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Maine meat producers frustrated by slaughterhouse backlogs

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Maine meat producers frustrated by slaughterhouse backlogs


Just as the pandemic was taking off, Caldwell Family Farm in Turner lost a large beef customer. Workers thought the farm might go out of business. Instead, local demand made up the difference. Photo courtesy of Caldwell Family Farm

John Carter’s family has been farming in Bethel since 1791. His business, Middle Intervale Farm, brings roughly 200 head of livestock to market every year, and sells beef, lamb, eggs and produce throughout Maine.

During the pandemic, as large processing plants closed, demand for the farm’s beef went up – but the availability of spots at the local slaughterhouse went down.

“I definitely got cut back,” Carter said, meaning he had to keep animals, and pay to feed them, for a longer period. “I got stuck with 30 to 40 hogs. That sucked.”

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While demand for local meat is rising in Maine, some livestock producers are finding it hard to get animals processed in a timely manner.

The slaughterhouse backlog began in 2020. As large meatpackers across the nation temporarily shut down or reduced their intake, smaller processors took up some of the slack.

Labor shortages, supply chain disruptions and an increased demand for local meat meant many livestock producers had to wait several months to process animals.

The pandemic changed the landscape for both producers and processors, said Jennifer Eberly, the director of Maine’s meat and poultry inspection program, noting that most of the state’s slaughterhouses saw a marked increase in requests for slaughter and processing.

Before the pandemic, Maine’s state-inspected slaughterhouses produced under a million pounds of dressed weight red meat per year. In 2022 and 2023, that figure jumped to around 1.5 million.

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And the new demand isn’t going away soon.

“I believe the panic over not being able to get meat during the pandemic has increased the visibility of these small local facilities,” Eberly said, noting that such facilities were able to continue providing meat when grocery stores and large distributors could not.

“Although those initial wild months of working nonstop at slaughterhouses have passed, most slaughterhouses are still doing more business than they did pre-pandemic,” she said.

Josh Burrill has a herd of Highland cattle in Palmyra. Though he characterizes himself as a “go-with-the-flow” farmer, he said there were “choke points” that added costs and made things difficult during the pandemic. He remembered one slaughterhouse that had a six-month waitlist.

“They had a 100-pig backup,” he said, noting that keeping a pig for an extra six months would be financially disastrous.

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Percy Lorette, an experienced farmer and butcher, is in the process of creating a slaughterhouse in the central Maine town of Athens called Cold Creek Processing, which will specialize in sausage and smoked meats.

In the first year, Lorette plans on being a custom-exempt plant, meaning the meat can be consumed by the owner but not sold. The following year, he hopes to turn Cold Creek into a state-inspected facility, which means its products could be sold to co-ops, restaurants and at farmer’s markets.

He plans to hire several employees, with the goal of processing 1,500 to 2,000 animals per year. Comprising 2,400 square feet, Cold Creek Processing will serve the small farmers that dominate Maine’s beef industry – farmers who market 10 to 15 beef animals per year.

“I know there’s a definite need for it,” Lorette said. “For many farmers, they’re looking at six months to a year to get appointments.”

In the last two years, state and federal agencies have poured more than a million dollars into improving Maine’s livestock processing infrastructure. Just last week, Rep. Chellie Pingree announced a nearly $250,000 federal grant to expand meat processing operations at Short Creek Meats in Kennebunk.

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“Supporting local food not only benefits small-scale producers and processors, it is also good for the health of our communities and for our environment,” Pingree said in a statement. “This investment will expand Short Creek Meats’ processing power, reducing costs and boosting production to deliver high quality, locally grown food for consumers in Maine and across New England.”

Christian Jensen’s operation in Pittston, called Morton Brook Ranch, is among Maine’s smaller livestock producers. He started his farm during the pandemic and usually has eight bovines, 240 chickens and roughly 40 sheep processed each year.

Jensen said demand for his meat was “quite high” during the pandemic, and there were a few times when he had difficulty finding a spot at a slaughterhouse.

“They were booked out,” he said.

Because of the small size of his operation, Jensen was able to make other arrangements. Still, he said he had to travel farther than was ideal, and hold on to animals longer than he wanted.

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Most slaughterhouses are in southern and central Maine. This means farmers in places like Aroostook County have to drive for hours to get to a processor.

Hatch’s Custom Meat Cutting in Crystal recently became a state-inspected facility to help address that issue. Rooney’s Meat Shop in Mapleton is also upgrading to become a state-inspected slaughterhouse.

Not everyone thinks there’s a problem with access to slaughterhouses.

“I don’t think there is any bottleneck in the industry,” said Gabe Clark of Cold Spring Ranch in New Portland.

While many farmers slaughter animals in the fall after months on pasture, Clark takes a different approach, using high-quality hay to keep livestock fed during the winter.

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“We butcher every single week of the year,” he said, noting this helps even out the workload for the slaughterhouses. “Processors need to make a living year-round, too.”

Caldwell Family Farm in Turner is one of the larger family-owned beef operations in Maine. The farm generally runs around 500 head of cattle and sends somewhere between three and nine animals to be processed every week.

Just as the pandemic was taking off, Caldwell Family Farm lost a large beef customer and thought the farm might go out of business. Instead, local demand made up the difference.

One advantage of being a relatively large producer is it allows the farmer to establish a consistent, predictable relationship with a slaughterhouse, Deedee Caldwell said.

“He never says no,” Caldwell said of Luce’s Maine Grown Meats, the slaughterhouse she uses. Caldwell Family Farm has its animals slaughtered at Luce’s and processes the meat at its own USDA-inspected facility.

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Jayson Buzzell of JB Meats in Greene knows meat processing inside and out. His grandparents started the operation in the 1970s, and he took over during the pandemic.

“I’ve worked here my entire life,” he said.

Business has been steady, he said, with customers coming from as far as Massachusetts. The fall, when most farmers want to have animals processed and avoid feeding for another winter, is his busiest season.

Still, Buzzell said he can usually squeeze an emergency customer in by spending an extra day slaughtering. He normally slaughters two days a week and processes animals for the rest of the week.

Buzzell has considered applying for grants but in the end has always decided against it.

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“If I can do this with just my hard work and dedication, that’s what I’ll do,” he said. “That’s who I am.”

This story was originally published by The Maine Monitor, a nonprofit and nonpartisan news organization. To get regular coverage from the Monitor, sign up for a free Monitor newsletter here.


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Bakery outlets close across Maine, New England

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Bakery outlets close across Maine, New England


CONCORD, N.H. — The company that produces baked goods for brands including Arnold bread, Entenmann’s and others has closed 28 outlet stores in the Northeast.

Bimbo Bakeries USA said in a press release that its products still will be found on grocery store shelves. The company’s brands also include Boboli, Lender’s Bagels, Sara Lee and Thomas.

The closed stores included outlets in New York, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire.

The New Hampshire locations – Concord, Hooksett, Keene and Lebanon – were called Freihofer’s Bakery Outlets.

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Maine Shooter's Commanding Army Officer Acknowledges His Inaction over Missed Counseling Sessions

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Maine Shooter's Commanding Army Officer Acknowledges His Inaction over Missed Counseling Sessions


AUGUSTA, Maine — The commanding officer of an Army reservist responsible for the deadliest shooting in Maine history acknowledged to an independent commission on Thursday that he didn’t take action when the reservist skipped counselor sessions, and didn’t attempt to verify that the shooter’s family took away his guns.

Capt. Jeremy Reamer said he understood that the shooter, Robert Card, was suffering from a psychiatric breakdown during training last summer but said he was limited in the level of oversight he could provide after Card returned home and was no longer actively participating in drills with his Army Reserve unit.

Under questioning, Reamer said he was aware that Card was not going to mandated counseling sessions and acknowledged that an email problem prevented him from seeing a July message pertaining to Card’s health until after the Oct. 25 shootings.

But Reamer defended his decision to rely on a subordinate, an Army reservist who was Card’s best friend, to serve as a go-between with Card’s family. The reservist, Sean Hodgson, told Reamer that he reached out to Card’s family in Bowdoin and that family members agreed to take away his guns after he was hospitalized. Reamer said he thought those actions were adequate, and insisted that as an Army Reserve officer, he had no jurisdiction over Card’s personal guns.

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“My understanding was that an agreement was made and the family agreed to remove the weapons from the home,” Reamer told Commissioner Toby Dilworth, who expressed skepticism about leaving such an important task for the family to handle. “I just know that the family agreed to remove the firearms,” Reamer said.

Reamer, who gave up control of the Maine-based unit after what he described as a routine change of command in February, was called back to testify after his previous testimony was cut short because of time constraints.

Commissioners used the break to review medical records, text exchanges, emails and call logs before peppering Reamer with more questions over several hours Thursday at the University of Maine at Augusta. At one point, Reamer suggested that more aggressive actions and oversight would have been possible if Card had been a full-time soldier instead of a reservist.

Others testifying Thursday included several survivors who spoke of the horror of the shooting and the difficulties they encountered afterward. Some witnesses said a lack of translators fluent in American Sign Language hampered communications with deaf survivors and deaf family members of victims.

Dr. Mark Flomenbaum, the state’s retired chief medical examiner, said it was difficult to ascertain the gunman’s time of death. But Flomenbaum, who testified via Zoom, stood by his earlier assessment that Card died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound that likely happened 12 to 18 hours before his body was found.

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Flomenbaum’s conclusions suggested that Card was alive and possibly on the run during much of the two-day search, the biggest in state history. Card’s body was found in the back of a tractor-trailer on a former employer’s property.

Appointed by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, the independent commission is determining facts around the shooting that claimed 18 lives at a bowling alley and at a bar and grill, both in Lewiston.

In its interim report released last month, the commission concluded that the Sagadahoc County sheriff’s office had probable cause under Maine’s “yellow flag” law to take Card into custody and seize his guns because he was experiencing a psychiatric crisis and was a danger to others.

Maine lawmakers are currently debating whether the law, which requires police to initiate the process, should be supplemented with a “red flag” law, which would allow family members or others to directly petition a judge to remove guns from someone in a psychiatric crisis. It’s one of several mental health and gun control measures being considered by the Maine Legislature in response to October’s mass shooting.

The commission’s work is far from complete, Chairman Dan Wathen said last month.

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“Nothing we do can ever change what happened on that terrible day, but knowing the facts can help provide the answers that the victims, their families and the people of Maine need and deserve,” he said.

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Maine Republicans Censured For Linking Mass Shooting To God’s Anger With Abortion Law

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Maine Republicans Censured For Linking Mass Shooting To God’s Anger With Abortion Law


Two Republican lawmakers in Maine were censured on Thursday after the pair said the state’s deadliest mass shooting was linked to God’s anger with a bill that expanded access to abortion.

Republican state Rep. Michael Lemelin spoke Wednesday about a proposal for a new “shield bill” that would protect out-of-state patients who seek abortion or gender-affirming care in Maine. In his remarks, Lemelin said abortion was “murder” and pointed to the implementation of another abortion access bill on Oct. 25, the same day a gunman killed 18 people after he opened fire at a bowling alley and restaurant.

“[God] draws a line in the sand, and when we crossed that line there’s consequences,” the lawmaker said on the chamber floor. “When [the law] passed and went into law on Oct. 25, you told God life doesn’t matter.”

“Keep in mind that the law came into effect on Oct. 25,” Lemelin continued. “God heard you and the horrible events on Oct. 25 happened.”

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Another Republican lawmaker, state Rep. Shelley Rudnicki, rose and said she agreed with her colleague.

The two were formally censured by the House on Thursday. They both apologized on the chamber floor.

The comments initially prompted an immediate, bipartisan rebuke from others in Maine’s Democrat-led House of Representatives. State Rep. Rachel Henderson (R) said she didn’t agree with the bill, but called Lemelin’s comments “reprehensible.”

“Although it’s not my place, I apologize to every member who was here and heard that and took offense,” Henderson said on the chamber floor. “I’m proud of where I stand. I’m proud of the positions that I take, but tonight I am not proud to be a Republican.”

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State House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross sent letters to both lawmakers, calling the comments “extremely offensive and intentionally harmful to the victims and families” of the mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine.

“To make satisfaction, you must issue a formal apology, which you will read on the House floor,” Talbot Ross wrote in each letter. “You must accept sole and full responsibility for the incident and publicly apologize to your constituents, the victims, and families of the Lewiston tragedy, the greater Lewiston community, and the people of Maine.”

She added the House would vote on a censure motion on Thursday, and said they would both be barred from speaking on the chamber floor or voting until they apologized.

“Your actions are deserving of the most serious consequences this body can deliver,” Talbot Ross wrote.

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A censure — which is rare in the Maine House, according to The Bangor Daily News — requires a two-thirds vote of the chamber. Democrats hold an 80-68 majority.





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