When the owners of Eagle Bridge Custom Meat & Smokehouse opened the doors of their new slaughtering facility in November, they expected to kill no more than 1,200 animals by the end of their first year in business.
Just over eight months later, they’ve easily surpassed 2,000 animals — including pigs, sheep, goats and cattle — and are booked solid through December.
Calls for appointments from small and mid-sized farmers within a 300-mile radius show little sign of abating.
"We’ve had enough requests that, if we weren’t careful with our schedule, we’d become overwhelmed pretty quickly," said Debra Bell, operations manager at the slaughterhouse, located in southern Washington County.
Eagle Bridge’s tight schedule highlights what many who raise animals in the area say is a pressing need: access to a safe, clean and dependable slaughterhouse where dignity and quality are paramount.
Across the country, and in the Northeast in particular, demand for locally raised meat is growing, and producers are multiplying. As the market has grown, though, producers say a vital link in the chain between farm and table — the slaughterhouse — is lacking.
Federal statistics underscore the point. The number of federally certified slaughterhouses has steadily waned over the years, as large producers took hold and consolidation occurred.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest statistics, there are now just 13 federally certified poultry slaughterhouses and 35 federally certified livestock slaughterhouses in the state. That’s half the number that existed two decades ago.
Federal certification is required for any slaughterhouse that produces meat to be sold at markets or to restaurants.
Farmers in the area who raise animals for sale say the lack of certified facilities has forced them to make appointments with slaughterhouses months, if not a year, in advance. It’s a timetable that can make raising the animals difficult.
The lack of facilities can also lead to more time away from the farm for farmers who have to transport animals to a slaughterhouse. The transportation itself increases costs and diminishes the end product, farmers said.
Still, farmers who raise animals in the area say they are better off than most of their peers across the country.
In addition to Eagle Bridge, Washington County is also home to Locust Grove slaughterhouse in Argyle, which has been open since 1972. Both facilities are federally certified. Several state-certified slaughterhouses also exist in the area, though meat processed at those businesses cannot be commercially sold.
There is also a slaughterhouse in Greenwich that specializes in chicken, ducks and turkey and can process up to 20,000 birds a year.
"For some people, it’s two hours both ways, and I don’t think we could afford to do that," said Karen Christensen, who operates Mack Brook Farm in Argyle, a certified humane farm that sent more than a dozen grass-fed bovines to Locust Grove last year.
"It’s a huge concern for a lot of people in this business, so we feel very fortunate to be within 10 miles of a slaughterhouse," she said. "We’re the envy of most people we talk to."
Mike Yazzi, of Flying Pigs Farm in Shushan, knows what it’s like to travel long distances to find a slaughterhouse.
When his farm opened in 2001, he transported pigs to Connecticut for slaughter. As the operation grew and slaughter services were needed on a weekly basis, though, Yazzi said it became clear the model wasn’t sustainable.
With 300 to 400 pigs slaughtered each year, having a location like Eagle Bridge close at hand, he said, probably trims around $25,000 from his annual costs.
"That’s a big number for me," said Yazzi, whose pork products are largely sent to restaurants and markets in New York City.
Slaughterhouse numbers have been falling for several reasons, industry experts say. The lack of a stable work force and strict federal safety and health guidelines are among them.
At Locust Grove, for example, a federal inspector is on site eight hours a day every day. Reams of paperwork have to be filed for every animal slaughtered, and tests occur at nearly every step in the process.
"It’s a whole new industry now," said Bill Tripp, who said his Locust Grove facility originally catered only to farmers looking to get meat for their own families.
Large start-up costs are also a barrier. At Eagle Bridge, family savings had to be used to turn what was a processing facility into a full-service, animal-welfare approved slaughterhouse.
Pens, additional cooler space, a 45-foot trailer to hold and transport rendered product, a scalder and additional staff were among the investments that had to be made to grow the business. Previously, Eagle Bridge offered only processed and smoked meats.
Eagle Bridge’s owners say they were confident they were making a wise investment. After raising animals of their own, they experienced firsthand how difficult it was to find a slaughtering facility.
"We knew the business was there," said Stephen Farrara, Eagle Bridge’s manager, during a tour of the facility recently. "We realized there was a niche."
The stresses are particularly acute in the livestock and pork trades because those products are more often purchased rather than homegrown.
People who raise chickens, ducks or other birds in their back yards, by contrast, are more apt to slaughter and process the animals themselves.
Still, the Garden of Spices farm in Greenwich, a poultry slaughterhouse run by Ben Shaw, is busy. Demand has steadily grown in the five years the farm has been open, as more people begin to raise their own birds, he said.
Shaw said he expects to process around 20,000 birds a year for farmers from the Canadian border to the Catskill Mountains.
"When someone comes in and says they’re thinking about opening a (meat processing) facility, I try to encourage them," he said. "The main reason we opened was that we wanted to raise birds ourselves on a large scale, and there was no facility around."
Interest in local meat isn’t likely to abate any time soon.
Farmers and slaughterhouse operators say they think concerns over food safety, along with new emphasis on local foods, will only increase over time.
Restaurateurs like Jason Baker are driving the demand.
Baker owns Black Watch, a Glens Falls-based steakhouse, and he raises cattle on a farm in Easton and has them slaughtered and butchered at Eagle Bridge. The process typically yields around 600 pounds of beef every two weeks.
On the menu, it’s sold as the ‘Farm du Jour,’ a meat that Baker said has unique marbling and a "delicate floral flavor," honed through a carefully controlled diet.
Having a local slaughterhouse to help make the dish possible, he said, is "huge," and helps patrons, chefs and servers at his restaurant gain a better understanding of where food comes from.
"I think it’s really important to have a relationship with your food and to have a respect for an animal who gives its life," he said. "Just to realize that food doesn’t come out of a vacuum, people can take that for granted."