The Island Grown Initiative, the nonprofit farm and sustainability network, announced an $800,000 capital campaign this week to build the Vineyard’s first U.S. Department of Agriculture permitted slaughterhouse.
In an interview with the Gazette this week, IGI president Sarah McKay and Island Grown Meat coordinator Richard Andre said the organization is considering two locations for a 3,500 square foot facility – Thimble Farm or behind the new barn at the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society in West Tisbury.
In determining a location, operational policies and pricing standards, IGI has established a nine person committee made up of IGI members, representatives from the Martha’s Vineyard Agriculture Society, Slow Food Martha’s Vineyard, farmers and restaurants.
Building the facility on Thimble Farm, the 40-acre historic farm in the center of the Island that IGI purchased this summer, would be the first step in IGI’s vision to create a campus-like farm center tentatively called Island Grown Farms, Ms. McKay said. The organization favors this site over the Agricultural Society’s land.
“It just makes so much sense for the Thimble Farm property... It’s this big 40 acre farm and a very defined building envelope,” she said. “When you start adding in things like a slaughterhouse and a community kitchen, it has this natural synergy.”
“Our goal is to make it sustainable in the long term,” she continued. “We think the more components that work together are for the community’s benefit. It has so many positives.”
“It could transform the agricultural industry on the Island,” Mr. Andre added.
The facility would include a slaughtering area, cut and wrap room for butchering, refrigeration, offices, show
ers for employees and observation areas for the slaughtering and butchering rooms. Mr. Andre said permitting and fundraising will proceed at the same time with a target date of winter 2014 for completion.
Thimble Farm was originally reviewed as a development of regional impact by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. Any change of use on the property would require additional review.
The announcement of the proposed facility marks the end of a two-year feasibility study conducted by IGI and sponsored by a $40,000 grant from the USDA. The study showed about 600 four-legged animals are currently being raised on the Island, a “significant” number, Mr. Andre said. If a slaughterhouse existed on the Vineyard, 600 animals would grow to upwards of 900, he added.
Much of the study’s findings come on the heels of the successful IGI mobile chicken processing unit, introduced to the Island in 2007. Since then commercial and backyard farmers raising meat birds have increased the number of chickens being processed here from 100 in 2007 to 10,000 this year.
“We know that the example in chickens is if you build the infrastructure, they’ll use it,” Mr. Andre said.
The projected 900 four-legged animals figure is based on farmers who are currently raising animals. Backyard farmers who shy away from raising a handful of animals may be more inclined to do so with easy access to an Island facility, Mr. Andre said.
Mr. Andre said some of IGI’s original concerns were deciding whether there was a need for a facility and whether or not the slaughterhouse could be economically viable.
“[The study] demonstrated that if we take what existing farmers pay [to go off-Island], that alone covers all the costs the facility will run, plus it shows a profit,” he said.
The building of the slaughterhouse will be funded from three sources; donations, USDA loans and grants and socially conscious investors, Mr. Andre said. The investors would be repaid in full. The $800,000 includes the building, permitting, refrigeration and equipment.
IGI estimates no initial cost savings for farmers compared to what they pay now to bring their animals off-Island. But after several years, the prices will eventually be lowered, helping to keep costs down for both the farmer and the consumer, Ms. McKay said.
“This will help us get more local food on tables in a more affordable way,” she said. “We’ve said all along, let’s make sure from the get go that this thing is economically viable so we can come back and address the issue of making local food more affordable.”
The facility would operate for 12 to 14 weeks a year, with four to six employees. A USDA certified inspector will be on site for all slaughtering, a position supplied by the government at no cost, Mr. Andre said.
IGI considered a mobile processing unit similar to the poultry process but opted for a permanent structure where composting could be done on-site. The animal waste will be contained, Ms. McKay said. IGI has identified a piece of equipment called an in-vessel composer to process animal waste. The waste goes inside a closed vessel in a large drum, 40 to 60 feet long, and two weeks later comes out as finished compost. The composter is completely sealed with no odor, Ms. McKay added.
Venison processing will play a major role as well, Mr. Andre said. IGI intends to offer deer processing to hunters at the facility. “That’s a potential for 300 to 400 venison that could be brought in there during the fall,” Mr. Andre said.
The facility’s employees would include a manager and several skilled butchers, Mr. Andre said, who will go through an IGI sponsored training program on-site. Mr. Andre said IGI hopes to involve locally established butchers.
“We have to have a high standard so the question is how are we going to train those people and how to only employ them part time,” Mr. Andre said.
Animal welfare also has to be considered, Mr. Andre said. Many farmers currently travel to Rhode Island or Adams Farm in Athol to have their animals processed.
“The animal welfare is improved, the stress on the farmer, the stress on the animal, all of those intangibles,” Mr. Andre said.
The entire slaughtering process, including travel, processing and packing, takes between one to four months before a farmer can sell the packaged meat. A Vineyard facility would bring the process down from months to weeks, Mr. Andre said.
In the event the Thimble Farm property is not an option, IGI will consider building the facility behind the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society barn in West Tisbury. The MVAS announced in April 2011 a partnership between the two groups moving forward with the slaughterhouse.
Variables surrounding both locations include land compatibility, abutters and access, Mr. Andre said, as well as state and local zoning.
“We can give the merits of both locations in each of them, but Thimble Farm is a working farm and working farms have rights, whereas the agricultural society isn’t a working farm but doesn’t have a lot of abutters,” Mr. Andre said. “There are going to be trade-offs.”
“I would deem it a real success if it is running at 30 to 40 weeks a year and that was happening within 5 to 10 years,” he continued. “That would be a home run.” On Saturday, IGI and the MVAS are co-hosting an informational session on the proposed slaughterhouse at the agricultural hall. The event, Two Legs Good, Four Legs Better, begins at 4 p.m. A soup dinner provided by Morning Glory Farm, 7a, State Road Restaurant and the Scottish Bakehouse will follow at 6 p.m. with music by Good Night Louise. The event is bring your own bowl. A $10 donation is suggested.