Farmers say efforts to open a slaughterhouse in Suffolk County could be a game changer for a small but growing group of Long Islanders raising cattle, sheep, pigs and even bison.
Suffolk officials are trying to boost the industry by seeking a private operator for a county-owned slaughterhouse at the Suffolk County Farm in Yaphank. If they find one, Long Island livestock growers could process meat without trailering animals to slaughterhouses upstate or to Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, a Riverhead education nonprofit, has run the county’s slaughterhouse since 1974 as a training facility for jail inmates, who butcher animals raised at the county farm and send the meat to jail cafeterias or food banks.
Suffolk officials, who began seeking a private operator on Jan. 14, said the move could lower costs for a Long Island livestock industry that has grown 93 percent since 2007 with the popularity of the farm-to-table movement.
Herb Strobel, who raises cattle, sheep and goats at his Center Moriches farm, said he has seen a rebirth of livestock farming in the past five years linked to mounting interest in locally grown food.
“If a local processing facility were to come into operation, I would certainly very seriously consider expanding my livestock operation,” said Strobel, owner of Thee’s Dairy Farm.
But some in the farming community question whether Long Island’s livestock industry is big enough for a privately run slaughterhouse to turn a profit. County officials said the industry has the potential to produce 5,000 animals a year — an estimate some farmers said is too high.
“There aren’t enough animals right now,” said Dee Muma, who raises about 200 bison on North Quarter Farm in Riverhead.
Muma said she drives her 1,200-pound animals to Pennsylvania for slaughter. That takes three hours or more, she said, and the journey takes a toll on the bison and the meat.
“Because they’re moved so far, some of them get into stress,” she said. “And because they’re stressed, they get tough because they’re tensing their muscles.” Muma said she copes with the toughness by grinding the meat before selling it at her Dark Horse Restaurant in Riverhead.
Tom Geppel and Carol Festa, who started 8 Hands Farm in Cutchogue in 2011, take their Icelandic sheep and pigs on the Cross Sound Ferry, then drive them two hours to a slaughterhouse in upstate Canaan. Three weeks later, they return to pick up the butchered and packaged meat.
Geppel said a Yaphank facility could bring the couple closer to their goal of selling freshly butchered meat from their farm.
“I’d love it because I could go every week, every two weeks, and have fresh meat here,” said Geppel, who is also a tax accountant. But Geppel said slaughtering fees fall around $30 per lamb, $50 per pig and $100 per cattle — prices that require a heavy flow of animals to sustain a slaughterhouse.
Brewster McCall, whose family began raising Charolais cattle amid their pinot grigio grapevines in Cutchogue a few years ago, said the demand for the farm’s beef shows there is untapped potential in Long Island’s livestock industry.
“If we do get a local slaughterhouse for Long Island, I think the livestock business is just going to boom,” he said. “The opportunity is there.”