In this January 2020 file photo, Cows on Alex Zetterman's St. Agatha farm munch on fresh hay. Maine meat and poultry producers often struggle to find and schedule processors for their products. New federal funds could help expand those options. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

Logging 300 miles to get poultry and meat rabbits processed. Scheduling beef or pork processing up to a year ahead of time to ensure a reservation. Dealing with a complete lack of culturally specific slaughter facilities.

These are among the challenges hindering the ability of smaller meat producers in Maine to meet local demand.

There are only six federally inspected and licensed slaughterhouses in Maine that process meat animals or poultry for resale. There are 43 so-called custom slaughterhouses that process meat for animal owners, meat which cannot be re-sold.

Those who raise meat animals in the state say that’s nowhere near enough. But millions of dollars in federal funds are aimed at opening up the bottleneck.

Linda Clough Frechette has already spent more than $14,000 upgrading space on her small farm so she and her son can process some of the pork and chicken they raise for meat. But they’d like to do more.

“We share with friends, neighbors and family and they have friends, neighbors and family that want to participate, but we can’t increase production to meet that demand,” Frechette said. “We are limited in what we can do on the farm and getting a butchering spot for pigs means planning for that at least a year ahead.”

Animals must be slaughtered at the perfect stage of maturity to maximize quality and minimize cost. Timing that with the limited number of Maine slaughterhouses is a constant struggle, according to Scott Huber of Itty Bitty Farms in Columbia Falls, where the nearest slaughter facility is 75 miles away.

“It’s an issue we deal with all year round,” Huber said. “For me to be able to sell my quail, chicken, rabbit and pig meat I need to take it to the processor, pay those fees and then go back to pick it up, and I can’t sell those cuts of meat at a reasonable price to make it a viable retail business from my farm.”

It’s a frustrating situation for Huber, who said there is an existing market for locally raised meat and poultry.

According to Rhiannon Hampson, Maine state director of the United States Department of Agriculture, Rural Development, the solution is clear. More slaughter facilities are needed, either on the farms or as stand-alone businesses.

The Biden administration has included more than $250 million to fund grants and loan guarantees of up to $25 million each to expand existing slaughter facilities or start up new ones.

“This is a significant amount of money,” Hampson said. “We want to make sure every Maine farmer is aware of these programs and can take advantage of what is available to them.”

The two USDA programs supplying the funds are the Meat and Poultry Processing Expansion Program  and the Food Supply Chain Guaranteed Loan Program.”

Both are limited to small producers.

“These are new programs that [President Joe Biden] rolled out to address a number of things, including inequity in small processing systems and leveling the playing field,” Hampson said. “As a farmer, I can’t just grow cattle or pigs or chickens for the fun of it — they need to have a place to go to be processed for sale.”

Among those looking for such a place are Kathryn Piper and her husband Hussam Alrawi, who want to produce halal meat for themselves and Maine’s Muslim population.

Halal meat is an essential part of the Muslim faith. It is processed in certified facilities by Muslims by hand, never by machine. It follows the traditional Islamic slaughtering practice, which is believed to be more humane.

It is the only meat practicing Muslims are permitted to eat and the nearest Halal-certified slaughter facility is in Connecticut.

Lack of a Halal-certified facility is a significant obstacle for their farm business, according to Piper.

“Our goal is a USDA and Halal-certified slaughter facility so we can provide the Muslim population in the state access to locally produced meat,” Piper said. “Right now all Halal meat is imported into Maine.”

Piper and Alrawi began the process of starting up their slaughter facilities last summer and had hoped USDA grants would help boost the project. However, one available grant’s deadline has passed and she is not sure they can complete the MPPEP application in time for the April submission deadline.

That process requires a feasibility study and a National Environmental Policy Act review. Both are time-consuming and can be costly, she said, though Hampson said her office and the University of Maine Extension offices are ready to assist and can help reduce those costs.

They were able to submit a Maine Agricultural Infrastructure Investment grant late last year and hope to hear soon if they will receive the $500,000. It will go toward constructing, equipping and operating a Halal facility on their farm.

Total cost for that project, according to Alrawi, could run as high as $1.5 million, so the couple is looking to supplement any grant funds through loans and private investors.

Hampson wants to see small producers like Piper and Alrawi expand and she wants them to use any and all available state or federal funds to do so.

“There are other grants available to help offset costs,” Hampson said. “All of it is aimed at investing in these small producers and helping the local economies.”

Those producers, she said, purchase a lot of what they need locally to run their farms, including fuel, feed and building materials.

Frechette sees the grants as a good start to solving Maine’s meat processing needs.

“You need equipment, you need space and you need the help,” Frechette said. “The grant money is good, but it’s just going to scratch the surface because of the enormous need.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.