Southern Vermont will get its first USDA-approved slaughterhouse

05/18/09 10:27AM By Susan Keese
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(Host) The state's southern tier will soon have a full service, USDA-approved, commercial slaughterhouse for the first time in well over a decade. The town of Westminster has won a major grant to help launch the facility.

That's good news for the region's farmers, and for the growing number of consumers looking for locally produced meat.

VPR's Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) Dan Mandich is walking a meat business veteran through the building that will soon become Westminster Meats.

(Nichols) "And do you have an ultraviolet system?"

(Mandich) "No, but I'm going to put that in."

(Keese) His visitor, former slaughter house operator Jeff Nichols, says the 20,000-square-foot building was made to house a state-of the-art slaughterhouse and meat processing plant.

In fact, the building was a slaughterhouse that closed in the late 1970s. Mandich bought it in 1996. He ran a seafood wholesale business out of it until a few years ago, when he sold the company, but not the building, to another wholesaler.

Mandich says he never expected run a slaughterhouse.

(Mandich) "There was such a need that I just saw a good opportunity here to start up a business. Not many businesses you find today that there's a need and that you'll be able to service a lot of people."

(Keese) Mandich says area farmers have been driving for hours, hauling trailers full of livestock, for hard-to-get appointments at distant meat processing facilities. The state has only eight commercial slaughterhouses for red meat and three for poultry. The nearest is an hour away in Royalton. And the cost and difficulty of getting there has kept many farmers from expanding to take advantage of the growing market for anything locally produced.

(Mandich) "Everybody just is interested in knowing where their food comes from, what it's fed, what they're using for medications. So there's a big push now for the local meats."

(Keese) Farmers from the area had been meeting for years trying to solve the bottleneck. When they called a meeting here at his empty plant, Mandich was surprised at the turnout. Officials from three states, veterinarians, vendors, the USDA, and lots of eager farmers.

The enthusiasm eventually led to a $648,000 community development block grant awarded by the state to help get the facility going. Mandich hopes to be open for business in September with at least 15 employees and a full-time USDA inspector.

Ed Jackson of the Vermont Department of Agriculture praised the grassroots and official efforts that made the project happen.

(Jackson) "I'm really excited about the amount of business planning that has been done. I think we'll find that this facility is scaled appropriately for the volume of animals that is readily available and also think it has the ability to increase capacity."

(Keese) Rebekah Murchison of Fair Winds Farm in Brattleboro is one of the farmers who kept the effort going until Mandich agreed to take the project on.  She says her group put together a vision statement about the kind of facility that would serve their needs.

(Murchison) "We want transparency and accountability as far as knowing that the animal we bring to the loading dock is the animal that gets put in the box, a plant that is environmentally sustainable, and a plant that is run efficiently so it's not too expensive to have your animals processed."

(Keese) Murchison says Westminster Meats promises to deliver on all those things. And she hopes the savings -- in transportation costs alone --will translate into more affordably priced local meats and a better livelihood for her family.

For VPR News, I'm Susan Keese.

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