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Suffolk looks to reopen unused slaughterhouse

Acabonac Farms in Shelter Island raises grass-fed beef cattle, but does not have access to a local USDA processing facility. On Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, the farm's Stephen Skrenta talked about how having to travel long distances to process his beef is bad for the final product, and his hopes that someone will work with Suffolk County to bring the Yaphank processing facility up to commercial standards. Credit: Randee Daddona

Suffolk County’s Department of Economic Development, usually occupied with attracting new businesses to or keeping established ones from leaving Long Island, is looking to literally grow it on the hoof at the nearly 100-year-old county farm in Yaphank.

The agency is looking to find farmers, entrepreneurs or meat processors — or a combination of the three — to reopen the unused slaughterhouse and surrounding farm acres.

Backers say the plan will encourage increased livestock production, develop agri-employment opportunities and serve restaurants that prefer meat from homegrown livestock.

Suffolk has issued a request for proposals to lease the meat-processing facility as well as 123 acres on the 200-acre farm for periods of three years or more.

Bidders also would have to invest $20,000 for refrigeration units to revive operations at what would be the only USDA-approved meatpacking plant in Suffolk. The deadline for bids is Sept. 15.

“This project will increase economic opportunities for local farmers, help them raise local livestock and reduce their operating costs,” said Jason Elan, spokesman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

The public’s appetite for locally grown farm-to-table foods, officials say, makes reopening the meat-processing facility a good investment and could broaden operations of farms in Suffolk, the third-largest agricultural county in New York.

Until now, the livestock business has languished locally because it is costly to truck animals upstate or to New Jersey, Pennsylvania or New England for processing.

“I think it’s something that would grow. You’re talking about high-quality meat and people want to know where it is coming from,” said Legis. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), a farmer. “Even if farmers add a small number of pigs or other livestock to be sold, it could be a big benefit.”

Edwin Fishel Tuccio, a Riverhead real estate agent who has raised a herd of 250 bison as well as Texas longhorn cattle, said, “We’ve spent $1 billion on preserving farms, but not one dollar to preserve farmers.”

“We need a whole new group of farmers and to add new and different markets,” Tuccio said.

Suffolk first sought bids to lease the meat-processing facility last year, but the lone response came from Acabonac Farms LLC in Amagansett, which sought to have the county add land near the building to make the project more feasible. That led to the revised county RFP.

Stephen Skrenta, an Acabonac principal, said their company was reviewing the new proposal but adding the extra space was “exactly the right call.” He said the firm had acquired 50 head of cattle locally and had about 200 statewide, all kept on leased land. He added the firm was looking to lease additional property locally and had already taken preorders for meat. On the web, the company touts its “pasture finished” cattle, raised at the edge of the Atlantic with “the taste of sea salt-infused air in every bite.”

The 50-year-old 3,720-square-foot food-processing facility — never opened to the public — was shuttered nearly two years ago. It was once used to train inmates as butchers and provided meat for prisoners and local emergency food pantries. It is part of the county farm that includes a barn on the National Register of Historic Places and has an educational center run by the Cornell Cooperative Extension on the 77 remaining acres.

In its past operation as a training site, the county meat-processing building raised and used about 15 steers and a 100 hogs annually, providing 20,000 pounds of meat, but bid documents estimate it could be expanded to handle as many as 5,000 animals a year.

The county is asking those interested to develop a plan that details potential use of the land and the meatpacking building as well as plans for marketing the products that might be generated from beef, hogs, lamb, poultry and even bison.

A 2012 federal Agriculture Department survey showed 187,000 poultry were raised locally at 19 farms generating $24.1 million. There were 402 cattle, hogs and pigs at 23 farms generating $87,000 as well as 300 bison and 176 sheep whose dollar figures were not available.

Rob Carpenter, the Long Island Farm Bureau’s executive director, said interest in livestock production had increased but he had no new statistics. He estimates livestock now makes up about one or two percent of Suffolk’s $240 million agriculture industry, but farmers support creating a meat-processing facility as another way to stay in business. “You need the infrastructure to grow the capacity, but if you build it, they will come,” Carpenter said. “It’s another means of preserving farmland and keeping working farms going.”

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