A commercial slaughterhouse in Yaphank may soon be open for use by local livestock farmers.
Suffolk lawmakers announced a plan last week to seek a private partner to renovate and operate the slaughterhouse at the Suffolk County Farm in Yaphank — a U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved commercial facility.
Until last month, the slaughterhouse had been managed for the county by Cornell Cooperative Extension for nearly five decades and been operated solely as a butcher-training facility for inmates. The meat went to county jail cafeterias or was donated to local food banks.
Since no USDA-approved commercial slaughterhouse is currently open on Long Island, farmers take their animals to facilities in New York City and out-of-state, where USDA inspectors are present during the butchering — a mandated process for retail meat sales.
Those trips for local livestock farmers could soon get shorter.
Eric Wells, whose family has owned Wells Farm on Sound Avenue in Riverhead since the 1660s, said he’d consider using the county-owned slaughterhouse to expand his meat sales to restaurants.
“It all depends on the price,” he said. “If the price is right, then it’s something we can look into.”
Currently, Mr. Wells is allowed to butcher his pigs, lambs and goats on his own farm, which has had custom slaughterhouse approval from the USDA since 2008. But that designation only allows him to sell meat to individual customers and prohibits commercial sales. One reason Mr. Wells hasn’t shipped his livestock to other slaughterhouses is because he believes transporting animals affects the meat’s taste.
“The more you have an animal traveling in a trailer, the more stressed out the animal becomes, which then makes the meat tougher,” he said, adding that he sells most of his meat directly to local residents for summer barbecues and pig roasts.
Dee Muma, who raises longhorn steer and bison in Riverhead with her husband, Ed Tuccio, said she has to travel to a Pennsylvania slaughterhouse to have her animals butchered, and agrees the long trip stresses out the animals.
The couple has been lobbying for a local slaughterhouse for years and they believe the county’s latest proposal would help farmers reduce costs and provide higher-quality meat.
Since there are some experienced butchers living in Riverhead Town, Ms. Muma said, they could even hold lectures at the county facility for Suffolk County Community College culinary students.
Ms. Muma, who also owns Dark Horse Restaurant in Riverhead, described the county’s slaughterhouse as an excellent opportunity for local farmers and a motivator for others to get into the business of raising livestock, which she said would provide them with additional income, especially during the winter.
“I think if you build it, they will come,” she said. “I feel this is something that’s an aid to local farmers and needs to break even — not make a profit.”
In a press release issued last week, Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), a pumpkin farmer, said he’s been working to open the county slaughterhouse to area farmers, many of whom are raising livestock to meet consumer interest in supporting sustainability and eating local foods.
He said the county issued an official Request for Expression of Interest last Thursday and, based on the response it generates, could submit a Request for Proposals for renovations and operation of the slaughterhouse at a future date.
County Executive Steve Bellone said in a statement that this plan moves the county “one step closer to making this infrastructure available for commercial production, which would be a great economic boost for the small but growing industry in Suffolk County.”
Tom Geppel, who owns 8 Hands Farm in Cutchogue with his wife, Carol Festa, said he would use the county slaughterhouse for his pasture-raised animals. Last year, he transported 60 lambs and 30 pigs to be slaughtered at Hilltown Pork in Canaan, N.Y., a USDA-approved facility that’s also certified as Animal Welfare Approved.
But if a slaughterhouse does open locally, Mr. Geppel said he’ll use it to offer his customers fresh meat weekly.
“The biggest thing for me wouldn’t be price — it would be convenience,” he said. “I could have a weekly standing to get my animals processed with the convenience of driving to Yaphank.”
Since the county estimates that up to 5,000 animals could be raised and marketed annually, Mr. Geppel believes the slaughterhouse could generate average revenue of about $50 per animal, totaling about $250,000 each year — a business model he described as potentially unprofitable.
“That’s not a lot of money — you’ve got to pay payroll, equipment, overtime for a USDA inspector,” he said. “To make money with a top line of $250,000 is impossible.”
Mr. Geppel, a tax consultant who was inspired to become a farmer after watching the documentary “Food, Inc.,” said he believes a wholesale meat distribution business would need to operate the facility in order for it to become profitable. Under that arrangement, the private company would source animals for slaughter from other regions and also open the facility to local farmers.
As for meeting public demand for sustainable practices as the farm-to-table movement continues to grow in popularity, Mr. Geppel said he believes providing a local slaughterhouse would benefit farmers and their customers, who want to know how and where their food is processed.
“We’re trying to bring it back to where it was 100 years ago,” he explained, “when a local community would supply that local community’s food — and you knew who you were buying from.”
Top photo: Farmer Eric Wells in the barn where he raises sheep and pigs on Sound Avenue in Riverhead. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)