It is critical to support Vermont’s slaughter and processing industries in order for Vermont’s 3,6001 livestock and 256 poultry producers to meet consumer demand in local and regional markets. Slaughter, processing, and farm production of livestock for meat are interdependent. For example, unless processing services are expanded, slaughter capacity will not be maximized, and producers can’t maintain or expand their operations, or capitalize on value-added products. Job growth over multiple sectors will be hindered without industry expansion, but additional workforce training is needed to develop the highly skilled employees who could support industry growth. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed weaknesses in the national meat supply chain that may open up additional regional market opportunities for the Vermont meat industry.
Vermont has 170 commercial operations offering slaughter, processing, wholesale distribution for livestock products, and animal food manufacturing, as well as 1,700 retail outlets (for a more in-depth look at poultry processing, see Poultry brief). Vermont-inspected and USDA-inspected facilities process carcasses into primal cuts or individually labeled packages for wholesalers and retailers (including small farms). Wholesale distributors market these cuts to retail outlets (e.g., restaurants, grocery stores). Shipping carcasses or primal cuts to retailers which have cutting operations increases the efficiency of the inspected facilities. Vermont regulations restrict specialty processes such as curing and smoking at the retail level, however, Vermont developed a variance program in which documentation addressing food safety hazards allows for a regulatory waiver, increasing market opportunities for these products.
Since 2005, overall meat slaughter and processing facilities have gradually expanded, and quality has improved, but more work is needed. New facilities in Lyndonville and Springfield are offering services that had been extremely limited across the state (e.g., curing, smoking, cooking). Expansion of the goat dairy industry, and rising demand for sheep and goat meat, increases the need for small ruminant slaughter, but most slaughter facilities concentrate on beef and pork due to better profit margins and higher demand. As expansion occurs, skilled workers are at a premium. Limited available technical training, working conditions, occupational hazards, knife skills, wages, and physical demands make it difficult to find and keep skilled help.
Higher costs associated with small-scale livestock raising, slaughter, and processing make it difficult to find lucrative markets within Vermont. Recent legislative changes exempting on-farm slaughter from inspection were intended to assist small farmers. When livestock is pre-sold to consumers, then on-farm slaughter is allowed, but the practice has had limited growth.
Consumer demand for locally produced meats rose during the COVID-19 pandemic, due in part to fear of food shortages, news of closures at national plants, and food safety concerns. Most commercial slaughter and processing facilities now operate at full capacity and wait times for additional processing slots can be several months. This can inhibit producers at all scales from meeting the growing consumer demand for their meat.