Written by Caroline Abels
Ironically, given that it’s the only slaughterhouse in Vermont with public viewing windows, the new Vermont Packinghouse doesn’t have a single window on the outside, save on the front door of the main office. I peered through that office window when I visited the newly opened meat plant last fall, looking for managing partner Arion Thiboumery, but all I spotted were a couple of desks strewn with files.
A few back issues of Meatpaper, the now-defunct Bay Area magazine for meat-loving hipsters, lay on a side table in the office, indicating this wasn’t your traditional Vermont slaughterhouse—the kind worked by old-time Vermonters for whom animal fabrication has been such a longstanding part of life that who needs a magazine about it?
The office door was locked, so to find Arion I circled the entire building, which is located in a light industrial park in North Springfield. The dull, massive structure, painted a pallid gray, looks more like a Soviet-era apartment complex than a meat packing plant—you’d never know that Ben & Jerry’s Peace Pops were once made there. Around the back, I eventually found an unlocked door and stumbled into a small room next to the slaughtering area—an area that in most meat plants is quite off-limits to visitors.
I spotted a sanitation worker who offered to find Arion. Eventually the 33-year-old managing partner of the plant came by, wearing bright yellow muck boots and a hair net. Arion makes up in charm for what the building lacks of it, and after greeting me cheerfully he took me on a tour of the plant and showed me what might be its most unique feature: the public viewing windows.
“The mood was sober and respectful, but stopped short of being either sad or sentimental.”
This is how a Minneapolis blogger described her 2010 visit to what is possibly the only other slaughterhouse in America with “glass walls”—Lorentz Meats in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. She wrote online that during her group’s guided visit, “Most of the tour-goers were impressed with Lorentz’s dedication to both humane animal treatment and clean, safe food, and told our tour leader so as they left the room.”
One person, she went on to write, was visibly shaken by seeing activity on the kill floor, but others were parents who brought their children along, “clearly intending for them to learn the whole story of where their food comes from.”
It’s no coincidence that Lorentz Meats and Vermont Packinghouse could be the only meat plants in America with viewing windows (and there could be more; as Arion says, “I can’t imagine there aren’t other people out there who have thought this was a good idea.”) Vermont Packinghouse is co-owned by Lorentz Meats, and Arion, the other co-owner (and the plant’s “jack-of-all-trades”), worked at the Minnesota meat company for five years and became its vice president before moving to Vermont to launch the Packinghouse.
Located southeast of Minneapolis, Lorentz offers a full slate of services, just as Vermont Packinghouse does, from slaughtering to sausage production. It’s lauded for being a state-of-the-art facility that helps medium-size meat producers break into larger markets (think Price Chopper, Whole Foods).
When Lorentz staff was invited to Vermont in 2012 to give feedback on the state’s meat plants, they ended up meeting the leadership team at Black River Produce, a Springfield-based local food distribution company that, at the time, was developing its own line of New England-raised meats (now called Black River Meats). According to Sean Buchanan, president of Black River Produce, the Lorentz folks convinced Black River of the need for its own slaughter and butchering facility if it wanted to provide consistent fresh products to grocery stores. Getting a high volume of meat processed at half-a-dozen existing Vermont slaughterhouses would introduce too many variables.
Seeing an opportunity to expand its vision and ideals beyond Minnesota, Lorentz struck a deal with Black River whereby Lorentz’s new Vermont Packinghouse would lease, for 10 years, a portion of the renovated building, which Black River owns. With the $9-million project now off the ground, and a staff of 24 currently working there, the Packinghouse processes for Black River Meats, while also offering slaughtering and butchering services to local farmers who raise cows, pigs, lambs, and goats.
Uber-transparency is the norm at both the Vermont and the Minnesota facilities because the owners are serving customers of the 21st century local food movement, who expect openness about all facets of food production. Other Vermont slaughterhouses are open about their practices, too—they just don’t have windows. “In a lot of the older plants in Vermont it would be hard to make a structural change like that,” says Chelsea Bardot Lewis, business development administrator at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. But she adds that a number of local slaughterhouses would not turn away someone with a genuine interest in seeing their process.
Arion, for his part, used to be a self-described “do-gooder academic type,” having earned a PhD in rural sociology and sustainable agriculture with a minor in meat science, but he turned to more hands-on projects at Lorentz because, “At the end of the day, if new food systems are going to happen, people have to come in and run businesses.”
Especially businesses like slaughterhouses. They’re desperately needed by small-scale livestock farmers, but they’re the least understood and least attractive of places to the average local food consumer.
According to interviews conducted for a 2014 Vermont report on consumer valuation of meat processing, a handful of local meat professionals agreed that “consumers don’t want to think about the slaughterhouse, regardless of whether it is local or not,” and they’re definitely not interested in the details of animal processing.
But for those who want to observe it—an act that can require courage and vulnerability, but that can ultimately spark greater respect for animals, for meat, and for meat industry workers—Vermont Packinghouse quietly offers the opportunity, and with some degree of pride. Says Arion: “This is a clean facility, we’ve got good animal handling, and we’re committed to having people come here…. It’s not like were running some shady operation.”
Read more at Vermont's Local Banquet.