Stamford slaughterhouse: A new link in the Catskills food chain

Above: Jim Eklund stands before freshly slaughtered beef at the Eklund Processing facility in Stamford. Delaware County officials toured the Catskills' new slaughterhouse on November 30, 2011. Click on any photo to read its caption. Photos by Julia Reischel.

There's a huge demand for local meat in the bustling metropolis a few hours' drive south of us, and yet it's tough for Catskills farmers to sell to it. One of the missing links is access to local slaughterhouses, which have become scarce throughout the Northeast.

Yesterday, Eklund Processing, a slaughterhouse and meat-processing facility in Stamford, NY, took a small step towards bridging the gap between Catskills meat and Manhattan tables when it celebrated the opening of its 5,600 square-foot facility with a tour for local officials and press.

Bill and Jim Eklund, the father-and-son team behind the project, have been talking recently to both local and national audiences about how vital facilities like theirs are to farmers and the rural economy.

Last month, the Eklunds visited a New York State organic farming conference, where they spoke about the need for more facilities like theirs to serve the growing demand for organic and local food. From an article in Lancaster Farming:

“Because we wanted our meat to be certified organic, we couldn’t find any processors for our beef. So the choice was to either not put the organic label on it, or build our own processing plant instead. So that’s what we did,” Jim said. “We just opened up a full-scale, USDA- and organic-inspected processing plant because we couldn’t find anybody to do it locally.”

The first stop on the tour was the "hot box," an unrefrigerated room where animals -- both organic and conventional cows, pigs, lambs and goats -- are slaughtered. Then the tour snaked through three enormous coolers, each capable of holding 45 to 60 cow carcasses from sturdy railings installed in the ceilings. Finally, the tour ended in a cold cutting room, where the meat is cut, packaged with a vacuum packer, and labelled. (Tour the facility yourself with the slideshow above -- click on any photo to read its caption, or look at the whole set of photos on Flickr.)

The slaughterhouse and processing facility had its "soft launch" on October 1. Since then, it has handled 10 to 15 animals per week, all of them USDA certified. (The USDA certification requires that a USDA official watch the entire process for every animal.)

The Eklund family, fourth-generation dairy farmers, began building the facility over two years ago. Last year, as they worked towards the stationary facility, they were granted USDA approval to operate a much-celebrated mobile slaughterhouse, which got them written up in the New York Times, the Times-Union, and Audubon Magazine.

A Byzantine planning and permitting process involving town, county, state and New York City Department of Environmental Protection officials forced the Eklunds to build the slaughterhouse at a glacial pace. Although already large, the facility is only using a third of the building the Eklunds have constructed themselves along Route 10 just outside of Stamford. There are plans for a storefront out front and more packaging space inside.

Progress on the slaughterhouse project has been slow for other reasons as well: The Eklund Farm Machinery building next door to the slaughterhouse caught fire in September and partially burned down.

But Bill Eklund told a group of officials during a tour of the slaughterhouse that the pace suits him.

"We'd rather walk before we run," he said. "We'd prefer not to handle 50 head of cattle a day right away."

Fifty cows per day is the eventual goal, Jim Eklund said. At that pace, the facility will need to employ 50 people -- one per cow processed -- to handle the flow.

Jim also described plans for a smoker and a scalder -- big-ticket items that they currently don't have onsite. The family operates a separate poultry slaughterhouse as well, and would eventually like to merge the two facilities, but it's unclear whether the poultry, which is state-inspected, can be processed in the new USDA facility. 

The slaughterhouse processes organic meat, which requires strict segregation from conventional meat. "We process the organic animals first thing in the morning" to keep them separated, Jim Eklund said.

The opening of Eklund Processing is a big boost to the local farm economy. In nearby Sullivan County, plans for a slaughterhouse in Liberty are moving at a snail's pace. The Times-Herald Record reported on Monday that hopeful Sullivan County farmers met at a summit on Monday to discuss the desperate need for local meat processing:

Sullivan County farmers are 90 minutes away from the potentially lucrative system of Greenmarket farmers markets in New York City, but far away from taking advantage of them, Jeffersonville farmer Tonya Hahn says ...

[Hahn drives] 160 miles round trip to Otsego County to have their meat butchered in Hartwick, a trip that raises production costs.

She is one of the local livestock farmers awaiting the construction of a slaughterhouse in Liberty. The project was supposed to break ground this spring but is still mired in the planning process.

One of the closest slaughterhouses for Catskills farmers is Larry's Custom Meats in Hartwick, which recently allowed a filmmaker to document his slaughtering process in video.

Chris Harmon, the director of the Oneonta-based Center for Agricultural Development and Entrepreneurship, told the same filmmaker earlier this year that it would take 50 to 75 slaughterhouses to fully meet the potential needs of beef production in the Catskills.