Black River Produce investing big in local meat operation
By Susan Smallheer
Staff Writer | October 28,2013
NORTH SPRINGFIELD — Black River Produce wants to expand its menu.
The food wholesaler says there’s been a dramatic change in people’s attitude toward buying locally grown, quality meat.
Five years ago, people would have rejected $4.50-a-pound, Vermont-grown hamburger, says Mark Curran, one of the principals of Black River Produce. Consumers saw no reason not to buy the conventional beef sold for $1.79 a pound at a local supermarket, he says.
News stories and books and articles about the abuses and health considerations in the conventional meat industry have changed people’s views. “After the Michael Pollan books, and Food Inc., people have discovered why their meat is $1.79 a pound,” Curran says.
Now people want to know more about the food they eat, where it’s raised, what the animals are fed — and they are willing to pay more for Vermont-grown meat, he says.
Black River Produce earlier this year opened a meat-processing facility at the former Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc. building on Fairbanks Road in North Springfield.
Curran and his partner, Steven Birge, now want to start slaughtering Vermont-grown animals — beef, pigs, sheep and goats — to meet the growing meat demand from customers, ranging from families to restaurants, schools and hospitals.
The two men, who founded Black River Produce with its ubiquitous strawberry-decorated trucks, are gambling that Vermont-grown meat will justify a $4 million investment.
Curran says famed animal rights activist Temple Grandin has designed its new animal handling facilities, ensuring that the animals are handling humanely, both for the benefit of the animal and its meat.
Curran says he traveled all over the world looking at different facilities, planning to incorporate that research and knowledge in the North Springfield facility. He’s been working on the project for two years.
Originally, he thought the company could handle the project with an addition at its River Street location, the former Idlenot Farm Dairy. But they quickly realized the addition would be too small within a year.
The company bought the former Ben & Jerry’s building in North Springfield, which once produced the company’s Peace Pops. It had been vacant a number of years; it was in “horrendous” shape and had been vandalized, Curran says.
Curran and Birge have applied for a town permit to build a large hoop barn next to Black River’s meat-processing facility and seafood business. The 94-by-42-foot barn would have holding pens for the cattle, pigs, sheep and goats to be slaughtered at the new facility.
Curran says most of the animals would be held for hours, not days, though some might be held overnight.
While the facility currently processes five to six carcasses a day, he says, the goal is to slaughter and process about 10 times that many.
Black River’s slaughterhouse would not compete with the existing slaughterhouses in Vermont, he says, because they are consistently overbooked months in advance.
Black River Produce is looking for farmers to meet the demand for local meat. Curran says animals should be raised humanely, primarily on Vermont pasture, with no growth hormones.
Bill Kearns, Springfield’s zoning administrator, says that the facility on Fairbanks Road is already zoned to include a slaughterhouse since it is in an industrial zone.
However, the hoop barn needs a conditional use permit from the Springfield Development Review Board. A hearing is slated for Nov. 12 at the Springfield Town Hall.
Kearns says that so far he has heard only positive comments from neighbors. The district is primarily industrial, although there are some homes in the immediate neighborhood.
Curran says the project will also need an Act 250 permit, and he estimated construction on the facility wouldn’t take place for about a year.
He says he’s also working with the Howard Dean Education Center about offering an apprenticeship program for meat cutting .
The facility would eventually employ up to 65 people after five years, he says. “We need to jump to the next level,”