For More Local Turkeys To Hit Holiday Tables, You Need An Abattoir | Connecticut Public Radio
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For More Local Turkeys To Hit Holiday Tables, You Need An Abattoir

Nov 25, 2014
Originally published on November 26, 2014 11:22 am

It's a busy time of year for turkey farmers around the country. And these days, with the growth of the local food movement, small family farms are struggling to keep up with all the orders for birds. So, we went to find out what one New England farmer is doing to get her gobblers from the field to the table. Enter the "abattoir."

On a recent chilly November morning, I visited Kate Stillman's farm, a 160-acre spread nestled in between some little hilly pastures and some woods. It's a beautiful little place. And it's been a farm here in Hardwick, Mass., since the early 1800s. Stillman has been fixing up the barns and old farmhouse. "We came to this place about six years ago, and it's been a labor of love," she says.

Week-old piglets are staying warm in the old wooden barn at Stillman's farm in Hardwick, Mass.
Chris Arnold / NPR

Like many small farms serving the local food market, Kate Stillman raises many kinds of animals here — lambs, cattle, chickens, and, in an old wooden barn, some cute little piglets jockeying for a good spot to nurse next to a sow.

But November, of course, is all about the turkeys. These are free-range turkeys, so they have the run of the whole farm. But as the weather has turned cold, many of the birds have been huddling in a greenhouse that's been turned into a temporary "turkey warm house." Some of her turkeys are so-called heritage breed birds. They look more like wild turkeys and are more like the birds that, say, Benjamin Franklin would have eaten hundreds of years ago.

With the local food movement growing, Stillman's turkey farming business, you might say, is spreading its wings. Less than 10 years ago, "when we started here, I struggled to sell 50 birds," she says. These days? "We raised just about 700 this year." And that actually created a problem.

Many small local farms have been popping up around New England, but Stillman says there just aren't enough processing facilities nearby where farmers can take their animals to be killed and butchered.

"That's a huge problem for all new England farms," she says, adding, "Last year, we were processing our birds in Vermont, and it's a two-and-a-half hour hike for us."

Which was tough to do, because it meant chasing around hundreds of turkeys, trying to catch them and pack them onto a trailer in the middle of the night. So this year, for the first time, these birds are meeting their fate right here on this farm.

Stillman says it's not just turkeys. She was becoming acutely aware that a lack of nearby processing facilities was the biggest limiting factor for the growth of her small farm business. And with more people asking for meat butchered in very particular ways these days, she found she couldn't fill those orders. So a few years ago, Stillman decided to build her own abattoir. The new wood-sided, low-slung building with a stainless steel chimney sits across the road from her house and barns.

Local farmer Kate Stillman decided to build her own abattoir because, she says, a lack of processing facilities is "a huge problem for all New England farmers."
Chris Arnold / NPR

Inside, butcher John Steines is just finishing up cutting up some hams for Thanksgiving. Stillman says she's lucky to have a butcher as good as Steines, because not too many people these days can actually break down a whole animal from the field to the table.

Steines, in his white apron, says he likes working in a place he's appreciated. As a kid, he says, "I was told that I had a knife in my hand before I had a pencil." He says he grew up butchering animals with his father on his family farm.

It actually took Stillman three years to build her abattoir. With the plumbing, septic system and specialty equipment involved, and delays for permitting, the project took a lot longer and cost much more than she ever thought it would-- upwards of $700,000. Finding a bank to loan her the money wasn't easy, either.

"A single female opening up a slaughterhouse ... raises some eyebrows," she says. "I sat in a room full of bankers who said to me, 'Wouldn't you rather bake cookies'?' "

"You can choose to be offended," she says, "or you can tuck it in your back pocket and keep going."

And that's what Stillman and her farm crew are doing. They've been working late into the night, getting all the Thanksgiving orders ready to go and packed up in her new walk-in refrigerator. "We all sat down and shared a beer last night and said, we did this!" she says.

Because of that, 700 people around Massachusetts will have a locally raised and butchered bird from Stillman's farm for Thanksgiving.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Well, Ari, it wouldn't be the Tuesday before Thanksgiving on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED without a story about - guess.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

I'm going to say geese.

CORNISH: No. I'm sorry.

SHAPIRO: No, pigeons.

CORNISH: One more time.

SHAPIRO: Ducks. Ducks?

CORNISH: Turkey.

SHAPIRO: Right, turkey.

CORNISH: Actually, turkeys - plural. This is a busy time for turkey farms. So NPR's Chris Arnold visited one farmer in New England to find out what she's doing to get her birds from her field to your table.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Farmer Kate Stillman is checking on the pigs in her old, wooden barn. It's cold outside, but it's warm in here. And the sows are sacked out on straw, nursing some very cute, little piglets.

Oh, my goodness. Look at them with spots.

KATE STILLMAN: Aren't they adorable?

ARNOLD: Yeah. And they're like the size of little footballs.

STILLMAN: Yeah. They're like - they come out walking and know what to do.

ARNOLD: Stillman walks outside where you can see the land around this 160-acre farm. It's actually a beautiful little place with some pastures on hillsides and some woods. It's been here in Hardwick, Massachusetts, since the early 1800s. And Stillman's been fixing up the barns and the farmhouse.

STILLMAN: We came to this place about six years ago. And it's been a labor of love. Slowly, bit by bit, we're adding, you know, new barns for animals and stuff like that.

ARNOLD: And I guess these are the turkeys over here?

STILLMAN: Yep. These are turkeys.

ARNOLD: These are free-range turkeys, so they have the run of the whole farm. Some are actually so-called heritage breed birds, so they're more like the kind, say, that Benjamin Franklin used to eat. And with the local farm movement growing, you might say that Stillman's business here is spreading its brown, speckled wings.

STILLMAN: You know, when we started here, I struggled to sell 50 birds. And we raised just about 700 this year.

ARNOLD: And that actually created a problem because all these small, local farms have been popping up around New England. But Stillman says there just aren't enough processing facilities nearby to take your animals to.

STILLMAN: That's a huge problem for all New England farms. Last year we were processing our birds in Vermont. And it's a two and a half hour hike for us.

ARNOLD: Which is tough to do with 700 turkeys. So this year, for the first time, the birds are meeting their fate right here on this farm.

STILLMAN: This is my butcher, John Steines.

JOHN STEINES: I was told that I had a knife in my hand before I had a pencil so...

ARNOLD: That doesn't sound very safe.

STEINES: Yeah. Well, I grew up doing this with my father on the farm.

ARNOLD: Kate Stillman says she's lucky to have such a good butcher here in her new building, which is called an abattoir in the local food world and in foodie culture.

STILLMAN: How many birds you guys do?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: A hundred twenty five.

STILLMAN: A hundred and twenty five birds.

ARNOLD: It actually took Kate Stillman three years to get all the right permits and to build this place. And finding a bank to loan her the money - that wasn't too easy either.

STILLMAN: A single female opening up a slaughterhouse, you know, raises some eyebrows. I sat in a room full of bankers who said to me, like, wouldn't you rather bake cookies? You know, it's hard. You can either choose to be offended, or you can take it and tuck it in your back pocket and keep going.

ARNOLD: And that's what Kate Stillman and her farm crew is doing.

STILLMAN: We've really had things cranked up. We've been, you know, running 'til late at night. We all sat down and shared a beer last night and said, we did this.

ARNOLD: And because of that, 700 people around Massachusetts will have a locally raised and butchered bird from Stillman's farm for Thanksgiving. Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.