BROOKSVILLE, Maine — Rob Cushman believes there is a better way to kill farm animals than to load them in a truck and drive the anxious pigs, steers, goats and sheep to the nearest slaughterhouse, which in Maine can often be hours away.
That’s why he and Jake Hearst, both of Brooksville, have decided to turn their shared belief into a business. Blue Hill Itinerant Slaughter — known by many in the Blue Hill Peninsula as “A Kinder Kill” — is a mobile slaughterhouse that travels around the area to dispatch animals on the farms where they have been raised. While there are many such facilities in Europe and some in other parts of the country, they have not yet caught on in Maine. That is a shame, Cushman said.
“Animals are much more afraid of being separated from the herd than they are of guns and knives,” Cushman said. “I think that done well, it is a very fulfilling practice. I think we need to get a lot closer to death in our culture. For me, when we do it respectfully and effectively, I find it empowering — as if we’ve helped the larger picture.”
In Maine, the bigger picture could definitely include more mobile slaughterhouses that would help farmers and homesteaders with the necessary and sometimes difficult task of killing their meat animals, according to Cushman and other local food supply activists. Under the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s on-farm slaughter exemption, Blue Hill Itinerant Slaughter is allowed only to kill animals for the personal use of the farmer or homesteader that hired them. They are not allowed to butcher the animals, Cushman said, adding that the most they can legally do is quarter and chill the animal.
The work Cushman and Hearst do is good for farmers, said Clifton Page of East Blue Hill, who runs the Lucy’s Granola company and has a strong interest in the local food movement. But he would like to see another facility get started in the area that could do on-farm slaughtering and butchering and meet U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations so that the farmers could then sell the meat.
“Rob has been doing local slaughter around here and has done our steers for us the last couple of years,” Page said this week. “He’s great. But he doesn’t have all the facilities. We can’t sell the meat he’s slaughtered to anybody. The idea is to help local farms and also to encourage more people to raise large meat animals that they can then sell. It’ll provide a local source of high-quality, pasture-raised meat. It could change Maine agriculture overnight, if we could get this going.”
Page is inviting those interested in a cooperative mobile slaughter and butchering facility to an open discussion next week at the Blue Hill Wineshop. He’s hoping for a good turnout and believes that a lot of people in the area could benefit from such a facility, if it can get off the ground. Current regulations would require that the mobile slaughterhouse would have a properly outfitted trailer and cooling unit, and that the participating farms would have a suitable septic system, potable water supply and electricity.
“Most farms have exactly those things in this day and age,” he said.
The ability to slaughter farm animals on the farm can help farmers and make it easier on the animals, he said. But he also thinks it improves the quality of the meat.
“Pasture-raised makes a world of difference,” Page said. “But if we have to put those steers in a trailer and ship them two and a half hours away to be slaughtered, they arrive stressed. Their adrenaline levels are high, and you can taste it in the meat.”
Michele Pfannenstiel, the president of the Cumberland Center-based consulting company Dirigo Food Safety, will be talking about the possibilities of a cooperative mobile slaughterhouse at the open discussion.
“What they’ve done in Europe is have people come together in cooperatives to ensure financing,” she said. “That’s a really big part of this, because slaughter’s expensive.”
But if the financing can be found, she believes it will be worth it for Maine farmers.
“I absolutely think that Mainers coming together to create a steady supply chain of animals that can be processed is one of the clear ways forward in local meat agriculture,” she said. “People are so involved in the conversation here in Maine — this is such an opportunity for Maine to lead the way.”
Cushman said that Blue Hill Itinerant Slaughter went from being a good idea to a viable business thanks to a couple of grants from Maine Farmland Trust, including a $10,000 grant in 2014 that they spent on outfitting the trailer with knives, a gun, a scalding barrel, hoist chains and a walk-in cooler. In 2015, another $3,000 grant from the Belfast-based nonprofit organization let them build a boom to support large animals such as pigs and cattle.
“It was really exciting to get their application,” Ellen Sabina of the Maine Farmland Trust said Thursday. “It seemed like it was such a cool idea. I think the Blue Hill peninsula is just full of families that are either homesteading or have a small farm and need that service. Something we hear a lot from farmers is that they don’t have access to slaughtering services that they need.”
The duo got business cards, put them up at the Blue Hill Co-op, and watched as their business grew.
“We’re the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot of demand. It’s growing. And it would be great to find a way to make the meat commercially saleable,” he said.
Business has been brisk for their mobile slaughterhouse, but neither Cushman nor Hearst has been able to quit their day job. Last year, the duo dispatched about 300 chickens, 20 pigs, 10 goats and sheep, and two beef steers, and they are on pace to do about the same amount of slaughtering this year. They charge about $150 for a pig, $130 for a goat or sheep, $170 for a cattle and $5 for a chicken, with a $50 set-up charge. Cushman said they prefer slaughtering at least 30 birds.
They’ve been getting calls from farther afield than the Blue Hill peninsula but have had to turn some down because the economics of taking their rig so far just don’t make sense.
“It’s small time for sure, but there is plenty of room for growth,” Cushman said. “It would be neat to have a brick and mortar shop someday, paired with a mobile slaughter unit.”
He said that he thinks lots of other places in Maine could benefit from having other slaughter options that would allow animals to be killed on the farm.
“There are a lot of benefits,” he said. “It’s great to spill an animal’s blood on the grass where it lived.”
The open discussion about a cooperative mobile slaughter and butchering facility will be held at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3, at the Blue Hill Wineshop at 138 Main Street in Blue Hill. For more information, call 374-2251. To contact Blue Hill Itinerant Slaughter, email firstname.lastname@example.org.