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Meat's the Thing

Side Dishes: Black River Produce expands meat-processing center


Published March 28, 2012 at 5:55 a.m.

The local-meat movement is taking another giant leap forward, this time on Vermont’s right bank. Wholesaler Black River Produce has bought an ailing former ice cream plant in North Springfield and will transform it into a meat-processing center by this summer.

The move is designed to meet exploding demand for Vermont-grown meat — Black River did $5 million in meat sales last year — as well as open markets to farmers seeking to venture into meat production, says co-owner Mark Curran. “People are definitely much more tuned in to where their meat is coming from.”

Locally raised lamb, beef, pork and venison will be trimmed, packaged and stored at the new facility, says Curran, and the new space will enable the company to sell more varied cuts, as well as bring more farmers into the mix. “There’s a lot of pastureland in Vermont, and some dairy farmers who aren’t happy with their income from milk,” Curran says. “This has been the goal for so many producers in the state. Now that they see we’re making a sizable investment, people can start planning [growth].”

That view was echoed by Tom Biggs, Black River’s local meat buyer, who began its meat program four years ago and calls the increasing demand a “meat surge.” “This is a chance for everyone to start growing to the next level,” he says. “Vermont is a brand in its own self, and my goal is to keep this brand growing strong.”

The roughly 40,000- square-foot building has seen life as both a Ben & Jerry’s factory and the headquarters of Ellsworth Ice Cream, but had fallen into disrepair in recent years.

A falling roof and gutted interior didn’t daunt Black River’s owners.

Curran expects the total investment to be around $1 million, with 10 jobs created off the bat and a likely expansion into cured meats in coming years. The plant won’t do any slaughtering, he adds.

What it will do is enable the company to meet chefs’ need for consistency of cuts, says Sean Buchanan, Black River’s business-development manager and a professional chef. “They’re really looking for consistent animals, for a pork loin that’s the same size every week.”

The retail side is poised to grow, too. “The early projection is that the real growth is going to come from people looking to get local products easily,” Buchanan says.