New Claremont meat packing cooperative aims to meet region’s needs

  • Zach Maguira, left, tosses a cut of pork into a bin on a table in front of Dan Gagnon as they work on an order at Granite State Packing in Claremont, N.H., on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. The packing co-op opened in March after purchasing a meat processing facility that had been empty for several years. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news / report for america photographs — Alex Driehaus

  • Shawn Fletcher places sausages into containers to package them for sale at Granite State Packing in Claremont, N.H., on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. The sausages were part of an order for Vermont Salumi, based in Barre, Vt., one of the packing co-op’s three main customers. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

  • General Manager Chad Pecor, left, talks to Zach Maguira about an order while standing outside of the processing floor at Granite State Packing in Claremont, N.H., on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. The packing co-op plans to expand to smoking meats in about six to eight weeks and eventually add a slaughter operation after a few years. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news / report for america photographs — Alex Driehaus

  • Daniel Hill, left, and Kim Marro work on the production line, labeling and packing sausages at Granite State Packing in Claremont, N.H., on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 7/18/2023 5:14:09 PM
Modified: 7/18/2023 9:40:30 PM

CLAREMONT — After lying dormant for more than five years, a Claremont meat processing facility with a long history in the local agriculture economy is once again producing pork tenderloins, sausage and pork chops.

Granite State Packing opened for business in March at the 471 Sullivan St. facility that for more than three decades was the home to the North Country Smokehouse before it moved to a new facility on Syd Clarke Drive in 2017.

The startup business, a cooperative owned by its employees and customers, hopes to boost the Twin State agriculture sector by increasing the region’s pork processing capacity, especially for small-scale farmers that don’t meet the minimum volume requirements of larger processing plants in the region.

“A couple facilities in the area used to do one-off orders, but they are at a scale now that they can’t do that,” said Pete Colman, 41, a founding board member of Granite State Packing and a customer through his Barre, Vt.-based Italian-style cured meats company, Vermont Salumi. “We want to be there for that market. Ideally, we’ll have a couple core anchor customers that show up day in and day out but also give smaller farmers access to the process.”

Granite State Packing will even serve the “backyard” farmers that have as few as one or two pigs.

“We don’t want to exclude people because of their size,” said Colman, a Plainfield, Vt., resident.

The additional meat processing capacity offered by Granite State Packing is sorely needed, said Gail McWilliam Jellie, the agricultural program assistant for the University of New Hampshire Extension in Sullivan County. She said a shortage of facilities has been a problem in the region “for a number of years,” but it worsened with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with some farmers having to schedule their processing as far as a year in advance.

“The demand for local meat really spiked during COVID and the processors in New Hampshire were really maxed out, and they still have people waiting for months,” Jellie said. “The more people offering those services, the more animals can be processed and in a more timely way, so these kinds of services are helpful.”

Among the cooperative’s biggest customers is Vermont Family Farms, a North Springfield, Vt., company that sources and markets Vermont-raised pork and beef products.

Once Vermont Family Farms’ pigs are slaughtered at Granite State Packing’s partner slaughterhouse, MontShire Farms in North Haverhill, N.H., the pig halves are delivered to Granite State Packing, where they are then processed and portioned into retail cuts.

“Everything from pork chops to bacon to rib racks,” said Vermont Family Farms co-founder Bill Kuhnert.

Since its March 3 opening, Granite State Packing has been processing about 35 pigs a week and transforming as much as 8,000 pounds of pork products — that one customer brings from out of state — into sausage and salami. That has been enough work to keep a crew of nine full-time employee-owners working five days a week.

Cuts destined for retail sales at places such as the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society’s stores and specialty food stores across New England are packaged with labels and barcodes, while those destined for restaurant service are packaged in bulk.

“We have all the confidence in the care (Granite State Packing puts) into the product,” said Kuhnert, who is hoping to increase Vermont Family Farms’ quantity of pigs sent to Granite State Packing in the coming months. “The final package really shows the quality.”

The effort to open a new meat processing facility in the region had been in the works for a few years, said Arion Thiboumery, a Granite State Packing board member and industry veteran who has a doctorate in agriculture sciences. He and Colman had long been searching for a facility, but nothing seemed to fit the bill. That changed last year when the former North Country Smokehouse plant hit the market.

“Pete called me up and said the building was for sale and asked me to come take a look at it with him,” Thiboumery, a 42-year-old resident of Plainfield, Vt., recalled. “It had been vacant for a while, but they did a good job keeping it in decent condition.”

With a suitable location found, Colman and Thiboumery set about raising money from a close network of friends and family. In January, the entity they set up to purchase the facility and lease it to Granite State Packing, 417 Sullivan LLC, purchased the property from duBreton, the Quebec-based organic pork producer and parent company of North Country Smokehouse, for $350,000.

Now 417 Sullivan LLC is leasing the building to the Granite State Packing co-op under a lease-to-own arrangement that requires the co-op to buy the building outright within 10 years.

“The people who invested money (into the purchase of the building) — and there are about a dozen who put money in — will see a modest return on investment over 10 years,” Thiboumery explained. “We had to raise $400,000 worth of equity to get this going and it had to come from someone, so we found a group of people that believed in what we are doing. Pete and I both have some money in there, and that is how we put things together.”

In addition to funding from friends and family, Claremont Savings Bank provided loan financing, and the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture supported the project with a $200,000 grant meant to support the meat processing infrastructure using federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

“We hear a lot from farmers having a tough time getting their animals into processing,” said John Marshall, director of New Hampshire’s Division of Agricultural Development. “The more we can do to build up the capacity of the industry in general, the more that will benefit farmers of all scales.”

The building transaction also included an additional $150,000 purchase of equipment that came with it. After the purchase of the building and equipment, Granite State Packing spent an additional $700,000 on renovations in order to get the facility up and running.

Eventually Granite State Packing hopes to offer its own slaughterhouse capabilities and process up to 50 pigs per day, something that Thiboumery thinks could take up to five years to achieve.

That somewhat modest pace of growth is just fine for Colman.

“The goal is not really to grow and grow and grow, it is to support the needs of people in this area for the long term,” he said. “We want to be here in 100 years.”

Justin Campfield can be reached at jhcampfield@gmail.com.


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