There were 30 slaughterhouses in Vermont when Carl Cushing first started working as a state meat inspector. Three decades later, only seven remain. So, on the occasion of his retirement, 54-year-old Cushing decided to trade in the hardhat and white coat for a blood-smeared yellow apron at Clark's Slaughterhouse in Ferrisburgh. He bought the place he used to regulate.
"I'm on the other side now," he says with a laugh, acknowledging it's an odd way to spend one's golden years. "The question I get most often is, 'Are you crazy?'"
Cushing is far from crazy, actually. Clear-eyed analysis suggests he's perfectly positioned — on the border of Addison and Chittenden counties — to capitalize on a growing demand for local meat. While customers are clamoring for native beef, lamb and pork, farmers are inconvenienced by a dearth of reliable slaughterhouses within trucking distance. Some animals raised in the area meet their maker as far afield as New York or Pennsylvania.
Killing is a "key part of the business," according to Jim Kleptz of LaPlatte River Angus in Shelburne. Kleptz actually invested in a struggling slaughterhouse in Williston so he'd have a nearby place to turn his cattle into beef for some two-dozen restaurants and Burlington's downtown City Market. But the facility can't accommodate many customers — 80 percent of its business is LaPlatte's.
The state's other slaughterhouses can be counted on one hand — they're found in Benson, Troy, St. Johnsbury, Braintree and Sharon. Swanton Packing, once New England's largest meat processing plant, closed in 2004. A fire shuttered Rutland's Fresh Farm's Beef in 2006.
"Location was pretty important to me," says Cushing, who plans to double production at Clark's — now Vermont Livestock Slaughter and Processing. "Knowing what this business did, and the distance between slaughterhouses, it looked like it would be the right place."
Cushing has had plenty of time to size up what looks like a ramshackle farm at the dead end of Depot Street in Ferrisburgh. As the plant's state "inspector," he worked alongside its former owner, Bob Clark, for more than 30 years. Cushing got there by way of Milton, where he grew up with nine brothers and sisters on a small family farm. All but one of his siblings still lives within a 15-mile radius of the original homestead.
"I didn't know what store-bought bread was until I was about 11," Cushing recalls. The family grew its own vegetables and raised its own animals. "We slaughtered in Georgia; then we'd process at home," Cushing says. "That's where we got the first taste of it."
In high school, Carl and his older brother Allen got part-time jobs at a slaughterhouse in Essex, where Pizza Hut now stands. Carl was just 23 when he went to work at the ag department, and found himself in Ferrisburgh soon after.
Inspecting the plant, which belonged in those days to Bruce Orensma, was a full-time job: Unlike a restaurant, which is visited randomly by inspectors, a working slaughterhouse cannot operate without a regulator on the premises. The state pays the official's salary, but the slaughterhouse kicks in for overtime pay and a private "office" that is usually about as glamorous as the job description.
When Orensma decided to sell the slaughterhouse, he offered the place to Clark, who was working there as a butcher. But, while the older man was getting the financing together, the owner also asked young Cushing if he was interested. Cushing recalls that when he found out about the double-dealing, he gave Orensma the honorable answer: "Well, I won't buy it out from Mr. Clark. If he doesn't want it, or isn't able to do it, then I'd like it."
Clark's son Jerry, 53, corroborates the exchange between his father and Cushing that forever bonded the two families. "Carl said to Dad, 'You take it, but if you ever sell it, I'd like first bids on it."
Twenty-eight years later, Cushing is finally getting his chance.
"Him and dad worked together long enough that Carl calls my father 'Dad' or 'Pop,'" says Jerry, who still labors on the kill floor in Ferrisburgh with his own son, Danny, 31. Cushing's older brother Allen also wields a sharp knife — he worked for decades as a meat cutter and manager for Grand Union. The four men — along with Carl Cushing's son Ryan — are the muscle behind Vermont Livestock Slaughter and Processing.
The new, more descriptive name suggests an openness that is atypical in the slaughterhouse industry. "It's long," Cushing claims, "but we wanted people to know what we're about."
Remarkably, that same transparency extends to the kill floor. On a recent Friday, no one stops a visitor from venturing into the room where Jerry and Danny Clark are slaughtering lambs. The father-and-son team has it down. Danny does the actual killing— he stuns the bleating animal with a captive bolt pistol, then hoists it by a chain upside down over a trash can and slits its throat. After the animal has bled out, he lowers it onto a stainless steel cradle and skins it expertly, starting at the legs.
Danny also breaks the back legs so the carcass can be hoisted onto another hook. At that point, his dad Jerry takes over. With a huge knife, aided by the occasional saw, Jerry slices open the stomach and removes the organs. He tosses the viscera into various plastic garbage cans that are about three-quarters filled with warm lamb guts.
Inspector Bob Aprilliano fishes out the livers to study them more closely. He won't say what he's looking for — the FDA won't let him talk to the press about his job — but he's willing to bend the rules a little to praise Cushing, his former boss at the agency.
"A guy like Carl Cushing — he's done it all, seen it all. He's always had his finger on the pulse," says Aprilliano, who has been inspecting Vermont slaughterhouses for 28 years. "He's smart, well-mannered, well-rounded."
Aprilliano predicts, "This is going to be a nice place."
Cushing is M.I.A. on Friday morning; he had to run up to Brault's Meat Market and Slaughterhouse in Troy to get a bunch of meat smoked. But while he's gone, Jerry and Allen ably handle the press relations. There's none of the sheepishness and suspicion that characterize most slaughterhouse workers — a result, they might say, of sensationalist accounts in the press. Danny forbids any photographs of the actual kill, but the crew is otherwise welcoming and cooperative.
Jerry is happy to talk about how the incoming beasts are handled. He points out, "Most of the people who work in these plants have respect for animals. We don't want to see them tortured." The kill has "to be done quickly and humanely — by law. If you stun them, and then come out here for a cup of coffee, you will be fined."
No one knows livestock processing laws better than Cushing, who shows up about an hour late from his emergency trip to Troy. A slight, soft-spoken man, he still exudes the respectful discipline of a regulator, referring to his former colleagues as "Mr." and "Mrs." He's certainly got his competition beat when it comes to ag education. "People will call and say, 'Hi, I got a couple of animals that I'd like to put in my freezer, but I'd like to sell some, too.' So, having the background that I do, I'm able to walk them through the process and remove some of the intimidation that they have had."
Customers are the least of Cushing's problems. Despite raising the prices slightly, "Right now, we're booking into February," he says. The crew slaughters beef on Tuesdays; lambs and pigs on Fridays. The rest of the week it "processes" the meat into steaks, roasts and burger. Cushing and company recently shipped 1500 pounds of grass-fed beef as part of the Ski Vermont Burger program — a state-sanctioned attempt to promote "localvore" beef.
Modernizing the plant is Cushing's biggest challenge. "All the equipment that's made for the meat industry is going to three-phase power," Cushing says of the polyphase method of electrical power transmission that protects equipment and lowers bills. "I don't have three-phase power, and to get it in here, it's $20,000." When he recently special-ordered a Cryovac machine with single-phase power, Cushing recalls, "The guy said, 'What the heck are you doing? Nobody has single-phase power anymore.'"
Labor is another concern: Cushing calls it "the toughest part of the slaughter business. This isn't a really nice job." Though he plans to expand the operation to 10 employees, right now everyone who works for him is a Clark or a Cushing. The younger generation is well represented. "Danny and Ryan I call my young guns," Cushing says. "I intend to do this, to help build this up, and then let them do it."
While his dad is being interviewed, 24-year-old Ryan picks up the phone. The caller on the other end has a question the young man can't answer.
Sounding slightly embarrassed, he interrupts his dad. "Do we take emus?"
"Emus? No," Cushing responds matter-of-factly. Feathered creatures undergo an entirely different slaughtering process, and Cushing knows nearby Misty Knoll Farms — one of a scant number of commercial poultry slaughtering operations in Vermont — isn't equipped to handle such a big bird. He pauses for a moment, searching a long institutional memory. "There's a place in New Hampshire, I believe."
Cushing instructs Ryan to tell the emu owner to contact the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture. There, his call will probably be received by someone like the guy Carl Cushing used to be — before he "retired."