More than $200 million in grant money is flowing to meat and poultry processing facilities nationwide, as part of the Biden-Harris administration’s push to strengthen the nation’s food system and boost job creation in rural America.
Vermont Livestock Slaughter & Processing in Ferrisburgh received a nearly $1.1 million rural development grant from the USDA, and hopes it will somewhat ease a frustrating bottleneck in the agriculture sector. Vermont farmers have long had to schedule months out to have their animals butchered for sale, many have lamented.
"We can take a little of that discomfort off for farmers," said Carl Cushing, the business’s owner.
Cushing plans to use the funds, plus a state working lands grant and his own investment, to expand and significantly modernize a 1950s property. He told NECN he expects to be able to double or triple meat output after the expansion is complete.
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"The goal is to have this running in a manner that it will work for some time to come — many years to come," Cushing said.
The nation’s reliance on meat processing plants came into sharp focus in the early days of the coronavirus crisis, when the disease forced temporary closures of facilities that can produce enough meat in a day to feed millions.
Money supporting the Vermont facility’s upgrades came through the USDA from the American Rescue Plan. The goal is to increase competition, create jobs in rural areas, spark new opportunities for farmers, and to strengthen the food supply chain.
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"This is about making sure that when the next disruption happens, we don’t fall apart, our systems don’t fall apart, our distribution doesn’t fall apart, and people can be fed locally," said Sarah Waring, the director of USDA Rural Development for Vermont and New Hampshire. "We are not just thinking about jobs here today, we’re thinking about the long-term resilience for the whole system — for the whole country, really, no matter what happens in the future."
Anson Tebbetts, who leads the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, noted only a handful of large meat companies process a majority of meat sold in grocery stores.
"So working with our federal partners, we discovered we need to invest more in a regional system," Tebbetts said in an interview Monday with NECN. "That it is what you’re seeing here. If we invest here, make it more efficient, expand, we can get more animals in, more animals can stay in the land, and the big payoff for the consumer is, of course, they’re going to know where their meat comes from."
Cushing said the increased consumer interest in buying food from close to home gives Vermont Livestock Slaughter & Processing confidence it will stay busy. Construction is already underway, with a solar installation in the works to cover the facility’s future power needs.