NEW MILFORD – When Margery Feldberg invites visitors to De Hoek Farm, on the rural outskirts of this sprawling town where housing developments spill beyond a Route 7 retail strip, she sends written directions.
A cellphone GPS might route you onto a loop of dirt roads that meander toward the 100-acre-farm where she raises Black Angus beef, but it may not actually find the way. Follow my notes, Feldberg advises. And watch out of the potholes, she warns.
The hilltop farm she has shared since 1983 with her husband, Jeremy Levin, is among the most rural parts of the state, where a farm-to-table movement is thriving. That’s a trend statewide; the Department of Agriculture reports farmers’ markets have boomed to 130 from 35 just a few years ago, with shoppers looking for locally produced food.
When it comes to locally produced meat, however, one critical need hasn’t caught up with demand: Places to harvest those steaks, chops and ribs.
Farmers who raise livestock served in local restaurants and sold at farmers’ markets and in grocery stores say consumer desire is driving a need for more U.S. Department of Agriculture inspected facilities to harvest and butcher their meat.
Feldberg and her farm serve as timely examples of that need. She wants to expand her operation so De Hoek Farm would become the state’s fourth full-service USDA approved slaughterhouse.
Currently, De Hoek can process meat from its Black Angus for its customers. With the change, other farmers could bring their livestock to De Hoek, which could butcher meat for their businesses. “This is in response to an extremely informed public that is also embracing the movement,” Feldberg said.
The change requires zoning approval. New Milford’s right-to-farm ordinance allowed Feldberg three years ago to build a USDA inspected abattoir for her own farm’s use. The lack of facilities for all farms is “the weak link in livestock breeding,” Feldberg told the zoning board on Feb. 27.
A quality slaughterhouse knows how to take an animal down as quickly and painless as possible, but also follows all health and safety precautions for processing the meat. “There’s not enough people skilled in slaughtering,” Feldberg said. “It’s a disappearing skill.”
The New Milford board is examining regulations to allow a special permit for farms like De Hoek’s to slaughter and process meat from other farms. At a March 27 meeting the board approved a 35-day extension to rule.
Meeting minutes show commissioners want to prevent a large-scale slaughter operation, with rumbling tractor-trailers hauling live animals in and meat and waste out.
Feldberg said she doesn’t want a large-scale operation. She lives there and agrees with the careful approach zoning officials are taking. She said she is mindful of her neighbors and their concerns for not wanting to be disturbed.
Meanwhile, consumer demand shows no sign of lagging.
The state’s farming directory lists more than 80 livestock farms that raise beef, bison, veal, lamb, sheep and goats and a total beef cattle headcount of 6,000.
“The increase in local livestock processing capacity is welcomed progress for Connecticut farmers,” said Steven K. Reviczky, commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture. He said the planned and recent growth in the number of slaughterhouses provides opportunities to farmers that can reduce transportation costs, and distance.
“This has long been identified as a weak spot in Connecticut’s food system,” he said.
The USDA approved Plymouth Meats’ Terryville business in March. The others which harvest and butcher meat under USDA inspection are Tarzia Meat Packaging in New Milford and New England Meat Packaging in Stafford Springs.
Other businesses including Litchfield Locker and Bristol Beef either slaughter or butcher, but don’t do both.
“If a farmer goes to Bristol Beef to have an animal slaughtered then he has to pick up the meat and drive it over to Litchfield Locker to hang and process it,” said Feldberg.
De Hoek’s plan is pending changes to zoning ordinances, which restrict commercial meat processing to industrial zones.
Katie Adkins, a butcher of 12 years, opened Plymouth Meats in November in the town’s industrial park.
A former butcher at Litchfield Locker, she saw the demand for locally farmed meat throughout the state and southern New England.
“We’re the last step in the process,” said Adkins, whose waiting list grew to 24 farmers as her USDA certification was pending.
De Hoek Farm has a herd of 50 Black Angus cattle on 200 acres, half owned and half leased.
Its slaughterhouse looks like a hospital operating room, with washable white walls, and no more smell than the meat isle of a grocery store.
Livestock farmers who live near a commercial slaughterhouse or a processing facility consider themselves fortunate.
Established in 1942, Toplands Farm in Roxbury spans 625 acres. Dudley G. Diebold and his wife Nonie co-own the farm. They specialize in grass-fed beef, chickens and pork. They have a 50-head cattle herd and use Tarzia Meat Packaging.
Jason Tarzia, who took over the New Milford business in 2006, but started in the industry in 1996, said he and his girlfriend Jennifer Gamzon, who helps with the business, harvested and butchered about 150 head of beef and 200 pigs last year.
Their customers come from nearby New Milford, Roxbury and Bridgewater and also from towns farther away, including Canaan, Goshen, Watertown and Westbrook.
“We’re consistently busy and we get busier every year,” Gamzon said.
She said they have 15 monthly customers and work by appointment.
Tarzia and Gamzon said they aren’t concerned if De Hoek Farm gains approval to be another regional slaughterhouse. “There’s enough business to go around for everyone,” Tarzia said. “We’re all in it together.”
New Milford: Agricultural sweet spot
In the rolling hills of southwest Litchfield County, New Milford is the largest town in Connecticut by square miles at 63.7. It has almost 2,700 acres, or 4.2 square miles, dedicated to agriculture.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which rounds off its statistics, reports there are 6,000 farms in Connecticut with an average size of 73 acres comprising 440,000 acres. As of Jan. 1 the USDA reported 6,000 cattle raised for beef, 19,000 cattle raised for dairy and a total of 50,000 cattle including calves.
Meat harvesting in Connecticut
Baretta Provision, East Berlin – USDA inspection during processing (no slaughtering)
Bristol Beef Co., Bristol – USDA inspection during processing (no slaughtering)
Litchfield Locker, Litchfield – USDA inspection during processing (no slaughtering)
New England Meat Packing, Stafford Springs – USDA inspected slaughter and processing
Latella and Sons, Orange – USDA inspected slaughter, no processing except for deer
Tarzia Meat Packaging Co., New Milford – USDA Inspected slaughter and processing
Plymouth Meats, Terryville – USDA inspected slaughter and processing
This feature and De Hoek Farm photos by Alicia Sakal originally appeared online and on the front page of the April 23, 2018 edition of Republican-American, a regional daily newspaper in 36 towns and cities in Litchfield County and Greater Waterbury, Connecticut.