GREAT BARRINGTON — At the Hilltown Pork butchery in Canaan, New York, near the West Stockbridge town line, workers can only process so much beef, pork, lamb and goat meat.
There isn’t enough space or staffing for all that is produced by Hilltown’s 220 farms — 30 to 40 of which are in Berkshire County — and the pace of operations is wearing out equipment that can easily run up to $30,000 to replace.
There are no meat processors in the Berkshires, so farmers bring their animals to various butcheries in the region and beyond.
“There’s not enough of us to take care of the demand that’s out there,” said Ben Beckwith, Hilltown’s vice president, owner and general manager. He said he’s seen this demand rise over the last 15 years, and a spike that began during the pandemic as residents developed new buying habits to avoid grocery stores. “People want to know where their food is coming from a lot more than in the past.”
Enter Berkshire Agricultural Ventures with a solution.
The nonprofit last month received a $630,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The grant comes through the USDA Rural Development Meat and Poultry Intermediary Lending Program. Combined with $210,000 in donations from the community, the nonprofit will establish an $840,000 revolving loan fund intended to help meat processors in the Berkshire-Taconic foodshed absorb more deliveries from farms.
It also allows the nonprofit to expand assistance through its Local Meat Processing Support Program — offering free technical help, loans, grant-writing and other support.
Berkshire Agricultural Venture’s mission is to keep local food agriculture in the Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut region viable and thriving.
“We want to try to mitigate the bottleneck that exists,” said Jake Levin, manager of Berkshire Agricultural Venture’s meat processing support program. “Part of the problem is that [farms] are sending all their animals [for processing] at the same time.”
That’s because the prime time for slaughter is late summer and fall when animals are fattened up after eating rich forage, explained Levin, himself a butcher and charcuterie expert. That’s when flavor will be the best.
Both ends of the business are fraught. There aren’t enough processors, “a high cost operation” Levin said. And staffing problems have added to the trouble. Farmers have to drive sometimes long distances to deliver animals and return again to pick up the butchered meat.
There’s always a backlog.
“They have to schedule processing a year ahead,” Levin said, “in some cases before the animal has even gestated.”
Berkshire farmers told The Eagle in 2021 that the great challenge of raising meat animals is finding a processor.
The low-interest loans will help. The money will be available for purchases and renovations that include expansion of cutting rooms, building new coolers or smokehouses, Levin said.
It could help pay for a refrigerated truck or an automated sausage stuffer.
While the loans will only be available initially to meat processors, when repaid, the money can be loaned out again more broadly to others in that food production chain.
“In terms of the long-term picture, this is a huge game changer,” Levin said.
Beckwith, of Hilltown Pork, said he had just been talking to his wife about applying for a loan — Hilltown needs to expand two work rooms, buy a new walk-in cooler and two machines that will run around $30,000 each, including a cryovac food sealer machine.
“Very expensive things,” Beckwith said, “for very small businesses like ourselves.”