NHs local meat processing has avoided national turmoil

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Workers cut beef into sections at PT Farm meat processing plant in North Haverhill, NH, in September 2012. Photo/Sarah Priestap

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New Hampshire’s small but thriving meat-processing industry, the creation of years of effort accompanying the state’s resurgence in small farms, seems unaffected by the turmoil in the vastly larger industry in other parts of the country.

The state has four USDA-approved sites that can slaughter, cut and package beef for sale through stores, all of them tiny by the standards of national corporations. None has been reported to have shut due to COVID-19 or had reported outbreaks of the disease, perhaps in part because they have small, local workforces.

“People are taking it seriously,” said Peter Roy, owner of PT Farm in north Haverhill, who has about 15 employees at peak times. “There’s a guy who never missed a day of work in five years, he wasn’t feeling well so he stayed home to be sure. Nobody wants it here.” 

The contrast with industrial meat-processing facilities, which hire seasonal labor, often new immigrants, and have high turnover, is striking, he said.

“They have 10,000 people and they speak 1,000 different languages, they live in multi-generational housing. It’s hard. It makes you feel sympathetic for them,” he said.

National food corporations like Smithfield and JBS have had to close some meat-packing facilities because of COVID-19 outbreaks. Concern about the effect on the meat supply grew to the point that President Trump forced them to stay open by using the Defense Production Act, an act he had previously said was too extreme to force manufacture of ventilators and other medical supplies.

“The closings are due to illness in staff or the inability to create the appropriate social distancing for workers in the facilities. They’re big, they’re huge – our plants aren’t anything like those,” said Gail McWilliam Jellie, director of New Hampshire’s Division of Agricultural Development.

Shortage of processing

Not too long ago, New Hampshire didn’t have meat-processing plants, plural; it had only LeMay & Sons in Goffstown, which was started in 1963. The company’s processing plant and retail shop were destroyed by a fire in 2017 but rebuilt in part with support from farmers who appreciated not having to drive their animals to Massachusetts.

In the early 2010s, state agriculture officials were struggling to get more plants open as a way to support domestic livestock on small farms. A variety of options have been tried, including mobile slaughter facilities for poultry, but it is more difficult to have facilities for red meat because of the health and safety requirements and the sheer amount of space needed for butchering pigs and particularly cattle.

New Hampshire’s beef industry is minuscule by Midwestern or Western standards; only about 4,000 beef cattle were in the state at the start of the year, the USDA estimates. New Hampshire had almost three times that many dairy cows.

But the state’s beef cattle are scattered among many small, often part-time farms – New Hampshire has 4,100 of them, the USDA says, giving New Hampshire one of the nation’s highest per-capita ratios of farms. The growth of these farms, which prefer to deal locally and in small batches, has helped the business model for small meat processors.

Three other small facilities now have USDA approval: PT Farms; Local Butcher in Center Barnstead and East Conway Beef & Pork. LeMay is the largest, serving farmers from around the region. The others focus partly or exclusively on local customers, often farmers who they’ve known for years.

PT Farms goes one better: It mostly processes Roy’s own 1,200 or so cattle.

“For the first time in 15 years of business I feel like I’m in the right business,” he said. “I’ve got my own supply. As long as my crew doesn’t get sick, I’m not going to run out.”

Roy said he thinks there’s a chance the upheaval caused by the coronavirus will be good for New Hampshire agriculture.

“I think there will be a greater move toward not just local food but local businesses,” he said.

He has seen changes in business, of course. Their restaurant business has plummeted but their retail store has grown, with people trying to avoid crowded supermarkets.

“In the past, maybe the retail store was 10 percent of business. Now that has become consequential,” he said.

At the agriculture department, Jellie agrees.

“Right now there seems to be an increased demand for local foods – we’re seeing it at farmers’ markets. … Other farms are seeing increased demand for their products, trying to meet demand to get products to the consumer in a safe way; pre-ordering and picking things up,” she said. “Shortages of certain things at supermarkets are contributing to that, as well.”

Ramping up meat processing isn’t easy, however. It’s made harder by the coronavirus and concern about hiring new people.

“I should be adding new help, but do you want to stir the pot? That’s the question,” said Roy.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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