Butcher Shop at Sugar Mtn

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Pigs who will live their entire lives at our farm.

“…Oh, and just one more thing… We’re building a butcher shop.”

Yes, that is what I said a few days ago. Our top secret big project for the past year and a half is a butcher shop. Well, about as top secret as anything is on a small planet. The gossip has been fun and I’ll admit that I have fueled the stories a bit. This big project is what has put a slow down on some other more minor projects like expanded fencing, new pastures and the greenhouse. Although we were able to get bits of each of those done so they’re ready for more later. Everything in its time.

Short Version: We are building an on-farm slaughterhouse and butcher shop located on our farm so that we can get our pork to customers’ fork. This will assure our farm of available slaughter and butchering capacity, guarantee humane animal handling to the end, reduce our energy consumption and expenses while increasing the quality of the meat and keeping our prices from rising. Processing is essential to farm viability. Initially we will be slaughtering just for our own farm due to the regulatory and insurance complexities. This immediately helps other farmers by freeing up slots in the area butcher’s schedule. The opening of our butcher shop is expected in late 2010 20112015. Find out about getting free processing when you do a CSA Pre-buy which helps fund the butcher shop – details soon…


Removing Shed Roof – Saving Materials for Pig Shelters

I hear some muttering in the back of the crowd:

    Sponsoring Ads:


  • “Walter’s gone over to the dark side.”
  • “He’s sold out to the goobermint.”
  • “He got too big and became one with the enemy.”

Rest assured that this is not the case, the rumors of my conversion to Big Ag are grossly exaggerated and unfounded. We are still a small family farm raising Naturally Grown pastured pigs sustainably on pasture. Having our own on-farm process does not change how we farm nor our fundimental beliefs and core values. Heck, I can’t even get a loan never mind a temptation on the mount. What this does do is improve the end of life for our livestock, improve the quality of the meat and increase our farm’s financial security.


North Wall Coming Down!

Conversely, I’ve had others tell me:

  • “There is no way you can justify the cost of owning and operating a facility.”
  • “You must have a high volume of through put to justify the costs.”
  • “You will have to do slaughter for other people to pay for it.”
  • “It will take a high volume to pay the costs.”
  • “It will cost millions of dollars to design and build.”
  • “No one person can understand how to build the plant.”
  • “You can’t do the construction yourself.”
  • “You will have to hire architects, consultants and engineers.”
  • “You’ll never get a grant of inspection.”
  • “What if you don’t succeed / get inspection?”
  • “You can’t do the work yourself because you don’t have the skills or time.”
  • “You will have to hire a big staff to run the place.”
  • “You can’t be cost effective – The big guys are more efficient.”

Again, none of these statements are true. I mention them to get the white elephant off the sofa and out of the room. These objections are a result of not understanding what the parameters are for a special case that solves our specific instance of the problem. For other farms the results may come out differently.


East Wall Falls

Fortunately, I have also had many people who’ve been very supportive of the idea such as master butcher Cole Ward who said, “Hey, it’s not like it’s rocket science. Here, I’ll show you how…” So began our apprenticeship over the past eighteen months. Join our family as we give you a tour of why we’re doing this, what we’ve accomplished to date and where we are going…


Hay Shed Down

What:
We are building a USDA/State inspected on-farm slaughterhouse, butcher shop, smokehouse and linked sausage kitchen. For simplicity sake and to avoid twisting my tongue over that long phrase, I’ll just call it the Butcher Shop.

We need USDA inspected because we transport our meat across state lines in order to deliver the large batches of our all natural pork for hot dog making to the smokehouse in Massachusetts. Theoretically the new rule will allow state inspected meat to cross state lines but the regulations for state and federal meat inspection are the same so we are building everything to meet and exceed the federal regulations.

We will first start with a state certificate of inspection and then add USDA certificate of inspection later – the sequence recommended by both the Vermont Department of Agriculture and the USDA FSIS (Very Small Plants)


Installing New Electric Service

Why:
There are many positive reasons drawing us towards on-farm processing. I like the positive reasons. They are why we originally wanted on-farm slaughter years ago. But first let’s get out of the way the negative issues about hired processing that push us to do it ourselves:

  • Poor livestock handling (inhumane, reduces meat quality),
  • Errors in meat cutting (unsalable),
  • Packaging (holes in packages, metal ring in package, poor seals),
  • Labeling Errors (wrong cut, wrong weight, missing label),
  • Missing meat (pigs with only one tenderloin or shoulder),
  • Not our meat (wrong farm label),
  • Meat that wasn’t even the right species,
  • Meat that was too warm so it rotted (unsafe and unsalable),
  • Meat not properly chilled (frozen instead of fresh so can’t sell) and;
  • temper-tantrums by two plant owners (Is he in a good mood this week???).

These errors cost us $114 extra per pig above and beyond the cost of the processing, transport and raising the pig. Week in and week out that adds up to a lot of money over the course of the year. It is a stress that neither the the animals nor we need. All told the hired processing costs us more in time and money than doing it ourselves, even with the cost of building and operating our own facility.

Some butchers are excellent. They care about their work and are masters at their craft. They are an unfortunate minority. If you find them, cherish them, nurture them, encourage them. Sadly they ultimately retire and too few have the USDA certification we need for sales to the stores and restaurants that buy from us. This leads us back to the positive reasons for doing it ourselves.


Blackie with a new generation who may not travel.

On-farm is better for many reasons:

Humane Animal Handling:
When livestock are forced to travel for hours to get to slaughter they are significantly stressed under even the most ideal conditions. We transport our pigs inside our van[1, 2] so they have the same conditions as ourselves but it is still a stress, for them and us, going to a strange place with strange noises, unfamiliar scents, sights and people.

On-farm slaughter means the animals avoid all of this transport related suffering: their life is humane and their death is humane. It seems strange to spend so much effort breeding, farrowing and raising our livestock on the low stress, familiar pastures here at our farm and then to truck pigs for three hours every week to distant slaughterhouses where they are handled by strangers in a strange, stressful environment. It is like taking two steps forward with Naturally Grown and then one step backwards at the end of life.

We can do better than that. On-farm slaughter means that the animals are able to stay their entire lives here in familiar surroundings and be handled humanely by us, their familiar people who care.


Laying Heat Reflective Vapor Barrier

Access to Slaughter and Butchering:
Vermont, New England and much of the country have been losing small butcher shops and slaughterhouses for decades. In last few years several burned down and other butchers have retired. In April of 2008 the butcher we work with the most told us he intended to stop doing slaughter for anyone other than his own farm. This motivated me to move forward with what I had been working on since 2004 – having our own on-farm capacity.

When I contacted the Vermont Department of Meat Inspection that week they told me that another butcher we sometimes worked with was planning to retire. This further accelerated our drive to do our own processing. It was becoming more and more clear that we could not depend on an outside source for something this vital for our farm. If we can’t get our livestock to customer plates then the farm is unviable. Originally I had not planned to start this journey until 2014 but the time is now.


Taping Foil-Bubble-Bubble-Foil

Energy Consumption:
With hired slaughter and butchering we must drive three to twelve hours every week to drop off the livestock one day and then pick up the meat a different day. Unfortunately, while we’ve tried, it just doesn’t work to pickup and drop off on the same day. Doing on-farm slaughter will save us as much as 660 hours of driving annually, 37,440 miles and 2,340 gallons of gasoline at a cost of over $7,000. That is 19.4 lbs/gallon x 2,340 gallons = 45,396 pounds of carbon-dioxide (22.698 tons) a year saved and not emitted as CO2 into the atmosphere.

As a Vermonter, I’m all for a little global warming to take the edge off winter but pollution isn’t a good way to achieve it. The driving back and forth to the butcher is our number one fossil fuel consumption. We use very little on our farm and home putting in only a few hundred hours a year on the tractor. In fact, our farm is a net Carbon sequester sucking up about 1,400 tons of carbon a year out of the atmosphere via our forests and fields. With on-farm slaughter cutting out the driving to and from the processor we’ll be just that much greener and our carbon foot print just that much smaller.

In addition to driving one third as much we can save energy in another way. One of the major problems with the butcher we work with the most is that he fails to properly cool the meat. This means that we can’t do an efficient driving pattern of dropping off the pigs one week, then the following week dropping off more pigs while we pickup the previous week’s meat. We tried that and got rotten meat. He, of course, won’t cover the loss. The farmer is stuck in the middle, composting inedible meat. Part of the problem is his cooler, even the new one he just put in, is poorly designed and insufficiently insulated.

I can do far better than that. In the floor plan below you’ll notice that more than half of the building is a heavily refrigerated box. Using a variety of natural cooling techniques and some basic physics along with modern refrigeration, we can easily chill down that large box. Located within that box are successively smaller boxes, each colder than the previous. The coldest is the deepest. Some time I’ll post more about the technology – it is worthy of its own detailed post. The result is stable cold with less wasted energy in order to achieve higher food quality and better food safety. Like the Russion dolls, boxes within boxes. Thus the massive super insulated slab.


Self-Leveling Concrete Pour over 3″ Insulation Over Foil

Better quality meat:
For our customers on-farm slaughter will offer higher quality meat. When animals are stressed it raises the pH of the meat, changes the water holding capacity and lowers the quality. Livestock slaughtered on-farm avoid all of this resulting in higher quality meat for the consumer.


Pigs and Sheep Grazing in South Field

Stable Prices:
Another benefit for our customers is that once we bring the processing in-house we have more control over our costs and have eliminated more waste. This means we can keep our prices lower bringing high quality meat to the table at reasonable prices.


Super Insulated Slab Wired – 8″ to 1
0″ more of Insulation

Custom Cuts:
We are often asked for custom cuts of meat that the volume production line butchers don’t want to waste their time with. Doing the work ourselves means we can offer this extra level of service and specialty cuts for our customers. Tri-cut knuckles, soup bones, back fat, skinless jowl and bellies, Frenched ribs, nine-rib roasts, skin on shoulder roast, kabobs and linked sausages are just a few of these specialty cuts we’ll be doing. Eventually we’ll even be able to do our own hot dogs, kabasa, salami and pepperoni.


Front Dump Concrete Truck

High Cost of Hired Processing:
The cost of hired processing is about 47% of our gross income. Ouch. For every $100 we earn we pay out $47 for processing. Another 25% goes for farming overhead and winter hay. The bank takes most of what’s left – fortunately we live very frugally. Every year I look at these numbers. The one thing I can do a lot about is cutting the cost of processing. If we do our own on-farm processing we can more than double our net income without raising our prices and without growing big. This means we won’t have to increase prices in this tight economy which helps our customers too.

I know how to cut meat. I’ve done it for our family for almost 20 years. For the past year and a half Holly, our son Will and I have been taking commercial meat cutting classes and apprenticing at butchering with master butcher Cole Ward. We can do the work and recapture most of that 47% of costs we pay now for hired processing, money that could pay for building a butcher shop. Vertical integration helps keep more of the money on-farm and gives our customers better prices and higher quality.


Spreading Concrete For Super Insulated Slab

Control of Costs:
This past year the butcher and the smokehouse we work with the most jacked their prices up on us by 36%, retroactively. That is to say we delivered animals and meat to them but when we got the bill it was 36% higher than the previous time with no warning. Since we had already sold all that meat we had to eat the higher prices. We never do that to our customers. If we have to raise our prices we give them a month’s advanced notice and nothing in the queue goes up. We’re honest. This retroactive price increase cost us a full month of our family’s income. Why can they get away with this dishonest practice? Because they have an effective monopoly since there are too few slaughterers, butchers and smokehouses. Don’t try complaining though, they’ll cut you off. The solution is vertical integration – bring the processing on-farm.


Caterer Ben Keeps Us Energized

Financial Security:
Over the past decade several slaughterhouses have burnt down, one was just shut down last month for inhumane animal handling, another butcher retired and one stopped taking outside animals. We are left with very few available slaughter and butchering options. Only counting those who are state or USDA inspected reduces the number further. In the fall, with hunting season and animals coming off of pasture, this problem is amplified with many farmers not being able to get slaughter slots in the butchers’ schedules unless they reserve four months in advance.

The rush of the fall schedule also creates far more errors in processing at the butcher which wastes more meat and costs us more money. Likewise, with so many animals being handled, they’re less careful and some of the people are less experienced part-timers hired only for the season. Without slaughter and butchering capacity we can’t get our pork to the customer’s fork.

The loss of slaughterhouses and butcher shops is hurting all farmers. On-farm processing capacity is vital to the viability of farms. With us doing our own we will free up valuable slots in the butchers’ schedules for other farmers thus benefiting the entire community. So even though we won’t be doing processing for other farms, our butcher shop benefits the whole farm community and consumers.


Moving Materials Onto Slab

Biosecurity Security:
We have breeding herds of livestock and this means that biosecurity, keeping our animals healthy, is doubly a concern. We have spent many years selectively breeding our pigs to improve our genetics. It is unavoidable that the slaughterhouses are going to be a concentration point for disease. Every time we go to another slaughterhouse we risk bringing back disease on our boots. (This is when Pro-NAISers can shout “This is why we need NAIS to which I’ll reply “But not at the loss of our Constitution.”) To combat this risk I have a separate set of boots in the van for while I am at a slaughterhouse. On-farm slaughter improves our biosecurity, reducing the risk of disease being introduced to our herd. Lots of small butcher shops serving lots of small farms scattered around the country side would do more to improve national food safety and security than NAIS or all of its ilk.


Retaining and Lairage Wall Poured and Curing

Farm Growth:
The limits of transport and available slaughter schedules have held back the growth of our farm. Chefs need consistent weekly volumes of fresh meat, not just when the butcher wants to process. Without consistent processing we can’t grow our farm. The cost of processing eats up half our income. Our goal is to remain a small family farm but we must do enough sales per week that we are able to achieve economies of scale that make farming pay a livable wage. We are profitable as we are but there is no savings other than our land and not enough money for health care. Par for the course with farming. The economics, the cost per pig, get much better at six pigs a week and at ten pigs a week there is a future in farming for the next generation as well.


Blackie Inspecting Work

Sustainable:
With on farm processing, we will be able to be profitable with lower sales levels and that means we can keep prices down for our customers. At the same time, it assures the next generation on our farm, our children, a future which they have said they want. Our kids want to farm* but they must be able to make a living at it. On-farm processing removes the processing bottleneck while giving added value to our pastured pork. This means that more of the income stays here on the farm. Through vertical integration of breeding, raising the animals on pasture and on-farm processing we make our farm that much more sustainable.


The Job Site as Leaves Wane

Origins:
There is an irony in all of this. Back in 2004 I was researching what was involved in having our own on-farm slaughter when I discovered documents on the USDA web site regarding the the National Animal Identification System (NAIS).
This led to NoNAIS.org which was rather a bit of a distraction. Interestingly, under the way the rules are written for NAIS a farmer could be pretty much exempt from NAIS if they had on-farm slaughter – one more reason to bring slaughter home. If your stock are born, bred, raised and slaughtered on farm then NoNAIS. Of course, that doesn’t deal with the need for new genetics, people getting started, those who just raise a feeder pig, calf or lamb over the summer, etc. Even with on-farm processing it is critical that we all continue to fight against government and Big Ag interference with our lives and their trampling of our Constitutional Rights. My drive for on-farm slaughter predates NoNAIS. Keep pushing for appropriate scaled farming alternatives and to protect our rights.

There is no single reason that has driven or attracted us to on-farm slaughter, rather it is a convergence of many causes, both positive and negative. For us, on-farm USDA/State inspected is the right move for for our livestock, for our customers, for our family, for our farm.


Ben and Will Constructing Forms

How:
We’re doing it ourselves. There are a lot of studies and reports out on the web detailing various committee conclusions about the problems with the lack of slaughter, how it is affecting farmers and consumers, what it is doing to our rural landscape and how to create more slaughter opportunities. These reports are very helpful to read and give an overview of the issues. The problem is large committees of people can’t react quickly, can’t move fast and they are thinking too big – at least for us.

The usual way to build a slaughterhouse, butcher shop and smoke house, also known as a meat processing plant, is to involve a lot of consultants, engineers, designers, contracters, committee members and a working group. This is very expensive and the final cost will be $500,000 to $2.4 million according to reports I’ve read. Worse yet, it takes about 10 years, if it gets completed, if it is actually started. Because it is so expensive to build and operate they must design these facilities for a large volume of processing to break even within three years, the typical goal time.

The large processing capacity means bigger volumes of waste, more waste water, more resources, higher costs of construction, a bigger work force, lower quality jobs, higher line speeds, more animal abuse, more work injuries, unions and all sorts of negatives for society. It’s a feedback loop that spirals upward in costs and downward in results. Often it just doesn’t happen because the project is too big and the participants give up.

At the top of the line you have the mega-processors like Tyson, Cargil and Smithfield who process hundreds of thousands of animals a day. The USDA defines three types of processors: the big guys, small scale and very small scale processors. The latter do much more limited volumes. Individuals and small farmers like you and I deal with the smallest of the very small scale processors. That is all that we have here in New England.

Unfortunately all of the reports I’ve read by study groups focus on creating much larger regional processors which means there would still be large amounts of trucking of livestock, high impact on neighbors and poor food security. If one regional processor fails, like the recent fires or humane animal handling issue here in Vermont, it affects a lot of farmers who are all of a sudden scrambling to find unavailable processing slots in the over booked schedules of the remaining butchers. No, we don’t need another big processor – we need many small local butchers serving the community around them or even their own farms.

We need to think a lot simpler. Think small. Think very small. Think nano-scale. Think just enough capacity to process for a few farms. If everything is kept on-farm then the offal, the waste materials from slaughter, can be composted returning the nutrients to the soil. The waste water shrinks down to a small, manageable septic system. There is no transporting of large numbers of animals onto the site. No holding animals in large stockyards as they wait for slaughter. Everything gets simpler and exists on a more easily managed scale. This is what the very small scale traditional neighborhood butcher shops of yor were like. What we need is a new definition: nano-scale processors who do just for their own on-farm slaughter or a small number of farms around them. Their needs are different than even the very small scale processors. Our butcher shop is ~1,300 square-feet. That’s smaller than a single room in most very small scale meat processing plants. With good design it all fits and allows for future expansion.


Forms Up for Pouring Concrete – South West Corner by Lairage

We can do it better, faster and less expensively for a number of reasons:

  • We have the advantage of a wealth of accessible information now on the internet.**
  • Our need is small since we process weekly for immediate delivery.
  • Our facility is small, about the size of one room of many facilities I’ve seen.
  • There are just the three of us plus an inspector so we don’t need as much room.
  • One species (pigs) rather than half a dozen different animals to start with.
  • Initially just for our farm (simplified permitting, insurance, regulations and biosecurity for our herd).
  • Just one day of slaughter a week on a different day than meat cutting.
  • We work temporally sequenced giving better food safety and sanitation.
  • We are a tightly knit working group.
  • We are able to be flexible, adjusting to work with the weather and other resources.
  • Small steps at a time (HACCPs for just slaughter and cutting to start with).
  • Construction on an existing foundation which saves on permit requirements.
  • Construction techniques we know from building our house and other structures in concrete.
  • Labor is the biggest part of the cost of construction – we do our own.
  • Labor is the biggest part of the cost of processing – we do our own.
  • Since I am the designer, architech, plumber, electrician, user and owner, I have have insights into efficiency that other people would miss. We can build a better facility by integrating all of these disciplines.
  • I have designed and built two manufacturing facilities before so I do have a little experience in the general topic.

Simplifying the problem and focusing on only the parts that we need now breaks the project into more easily managed parts. We are starting with slaughter and butchering. Later we will add roaster pigs, sausage making, linking, curing, smoking and other aspects. For now we are focused tightly on just what we need to meet the demands of our roughly two dozen existing customers on our local weekly delivery route.


Butcher Shop Slab Inside of Forms

To answer some obvious questions, yes, the butcher shop is designed to:

  • Handle beef, sheep, goats, etc with an aging room.
  • Refrigeration, kitchen, and other spaces can be expanded.
  • Processing of off-farm animals could be added.

I would rather not go there, particularly the last one, but planning for the future and eventualities is important. Permitting, insurance, composting, disease control and a whole lot of other issues are greatly simplified by focusing on just on-farm processing so that is how we’ll try to keep it.

“What about Mobile Processing!?!” hear someone yell from the wings. It is a nice idea. We looked into it. Some places have done this successfully. There are some issues that make it not work for our situation:

  • We need reliable weekly slaughter. Every week. Mobile slaughter is more of an occasional tool.
  • A mobile slaughter unit will have the same scheduling problem as hired slaughter does now, perhaps worse.
  • Our farm is up on a mountain on a back road that is not passable by the big mobile slaughter trucks during much of the year either due to mud seasons or snow and ice. Our van can make it as can other small vehicles but not a tractor trailer truck on bad days and there are a lot of those.
  • The mobile slaughter units only resolve the slaughter end of the problem, not butchering and it is in the butchering where most of the cost, errors and waste occures.
  • The cost of mobile slaughter is actually higher than existing plants.
  • There are no mobile red meat slaughter units around here.
  • A mobile slaughter unit still requires the well, septic and electric we had to do anyways for our butcher shop so those costs are incurred either way.
  • We still need a cooler and freezer to store
  • Building a mobile slaughter unit costs almost as much as what we’re doing.

So mobile slaughter just isn’t a good fit for our farm. In flatter country with more mild weather it may work well for other farms. Different solutions for different problems.


Holly Setting Walers on North Wall

Where:
At the foot of our driveway by the road because that is the location of the old foundation.*** Eliminating transport is key. This way the animals can walk and are always in familiar surroundings with familiar people – us. They will follow a migration pattern through their lives across our farm from the breeder herd pastures to the maternity pastures to weaning pastures, growing pastures and finally finishing pastures which lead them right to the lairage. Each of our three herds, north, south and east (to come), will be able able to work in this manner. This makes for a minimum of stress and easy transitions as they go through their six months of growth. It raises humane farming to a higher level, to the level we had in the old days when animals did spend their entire lives on the farm and were not trucked to far off feed lots and slaughterhouses. This pattern of life will use the advantages of managed intensive grazing and all-in-all-out livestock management all built into the farm as a system.

But wait, the cycle is not complete. Death is not the end but merely part of the rotation of the wheel of life. At almost all slaughterhouses the offal, the guts with no glory, are picked up by a renderer or disposed of in a landfill. Now a days it is more of the latter since in recent years the renderers have been vanishing. This is a terrible waste of resources, of organic matter that should be recycled back to the soil on the farm from which it came. Because we are on-farm, we will be able to take the offal from the slaughter and butchering, carry it out the back door to the compost bins beyond the lairage and turn it into black gold. After a year or less those nutrients will be available for fertilizing apple trees, pumpkins, sunflowers and other plants on our farm, returning the nutrients to the soil and completing the cycle of life.****

A key permitting issue is on-farm vs off-farm sources. If you are bringing in animals from off the farm it can quickly change you from a farming activity to industrial, and the permitting gets more complex. By doing only our own livestock we are classified as agricultural. Importantly this means we can compost all of the offal, recapturing those valuable nutrients, saving the cost of rendering as well as not being required to have a huge, unnecessary, expensive waste processing plant. After all, there isn’t the waste to be processed – it is a resource. A simpler, better greener solution.


Kavi and Molly Surveying Butcher Shop Work Site

When: (Note that this is a working time line with updates…)

  • 2004 I began researching how to do our own on-farm slaughter and butchering. I incidentally ran across NAIS. Those dang windmills just beg for tilting.
  • 2004-2008 Worked with many other folks on poultry on-farm slaughter exceptions and clarifications[1, 2, 3, 4] here in Vermont. This doesn’t actually help us because we need interstate transport for our hot dogs to the smokehouse in Massachusetts and we need USDA/State inspection for wholesale sales to stores and restaurants but it is a very important stepping stone towards how society should be.*****
  • April 2008 the processor we take to weekly announced he is considering stopping processing livestock and wants to sell his slaughterhouse. Offers it to us but we don’t want to buy – too distant, too many employees, too high a volume, old physical plant in need of too much repairs, down in river flood plain. I call the VT Dept of Ag and discover that another butcher is retiring too. As the great Douglas Addams wrote, “Don’t panic…”
  • May of 2008 we met with the Vermont Department of Agriculture Meat Inspection department heads. They have been most helpful and encouraging as has the USDA regional office and inspectors. Over the course of many meetings, phone calls and emails they have assisted us with our HACCP/PR (food safety) plans, floor layout, plant design, regulations and code issues. Over the course of the next year our plant layout, HACCP and SSOP evolve.
  • June 2008 began taking commercial meat cutting classes and apprenticing with a local master butcher after attending a workshop with the NH Pork Producers. Apprenticeship continues to this day.
  • Winter 2008/2009 completed our HACCP training and basic PR/HACCP plans. Final approval of plans will be after the plant is in concrete. Doing the plans first, while designing the layout, helps make sure both the plans and the plant layout work smoothly together.
  • June 2009 completed all of the permitting for our project and have in hand the approved design for our wastewater (septic) system. Offal will be composted separately to recover nutrients.
  • July 2009 tore down the old hay shed where we will be building our facility.
  • August 2009 installed new underground electric and improved the road access for the facility.
  • September 2009 completed the concrete pours of the super insulating foundation and pad for the refrigerated sections, slaughterhouse and administrative space. By putting so much insulation into the slab now we will save a great deal of money over the years through reduced energy costs.
  • October 2009 poured lairage and west side retaining concrete walls.
  • November 15th, 2009 Outside wall forms up for structural walls, inner wall bases for administration, lairage and reefer completed.
  • October 2010 Setup forms for 2010 concrete fall pour.
  • November 2nd, 2010 Pour 2nd level of concrete walls for entire building plus lairage sub-floor.
  • May 1st, 2011 – Spring ice has melted from forms, snows are finally (mostly) gone and we have begun taking down the reefer inside forms.
  • Summer 2011 – Reefer interior slab and plumbing completed, lairage sub-floor and plumbing poured.
  • Fall 2011 – Reefer interior walls and vaulted ceilings poured in concrete.
  • 2012 – More wall pouring
  • 2013 – Inner shells
  • 2014 – Roof
  • 2015 – Interior of Phase I Admin iCutter finished, licensed.
  • Later…
    • Walk-in Coolers
    • Initial Smokehouse
    • Final Cutter
    • Final Smokehouse
    • Abattoir for Slaughter
    • Charcuterie

201001 Update: Without bank funding and with winter closing in our schedule ground to a halt as the freezing weather and high winds arrived. For now we wait on the snows. Come late spring when things are melted and the ground has solidified enough for the road to be safe for big concrete trucks we’ll continue with pouring concrete, closing in and onward to our own on-farm processing.

20151009 Update: Today we received our license to begin butchering under inspection!


Ben and Hope with Home Built Teeter-Totter along 12′ Wall Forms

Funding:
Aye, there’s the rub. By standard formulas a meat processing facility costs $2.4 million dollars to build. They’re thinking too big. Doing it our way we can build and equip a nano-scale butcher shop for about $150,000. That is doable and will pay back in under five years compared with the cost of hired processing. This brings us to the inescapable conclusion that the problems are often one of scale. Think small, think very small and think local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

One thing that helps with the cost is we already own the land saving that considerable expense. To date we have spent about $26,000 of our own money bootstrapping our project from the base foundation up. This covers our septic design, permitting, wood for forms, concrete, insulation, rebar and other construction materials. This, of course, does not include any charge for our labor but this is a farm and farmers don’t get salaries or hourly wages – we get the satisfaction of working outdoors in the beautiful country weather. Preferably before the snow hits the concrete.

In addition to what we have personally spent we have recently received loans from another local farmer, an excavator, lumber yard and electric supply company for $22,000 in the form of cash, services of big equipment and extended payment terms on supplies. All greatly appreciated. Every little bit helps make the project become a reality.

Another source of funding is that several existing customers have bought CSA style pre-buys. In essense people pre-buy a pig, paying now to help with financing the butcher shop. In exchange we are offering free processing which normally costs about $180. Community Supported Agriculture at its best. We are offering this for whole, half and quarter pigs – I’ll post more details soon.


Getting the butcher shop up and running is a big push for us. Rest assured that while we are growing our farm some, we are still the same small family farm that cares about the lives of the animals in our hands. The on-farm slaughter and the butcher shop will make everything just that much better, for all the right reasons.

Outdoors: 47°F/25°F Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 64°F/58°F

*When Holly asked our 17 year old son Will the other night what he wants for Christmas he replied, “To build the butcher shop.” Holly asked, “No, really?” and Will responded, “Yes, really.”

**There is a wealth of information available on the internet, through third parties, the USDA and the Vermont Department of Agriculture. There are many helpful people in these agencies, at universities and quite a few butchers who are generous with sharing their time and knowledge. The digital age has made this easier than ever before – wheels don’t have to get reinvented as frequently and designs can be improved by looking at other people’s work more quickly. Even the USDA’s videos about Listeria are wonderfully revealing about plant design through careful observation of what is behind the scenes in the shots. In future posts I’ll provide lists of available resources that goes beyond the links in this article.

***One of the key issues I discovered in permitting was the government doesn’t like people “breaking new ground.” If we are building on an existing foundation then it makes the whole permitting process simpler. The take home lesson is read the regulations and understand why they were written.

****Compost is the way to go – the ultimate in recycling. Ironically the original reason we got livestock decades ago was to get the high quality fertilizer from their manure for our gardens. Over the past few years I’ve been practicing composting large animals so I’ve gotten a chance to explore this. Interestingly, while some places ban composting, other states like Vermont and New York strongly encourage it as the best solution for farm mortalities and slaughter wastes. We’re all a part of the natural world, part of the web of life. We eat and we all shall be eaten in our time, unless you go for extra crispy (cremation) or pickled (embalming) which are terrible wastes of nutrients and energy. When my time comes I want to be composted and spread on my apple trees, strawberries and rhubarb.

*****Inspection is not a one size fits all bed sheet. There should be and there are multiple levels of inspection vs non-inspection and people should be allowed to choose the risks they take. This is improving recently with more awareness of the differences between Big Ag and small farms where people are closer to the producer. The closer you are to the source the more the government should stay out of your way. This is the same as the whole raw milk argument. Personally, I don’t drink raw milk from other sources but if someone wants to they should be allowed to. I do love some cheeses that are made from raw milk. It comes down to personal liberties and rights to risk. Darwinism and Evolution are things I strongly believe in. Along with risk taking goes a responsibility, transparency and honesty. Government should not come between consenting adults, in the bedroom or in the kitchen. Yadda, yadda, yadda…

Update 2011-03-01: Master butcher Cole Ward has released a set of DVDs containing four hours of cutting instructions for beef, lamb and pork. Check it out!

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About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor…

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92 Responses to Butcher Shop at Sugar Mtn

  1. Anonymous says:

    WOW!

    I'm blown away by the link to the HSUS overview…

    More people need to read about that, just like more people need to educate themselves on NAIS.

    Glad you're working for "the little guy" rather than big agribiz. :)

  2. Mary says:

    I feel like I'm in the midst of "It's a Wonderful Life"!!!

    My thoughts on fundraising:
    1. Freelance butchering for hunters (not on farm premises. I'm from the city so I have no idea if this is feasible).
    2. Offer farm visits in return for donations (you could even organize one big day in June for a big pig-roast/farm tour and get people there one one day (could people camp out in one of your pastures?)
    3. Hope and family could make christmas gifts for donations (like public radio). A Christmas ornament for $10 (plus shipping), a cake (she bakes, right?) for $20. . . lots of small donations add up fast. . .
    4. A Butcher Shop "wall of fame" for donors.
    5. "LIFETIME SUPPLY" of pork for REALLY BIG donors. (say, 20 pigs over the next 20 years for donations above $3000 dollars? (Again, no idea about feasibility)
    6. People have often offered to buy your photos, but a collection of your best together and let people order
    7. That's all I can think of right now.

    Did I read in this big long blog that you and your family are without healthcare?? As a medical student who has seen pictures of what you guys are up to, I find this concerning! Surely there's an old family doc up there who would barter for services?

    Good luck with everything, it's been wonderful to watch the dream unfold.

  3. Amy says:

    Up until now I've been lurker on this site but I want to say I admire you for what you're doing. I'm a vegetarian myself (mostly due to a stomach disorder) but I don't begrudge the people who want their meat. I just wish there were more people like you who care about humane handling of their livestock and the quality of the product they give to their customers. Best of luck with the project and I'm sure you'll keep us all up to date on how it goes.

  4. Bill says:

    Walter, thank you for your thorough answer on your killing methods. It must be hard to do, but I think it really is a mercy. To die while unafraid and in good health is something is good fortune that humans can't expect.

    I see all the concrete you are using and I worry about the huge amount of resources that goes into making concrete, but otherwise it seems that you are producing by growing, not by exploiting and that must be very satisfying.

  5. Amy,

    I understand where you're coming from. Holly and I have both been vegetarians at various times over the years either for economic reasons, social reasons (who we were living with), ethic reasons (not liking CAFOs and all they entail) and health reasons (who wants to eat all those pesticides and other chemicals?!?).

    One of the reasons we started raising livestock years ago was to get quality manure for our gardens – we grow most of our own veggies. Another reason was to provide meat for ourselves and our growing children. We discovered that we were good at it, especially the pigs and thus we came to where we are today.

    How the animals are raised, keeping it humane for their entire lives, is very important to me. For me, I must be willing to kill and do it well if I am to eat meat. I don't require that of other people, for example Holly doesn't participate in the slaughter. That is just how I feel it should be for myself. Each person needs to discover their own boundaries and level of involvement that they are comfortable with.

    Cheers,

    -Walter

  6. Mary,

    I like some of your ideas including the Butcher Shop "wall of fame". I'm working on the CSA Pre-Buy program right now. Details to follow soon…

    On the medical care, I am fortunate to have grown up with two family doctors for parents as did Holly so we have a lot of that instilled in us. Also my sister is a family physician now.

    The reason we lost our coverage back in the 1990's is that Vermont banned most insurers which resulted in the cost of health insurance shooting through the roof. Since I paid my own I couldn't pass along the expense. When it surpassed the possible benefits and more than half our income we had to drop it.

    Our kids are now covered by Dr. Dynosaur which is a children's health care program in Vermont, much like the Universal Health Care that we may see nationally. It has been interesting to watch that debate.

    On the one hand I'm always leery of government involvement in things. However they have gotten some things right like the interstate Highway System. Will they make medicine better or worse? It's pretty bad as it is so that means there is room for improvement, lots of room. There's also room for screwing it up. What I do find strange is that we're willing to spend $400 Billion a year on a war in Iraq, $1,000 Billion bailing out bankers and such, billions more bailing out the automakers, airlines, etc but they're squawking at spending a measly $120 billion to make sure everyone has health care. I guess they figure it is better to kill than to cure.

    So, I don't know how I feel about National Health Care. I'm just watching. But that is a whole other discussion and we should not go into it too deeply here.

  7. Mary,

    I like some of your ideas including the Butcher Shop "wall of fame". I'm working on the CSA Pre-Buy program right now. Details to follow soon…

    On the medical care, I am fortunate to have grown up with two family doctors for parents as did Holly so we have a lot of that instilled in us. Also my sister is a family physician now.

    The reason we lost our coverage back in the 1990's is that Vermont banned most insurers which resulted in the cost of health insurance shooting through the roof. Since I paid my own I couldn't pass along the expense. When it surpassed the possible benefits and more than half our income we had to drop it.

    Our kids are now covered by Dr. Dynosaur which is a children's health care program in Vermont, much like the Universal Health Care that we may see nationally. It has been interesting to watch that debate.

    On the one hand I'm always leery of government involvement in things. However they have gotten some things right like the interstate Highway System. Will they make medicine better or worse? It's pretty bad as it is so that means there is room for improvement, lots of room. There's also room for screwing it up. What I do find strange is that we're willing to spend $400 Billion a year on a war in Iraq, $1,000 Billion bailing out bankers and such, billions more bailing out the automakers, airlines, etc but they're squawking at spending a measly $120 billion to make sure everyone has health care. I guess they figure it is better to kill than to cure.

    So, I don't know how I feel about National Health Care. I'm just watching. But that is a whole other discussion and we should not go into it too deeply here.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I love your idea of free processing to help pay for the BIG PROJECT! I wish I lived close enough to take advantage of this and to help. I am curious as to what the processing costs around your region? Here in WA it is about $270 a pig IF you can get it done which is very hard and even then it is probably not resaleable meat just for home consumption. We wanted to raise some extra pigs and chickens to sell but the processing kills the deal.

  9. Bill,

    The resource use of concrete is an interesting equation.

    The first problem with this myth is that they confuse “cement” with “concrete”. Cement is the binding agent that takes a lot of energy to produce. Concrete is mostly sand and stone with a little cement in it to bind them together. By confusing the two together they create a myth that concrete is expensive. The reality is concrete is mostly a local material made from local stone and sand. This would be akin to saying that wooden houses are energy intensive because it takes a lot of energy to make nails.

    Secondly, in all of the discussion I have seen they completely fail to take into account that concrete, masonry and stone last essentially forever compared with construction with wood. Concrete won't rot or burn down. We built it once. Its thermal mass soaks up energy and then tempers the thermal cycle of the year which saves further energy and resources. After thinking about it for years I came to the conclusion that it was the best material to build with.

    This is a bit ironic that I have chosen not to build with wood because I own millions of trees – yes, literally millions. You see, we do sustainable forestry – the other half of our farm and what paid for our land to a large degree. The sustainable forestry is what has allowed us to protect such a large tract of land from development.

    In our tiny cottage at least some of the stone came from our land. I like that. Eventually on the cottage, and maybe the butcher shop too, we'll do an outer wall of stone from our land. A project for another year.

    Cheers,

    -Walter

  10. Eagle Bridge says:

    Congratulations and best wishes! Can relate. We just obtained out USDA approval for the addition of a slaughterhouse to our processing operation. Would be happy to share information and swap ideas if you are interested.

  11. Anonymous, processing costs vary greatly with region, processor and what they offer. I figure that with travel, slaughter, butchering and smoking the cost per pig is about $276 for USDA inspected vacuum packaged with our label. That is about 43% of the cost of a pig. But that varies with which processor we can get time with. This variance and lack of dependable slaughter is a big driving force for why we want to have our own butcher shop.

  12. Chris Raines says:

    Hi, Walter. Building this facility is a tremendous undertaking and my hat's off to you. Had a question about your floor layout — It seems the only exit from raw processing is through RTE or through the hotbox, both of which could lead to some sort of cross contamination. Is the design flexible enough to allow for ingress/egress w/o traipsing through the RTE room?

  13. Chris,

    In addition to separating activities in space we also separate them in time which prevents cross contamination. Essentially, we will do one component of the work per day.

    Cheers,

    -Walter

  14. Anonymous says:

    Hay walter! I saw this article http://www.rutlandherald.com/article/20090307/NEWS02/903070343/0/NEWS01 in the neswpaper about a new vermont sloughter house that got a $600 thousand grant. That is three times what you said it will take to build your place. What have you gotten for grants from the state or federal governments?

    Jake

  15. Hi Jake,

    The simple answer is "No, we've not gotten any grants." That we should be so lucky. I do wish the Westminster people the best of luck. We desperately need more butcher shops.

    I posted a longer answer over on the funding post.

    Cheers,

    -Walter

  16. On Dec 22, 2009, at 11:25 AM, Todd wrote:
    I am looking at trying to sell Value added Pork Products to Groceries and Restaurants but have hit a road block here in Washington State. I have not been able to find a processor that can brine and smoke USDA approved for resale. What is the deal with that?

    Each process is a HACCP/PR which is a set of plans and paperwork. There are links above about HACCP and other things. Check them out for details.

    For example, slaughter is one HACCP/PR for each species. That is there is one for swine, one for cattle, one for sheep, each is different.

    Cutting and deboning is another HACCP/PR.

    Grinding is another HACCP/PR.

    Curing, smoking, etc are additional HACCPs.

    The actual process of making the sausage may not be hard, but jumping through all the hoops to document that it is done safely is a lot of work. For the processor to do a new HACCP is a lot of effort and cost. They have to anticipate a payback of a lot of business for that to make it worth it. If they're already working at 100% or more just on their existing business they are not likely to want to add a new complicated process.

    Cheers,

    -Walter

  17. Amy says:

    Have been following along…have a few questions if you don't mind.

    Is your "carcass chiller" actually the hot box and the "aging cooler" actually the chill cooler?

    How do the carcasses get from the "aging cooler" to the processing room? Do they go back through the "carcass chiller"?

    How long will you be aging the pork carcasses?

    Where will you hold your kill floor waste?

    Do you have a holding pond as typically kill floor waste is not allowed into septic systems?

    Is your processing room refrigerated? What is the target temperature?

    How are you dealing with condensation?

    Thank you.

  18. Amy,

    Most of those questions are addressed above already so I won't repeat the answers and I'll be posting later with more details. The floor layout is color coded by temperature – that may help you understand it.

    Cheers,

    -Walter

  19. Note that the USDA and State Dept of Agriculture do not approve floor layouts or plans ahead of time. Once the facility is built then they come and inspect it to make sure that it meets the requirements. Our plans above are not "USDA approved" plans. That is a design, subject to modification. The final design will undoubtedly have changes.

  20. Willow says:

    Walter,
    I noted that you said you plan to use the offal and unsalables from processing for compost. Have you considered using these "waste" products for another purpose? Many people feed thier dogs and/or cats a raw diet. The sources for reasonably priced green tripe, kidneys, hearts, meat with bone, etc. are very limited. I believe offering these items for sale to the raw feeding public would be of a great benefit to you and peoples animals.

  21. The offal we'll compost is what ever we can't sell and our dogs & chickens don't want to eat. Primarily that is the guts. We sell as much as possible from each pig. Waste not, want not.

  22. I love what you're doing to create a sustainable farm/meat business. Your story reminds me of the old engineering adage – good, fast, cheap, choose any two. I'll take good & cheap any day. What's curious is why the food industry at large has chosen otherwise.

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  24. Walter,

    I enjoyed reading about your progress on this facility. It all sounds like a lot of work, but very exciting. Speaking with another farmer in Texas I understand the problem of small processors shutting down or going out of business. It seems endemic.

    I’m curious to know how your facility will manage to retain an inspector. I understand from some reading that small USDA inspected processing facilities have been constructed, but were subsequently forced to shut down due to the fact that the USDA deemed the volume to low to allow them to retain an inspector. Have you heard anything about this, and if so what is your take on it?

    Thanks.
    Steve

    • Hi Steve,

      I have heard of that problem. Virtually all the reports stem from Texas. It was explained to me by someone that in areas where they have big plants that is what they focus on and the small plants suffer. In contrast, in areas like New England where very plant is small or very small the USDA inspection service focuses on the needs of the smaller plants. We’ll start with state inspection, get that all smooth, and then we’ll apply for USDA inspection. That was the route recommended both by the USDA and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. Both have been very helpf, meeting with us and going over our plans many times over the past two years. The USDA has a tremendous amount of information available on the web, as books, DVDs and VHS videos for people interested in starting their own butcher shop. See the USDA Small and Very Small Plant web site for details.

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  30. Kate says:

    Hi Walter,
    Thanks so much for making your venture accessible to the public… It is because of people like you that progress in sustainable farming and homesteading can be made.
    A question for you- You’ve stated that your 1,300sqft facility will cost you approximately $150,000 for both the building and equipping of the shop. Could you off-hand provide me with a breakdown of that figure? I’m interested to know how much investment is needed in building supplies versus processing equipment/tools.
    Another question, if you don’t mind- Does the USDA provide any literature about space requirements associated with maximum animal capacity for the facility, and if so could you share the link? Thanks again for your efforts!
    -Kate, Woodstock VT

  31. Winny Loihio says:

    I am so amazed by what you and your family do. You are really take the bull by the horns people. You don’t gripe about the problem but wresle it to the ground, break it apart, and make a solution. Good going Jeffries people!

  32. Brandy says:

    Lovely blog. I love that you are actually doing something about things rather than all these people who just complain. I hope you succeed! Merry christmas!

  33. Norra says:

    What a fantastic project! You should go to kick starter on the web for funding. I just heard the other day on the radio about a kick starter project that raised over a million dollars. I live far from you but if you kick start I’m all ready to donate! Your project is perfect.

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  35. Anna Emerson says:

    Bravo on your progress! I’m looking forward to eating pork from your farm that was onfarm slaughtered!

  36. Chris says:

    Hi Walter,

    I’m curious of the gains you expect to realize when your butcher shop comes online. Aside from the security of knowing you’ll always have a butcher, you’ll also be able to keep the butchering/smoking/brining/sausage labor costs for yourself. Do you anticipate the added labor will affect your volume? If so is there a desired outcome. What I’m trying to understand is if there is an offsetting incentive to performing more of the value added work yourself. Is the goal just to add a new revenue stream by capturing more of the production chain, or is it an attempt to perhaps scale back on volume by earning more per pig.

    I’m interested in potentially starting a pig enterprise and I’m really interested in your thought process. Particularly how you balance breadth (volume) and depth (value added). My plan is to start small, just a few pigs for family and friends, for a while. Initially, I was very interested in the value added side of the business, but after lurking around your site for a while, I’m inspired to attempt a more robust operation.

    Thanks,
    Chris

    • About 80% or so of the cost of processing will be saved by our doing it ourselves. That is to say, we’ll be the labor which is the highest part of the cost. We’ll be able to put that savings towards paying off the loans to individuals who’ve helped us with funding the butcher shop. Then in five years I expect that extra savings to bring our earnings percentage backup.

      Once we have our own processing we’ll be able to do things like rendered lard, specialty sausages and cuts we can’t do right now. That will help us use the pig from nose-to-tail.

      The value added processing of sausage and smoking are actually far more expensive per pound and almost as expensive per pig. Bringing those on-farm will make a big savings in our processing budget in addition to giving us more options for variety.

      In terms of the labor, an important thing that most people don’t realize is that we spend almost as much time right now dealing with processing (loading, transporting pigs, sorting meat, transporting meat back) as it would take for us to do the processing ourselves. Having our own on-farm butcher shop will save Holly over a day of her life every week and save all the rest of us time too. That time we can use for doing the processing ourselves. Currently, after we load pigs the evening before, Holly gets up at 2 am, leaves at 3 am and drives down to Massachusetts every week to deliver pigs and pickup meat. The several hours she spends sorting meat down there each week will be incorporated right into our processing as she’ll sort right into customer’s boxes. Then she drives back and gets home between 7 pm and 10 pm. It’s a long day for her and we look forward to her not having to make that drive.

      Our labor will go up some by doing it ourselves but not nearly as much as might be expected since we’ll be replacing tasks we currently have to do to get ready and work with the hired processor. We also have distinct ideas about how much work we wish to do. We plan to not do more than an average of around ten cutter pigs plus some roaster pigs and eventually a few sheep, goats and one beef per week. There will be seasonal surges of course – that’s just an average. This does mean a gradual scaling upward from where we are in our pig count per week.

      Our goal is to capture more of the costs on-farm which keeps the money here as well as providing jobs for our family. By doing value added we will gain far more than we can by simply doing more animals or doing processing for other people.

      To answer the Breadth-Volume vs Depth-ValueAdded question we’re looking to do a mix of both but not to increase our volume so much that it becomes a chore. Your plan to start small is wise. I’m a firm believer in slow growth. Feel your way into it because you’ll learn a tremendous amount in your first decade.

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