The Hub: A Promising Experiment in Food Processing for Small Farms

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A solution for farmers that can't afford the big state-of-the-art equipment required to process, store, and distribute their meat and produce.

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Take pity on male baby goats. Their sisters look forward to long lives providing milk for cheese or fiber for yarn. But for most goatherds in this country, bucklings, as the little fellows are called, are inconvenient byproducts. With no infrastructure for the processing and distribution of their meat, many young bucks are simply euthanized and their carcasses discarded.

To Shirley Richardson, co-owner of Tannery Farm Cashmeres in northeastern Vermont, that waste was unacceptable. Richardson, who raises breeding goats to sell to other farmers and harvests cashmere from her own herd, realized that there was a growing demand for the tasty, high-protein, low-fat meat of young goats that wasn't being tapped by local farmers, who were too small and scattered to effectively get it to market. So she launched Vermont Chevon Meats, a collective of farmers.

As Richardson expected, there was no shortage of farmers who wanted to sell through Vermont Chevon, and plenty of potential buyers. Unfortunately, though, the Northeast had very few slaughter and processing facilities, and those that operated in the region focused on cattle. As a start-up operation, Vermont Chevon lacked the capital and volume of business to justify investing in its own processing facility.

"The hub is a central point that helps farmers in any way they need. We offer a smorgasbord."

Enter Mad River Food Hub, the brainchild of Robin Morris. Opened in late 2011, the hub is the only government-inspected processing, storage, and distribution facility for both meat and produce in the Northeast, according to Morris.

When I visited in January, the Hub's offices still had a whiff of new construction about them; a gleaming flash freezer waited on a pallet beside a loading dock for installation. Even though the facility is a couple of months away from completion and is awaiting final certification from the United States Department of Agriculture (it is certified by Vermont), Richardson is among 10 area farmers who are already using the 4,000-square-foot $250,000 facility.

"The hub is a central point in the community that helps farmers in any way they need," Morris told me. "What we are offering is like a smorgasbord. They can choose any of our services they need."

Customers can rent space from the hub when they need it at daily rates. The meat-processing room, fully equipped with cutting implements, stainless steel counters and sinks, a grinder, a sausage machine, and a vacuum packager, rents for $150 per day. A similarly outfitted room for baking and produce processing costs $200 per day. Clients pay to store their products in the warehouse-like refrigerator and freezer. Once a week, a delivery truck leaves the Hub to distribute those goods to restaurants and grocery stores in Burlington, Vermont's largest city (about 40 miles away) and several other nearby towns. Calling on his experience as a former executive at American Flatbread, a pizza company with roots in the Mad River Valley, Morris consults with clients on financial and marketing issues.

"The state-of-the-art equipment required more capital investment than most small farmers have," Morris said. "But not having this equipment prevents small producers from being efficient and competitive. The Hub gets around that problem."

On the morning I dropped by, Jacob Finsen, the manager and in-house butcher, was busily converting a pork belly into bacon and pancetta. The pork had come from Von Trapp Farmstead, where brothers Don and Sebastian von Trapp (of that family) revitalized their parents' organic dairy by converting raw milk into cheese. They feed whey, a byproduct of cheesemaking, to a herd of pigs. Whey-fed pigs command a premium price -- about $2.50 a pound dressed. After being cured or converted into sausage, the pork sells for $6 to $15 per pound, making the von Trapp's farm that much more viable.

Although Morris received government grants to help finance construction of the Hub, it is being operated as a for-profit business. "I don't think it would viable in the long term if we had to go begging for uncertain funding each year," Morris said. Currently, the Hub is operating at between 30 and 40 percent of its capacity. The break-even point, according to Morris, is 60 percent -- a figure he expects to meet during the 2012 growing season.

In the meantime, there are other rewards. On a recent evening, Morris, who is a food lover as well as a diehard advocate for local farming, was dining at a high-end bistro on the outskirts of Burlington. He noticed that braised Vermont goat with chanterelles was one of the choices. The meat had come from Richardson's collective. Finsen had butchered it at Mad River. Without the Hub, it would have never found its way onto the restaurant menu as a $27 entrée.

Image: Mad River Food Hub.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
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