State leaders discuss agricultural economy at Vermont Packinghouse

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State leaders discuss agricultural economy at Vermont Packinghouse

Sat, 02/10/2018 - 11:29am -- tim

Vermont Business Magazine How often do you see legislators, state officials, the Lieutenant governor, farmers and community members discussing farm and food issues in a slaughterhouse? That’s what happened this past Monday morning at the Vermont Packinghouse, a meat processing facility based in North Springfield, Vermont, in a former Ben & Jerry’s ice cream plant. Not everyone would host such an event at a slaughterhouse, complete with tours and full viewing of the so-called “kill floor.”

But Arion Thiboumery is not your average slaughterhouse executive.

Vermont Packinghouse. Vermont Farm to Plate file photo.

“The truth is, if you are philosophically opposed to eating meat, there isn’t anything I can say or do to convince you that there is a right way to slaughter animals for meat,” said Thiboumery. “But people do eat meat, that’s a reality, and we believe in caring for the animal in the most humane way, right up until the end of their life. We also believe it’s our job to educate people about where their meat comes from. We hide nothing here.”

Members of the Vermont General Assembly, representatives from the Agency of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce, and Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman joined Springfield officials, farmers, and community members at an educational event aimed at a fuller understanding of where our food comes from and the critical role the Vermont Packinghouse plays in supporting small farms and the agriculture economy.

People gathered for a fully transparent tour of the facility, followed by speakers ranging from Zuckerman to one of the facility's original employees.

Zuckerman, an organic farmer when not serving in office, said: "The Vermont Packinghouse is offering a great opportunity for small farms to produce their products and compete in Vermont and beyond”. 

Guests took a full tour prior to the talk, including a stop at the window of the kill floor where people had the option of viewing pigs being slaughtered as Thiboumery explained to them what they were seeing.

Another example of Vermont Packinghouse’s transparency is how openly Thiboumery talks to people about mistakes at the facility. A series of mis-stuns of animals in 2016 prompted a major overhaul of operations to avoid further incidents. But unusually, it was the company that voluntarily suspended operations and made the improvements.

Last year the Vermont Packinghouse received four USDA violations for not properly stunning animals prior to being slaughtered and it subsequently received a $1,250 fine from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. Later in 2017 it announced it was expanding its operations.

"It is no secret that this growth has not been easy,’’ Thiboumery said. “We’ve made mistakes along the way.

“It’s not easy being a ‘Humane’ Slaughterhouse. There have been times when we haven’t lived up to our ideal of “Making meat as it ought to be;” times when having the best intentions did not mean that we actually did our best.”

Thiboumery has a sign on his desk that reads - “Tomorrow I will make better mistakes.”

“Every time something happens, we have to move forward and make our processes stronger; this is part of growth,’’ he said.

The company started with 10 employees in 2014. Four years later, there are 60 employees on the payroll.

“That’s something I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do for this community,” he said.

In addition to employing 60 people, the Vermont Packinghouse works with over 300 smaller farms.

“But we are still small in the world of processing. I’ve visited pork plants in the Midwest that process 20,000 pigs in one day, and have thousands of employees,” said Thiboumery. “They dominate the industry. Our mission is to disrupt that domination and give small Vermont farmers a chance to compete.”

Bob Flint, CEO of the Springfield Regional Development Corporation, is a big supporter of Vermont Packinghouse and played a role in bringing the company to North Springfield.

“Vermont Packinghouse has, in a fairly short amount of time, become an essential part of the local agricultural economy,” said Flint. “When the project was initially coming together, we heard how much of a need there was for something like this, but it has surpassed that expectation.”

Vermont Packinghouse is a major employer in Springfield and a vital part of what is becoming one of the most important sectors of the area economy, local agriculture - which is, in turn, a major part of the economy in Vermont.

“New England is the only part of the country where the average age of farmers is declining, the average size of farms is decreasing, and the total number of farms is increasing,” said Charley Cummings, CEO of Walden Meat, a weekly customer of Vermont Packinghouse. “These are encouraging signs of a revitalization of New England's agricultural economy, and we're excited to play a role in re-building it, together with our partner farms and Vermont Packinghouse.”

Walden and Vermont Packinghouse are working to build the supply-chain infrastructure to serve small and mid-scale farms in the region, and to bring products to market that are meaningfully different from a taste, nutrition, and environmental perspective. 

“It has been a wonderful partnership for us and we're looking forward to continuing to grow our businesses together,” Cummings said.

Another regular customer, Pete Coleman the CEO of Vermont Salumi, spoke at the event. “When we made all the product all ourselves, we were able to sell several hundred pounds weekly throughout Central Vermont. By partnering with Vermont packinghouse we were able to sell thousands of pounds of Vermont pork to New England and the tristate area.”

The Future 
The Vermont Packinghouse processed four million pounds of sustainable, local meat in 2017, and contributed an estimated $25 million to the regional economy, and they have big plans to invest $1.5 million in the facility over the next four years and add two more smokehouses as part of an overall expansion.

The company’s board of directors is considering a new four-year strategic plan that reaffirms the key values of the company. These include a focus on meat and agriculture, caring for staff and building a sustainable company.

The company offers health insurance with HSA options and is moving to a $15-per hour minimum wage by 2020. Minimum wage at the company is currently $13-per-hour.

The company paid a year-end bonus to its employees.

“On a deeper level, we want to continue to help our staff succeed in life, and thus be the best employees they can be,’’ Thiboumery said.

This includes the following initiatives: 
help all employees have bank accounts even if they have had financial trouble in the past
financial incentives to quit smoking
subsidized gym memberships
Financial literacy and education at work, as paid trainings
Employee loans for car and home down-payments
Massages at work and morning stretching

“We work hard here,’’ Thiboumery said. “We need to treat our bodies well.’’

The company will continue to work only with customer/farmers who adhere to at least one of the following attributes:  
a. Organic
b. 100% Grass-fed (beef)
c. 100% Non-GMO-Fed
d. No Hormones and No Antibiotics ever
e. Local, Small-Scale Farms

Part of the plan will include a pledge to never grow so big that they cannot serve the small farmer marketing directly to customers.

Source: NORTH SPRINGFIELD, VT --- The Vermont Packinghouse