newcomers crowding the market.
“Could there be too many little guys out there selling [meat]? I suppose,” Mills says. “It’s going to take years before that is an issue, I think.”