just before christmas in 2006 the adams family’s
plans and their business literally went up in
flames. since then, they have rebuilt from the
ground up with design help from dr. temple
grandin. a thoughtfully designed, humane
system that takes the animals through the
by margaret leroux
Adams Farm is no ordinary slaughterhouse; that’s apparent even from its location. Perched on a hill outside the town of Athol in north central Massachusetts, the farm’s parking lot offers a picture-postcard view of the Pioneer Valley. On a clear day, in the distance you can see with Mount Greylock in the Berkshires and Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire.
Adams Farm is a family-run operation and has been for three generations. The farm was purchased by the late Lewis Adams in 1945; today his son Rick, daughter Noreen Heath and their mother, Beverly Adams Mundell, are co-owners. Rick and Noreen’s children are active in the business.
What makes Adams Farm outstanding, however, is not quite so scenic but much more important to the animals it handles and customers who buy meat. It’s the thoughtfully designed, humane system that takes the animals through the slaughtering process. The holding pens and one-way chute system at Adams Farm were designed by Dr. Temple Grandin, the world’s leading authority in the humane handling of meat animals.
“The essence of it is a good flow of animals through the system to minimize stress,” said Ed Maltby, Adams Farm’s general manager. When cows, pigs, lambs or goats arrive at Adams’ loading dock, they are guided through the chutes leading to holding pens. The pens are bedded with straw and water is available at all times. If they are being held overnight, the animals are fed.
Both the size and materials used for the pens are considerations in the humane treatment of the animals processed at Adams Farm. The pens are made of steel rather than wood; Maltby explains that an animal could be injured if wood splinters.
“With the wear and tear they get it’s safer for the animals, though a lot more expensive. We put in the steel pens just when the price of steel went through the roof,” he noted ruefully.
“There was a lot of thought put into the entire process,” Maltby continued. “Our goal is to make it stress-free for the animals. It’s better for them and it results in a better product for the customers.”
One of Grandin’s requirements (as well as a requirement of building codes) is that the holding pen area must be level. Adams Farm is on a steep hill, which presented a formidable challenge in construction.
“We needed to put down a huge amount of gravel—45,000 cubic yards—to make the base level,” Maltby said. Rick Adams operated the excavator taking gravel from two different sites on the farm property. Other family members and friends trucked and leveled the material over a six-month period while the financing for their new facility was completed.
From the holding pens animals are guided, two or three at a time, through another series of chutes. The walls of the chutes are solid so there’s nothing to distract them. The floors are kept clean of anything that might give the animals reason to pause. A series of gates separate the chutes so animals enter the final destination, the restraint box, one at a time. It’s swift and efficient, less than one minute from the time of entry into the chute to being hung for cleaning after slaughter.
All along the way, from loading dock to the cooler where meat is hung, the emphasis is on care, cleanliness and dignity.
“If you give animals the opportunity, they’ll do the right thing 99% of the time,” said Maltby. “It’s our duty to deal with them respectfully.”
Within seconds after an animal is killed, the carcass is hoisted onto a hook. It travels on a track through the harvesting room where the hide and other non-edible parts are taken off the animal and stored for different uses. The hide is removed—sold to a local company; prices for hides vary according to the world market. The cleaned guts and other parts are sold to a rendering plant.
“We try to maximize the return on every part,” Maltby said. The animal carcass is weighed electronically, trimmed of any excess material, washed, then split in half. Before the track takes the carcass into the cooler, the USDA inspector checks it and stamps it. The harvesting and packaging rooms are cleaned daily; they have to pass USDA inspection first thing in the morning before any of the day’s operations begin.
“We show respect both for the animal and the carcass,” Maltby said. “And we respect the USDA rules and regulations.” Adams Farm is a USDA-certified slaughterhouse; the facility is also certified organic, halal and kosher. Adams’ staff follows USDA guidelines for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP). A USDA inspector is on site daily to oversee the slaughtering, conditioning and fabrication process.
Rick Adams’ daughter, Sydney, supervises the harvesting room. One of Noreen’s daughters, Chelsea, is the bookkeeper, human resource coordinator and office manager; another daughter, Melissa is learning the retail operation and buys produce for sale in the store, adjacent to the farm. There, a variety of cuts of meat from Adams’ own herd of cows is available in addition to local cheese and vegetables.
The number of women among staff and managers also makes Adams stand out from others in the industry. Noreen supervises the retail store, the fabrication and cutting room, as well as smoking of meats. She also keeps track of scheduling when farmers can bring animals to be slaughtered and monitors and updates the HACCP plan. Four of her staff members are women.
Noreen noted the difficulty of finding experienced meat cutters. “The few who come with any training have learned specialty cuts; however, we focus on getting the most from every carcass. We scrape down to the bone; there’s no waste, ” she said. The most important thing about meat cutting is being careful. Noreen quotes her brother, Rick: “Keep your eye on your knife and you won’t cut your fingers.”
All of Adams Farm’s meat cutters receive on-the-job training the same way Noreen did. She was 10 when her father died and she learned the business “watching and pitching in.” Noreen didn’t really make a career choice of supervising the cutting room; “it was just a matter of, if I didn’t do it no one else would.”
Keeping track of each individual customer’s preferences is Noreen’s specialty. “No two people want their meat cut the same way. The most important thing is to make my customers happy. I know what they want,” she said. “The biggest challenge is getting everything done when the customer wants it. Some want their meat hung for a week, others for 21 days. Most meat goes out frozen, but some restaurant clients prefer fresh meat, so that goes out the same day the animal is slaughtered.”
This careful handling and attention to detail made Adams Farm a natural fit for Greyledge Farm in Roxbury, Connecticut, says owner Terry Fitzgerald. His pasture-raised, all-natural Black Angus beef cattle and heritage-breed pigs and lambs are processed by Adams every two or three weeks.
“We interviewed and inspected slaughterhouses in three different states before electing to work with Adams Farm,” Fitzgerald said. “The differentiated experience at Adams Farm for our animals ensures the quality of our finished beef, lamb and pork.” The treatment his animals receive at Adams “more than offset the incremental cost and effort to transport our animals 70 miles farther than alternative slaughterhouses,” Fitzgerald said.
He also noted that Adams Farm “is without equal in terms of their sensitivity to the humane treatment of our animals. Their hygienic standards complement our commitment to quality.” Greyledge Farm’s beef is dry-aged for 20 days, another special treatment available for customers of Adams Farm.
Vacuum-sealed clear packaging is an option selected for most of the meat processed at Adams Farm. It’s yet another indicator of quality demanded by discerning retail customers.
From August to February Adams Farm is busy nonstop. “We’re trying to educate our customers to stagger their slaughter appointments,” Maltby explains. “We’re fully booked from August 2011 through February 2012, but we can’t afford to run this as a seasonal business.”
Scheduling their customers is the latest in a series of challenges the Adams family has overcome. Beverly and her husband, Lewis, started the slaughterhouse as an addition to their dairy farm in 1946. “It grew by leaps and bounds,” she said. In 1972, just after a major expansion in the business, Lewis Adams died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage. Beverly was left with five children aged 8 to 16. “Everyone had to pitch in,” she said. “It was hard, but you have to pick yourself up and try to make life better.”
The family followed her example. The business continued to grow with a third generation of Adamses moving into staff positions. They began planning for another expansion and were working with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources on financing. Just before Christmas in 2006 the Adams family plans and their business literally went up in flames. An electrical fire swept throughout the entire facility and destroyed everything.
“I got a call around 11:30 that there was a fire in the office,” said Noreen who lives about 10 minutes from the farm. From miles away, I could see the flames. The whole building was engulfed.”
Fortunately, the Adamses’ own animals escaped, but all their customers’ meat was destroyed. “Because of the coming holidays, we’d worked overtime,” Noreen said. “We had just processed 300 roasting pigs. One of the coolers was full of prime rib roasts.”
The heat was so intense, it melted steel equipment in the cutting room. Not even a knife survived. Someone found a dollar bill buried in the soot on the floor of a cooler. “I stuck it on my refrigerator, the only thing in one piece after the fire,” said Beverly.
“The fire stopped the family dead in their tracks,” Maltby said. But not for long. There was never any doubt that the business would continue. “It’s our whole life,” said Noreen.
Maltby, who at the time was a consultant with the Massachusetts Farm Viability Program, worked with the family to get the funds needed to resurrect the business. He later joined them as general manager.
“Not many financial institutions know anything about slaughterhouses,” he explained. Eventually the family got a Small Business Administration loan and another loan from a local bank. The state came through with some money and the family was able to get funds for creating new jobs. The town of Athol helped with tax benefits. What meant the most to the Adamses, however, was the support they received from neighbors and customers.
“The day after the fire, people came by to offer help with reconstruction. They also made donations,” Maltby said. “Farmers wrote letters to financial institutions stating how important the operation of Adams Farm was to their own farm business. We had a lot of local support. Not many towns would encourage rebuilding a slaughterhouse, but in Athol, Adams is the second largest employer.”
The fire also was a disaster for Adams’ customers like Carolyn and John Wheeler, who raise grass-fed Belted Galloway beef cattle on Wheel-View Farm in Shelburne, Massachusetts.
“Adams Farm is 37 miles from our farm, but after the fire shut them down we were making round trips of 400 miles to several different facilities to have our cows processed,” Carolyn Wheeler said. The long trips were not only expensive, they also added stress for the animals.
When it became apparent that there would be another Adams Farm, the family planned for a bigger and better facility. The input on design from Grandin has been a big plus for the farmers who sell meat processed at Adams.
“Our own customers appreciate that our animals are raised and processed humanely,” Carolyn Wheeler said.
Adams’ emphasis on humane treatment and quality are among factors that led Mark Kaufman to choose the facility for processing the beefalo, beef cattle, goats and lamb he raises at Wild Mountain Farm in West Brookfield, Massachusetts. Kaufman sells his meat at farmers markets in Holden, Springfield and West Brookfield.
“Temple Grandin’s involvement was important to me; so was the fact that Adams is family-owned and -operated,” Kaufman said. “It’s nice to be able to talk to the person in charge of the cutting; Adams has always stepped up to the plate when I needed them.”
Kaufman raises his animals on 35 scenic acres, the former apple orchard of a farm established in the 1700s. In addition, he leases 200 acres from three neighboring dairy farms. “To see our animals grazing on grassland that was last used as pasture 40 to 80 years ago is my idea of progress,” Kaufman writes on the Wild Mountain Farm website. Like many of Adams’ small farm customers, Kaufman’s animals are pasture raised without antibiotic feeds or growth hormones and marketed to the growing niche of locavore customers.
Rebuilt from the ground up, the new Adams Farm is almost three times the size of the former facility and has triple the number of employees. Scaling up has been the biggest challenge, Maltby concedes. “Managing growth, dealing with all the regulations that go along with all the certifications we have, we’re here seven days a week.”
Maltby has been involved in agriculture for more than 20 years. One of his early experiences was on a farm in Wales where he worked with autistic children. “There’s a natural connection between children and animals,” he noted. “First the children would learn to feed the chickens, then collect the eggs, then bring the eggs into the kitchen, cook them and eat them. The goal was to make them aware it’s all part of a process.” The same could be said of the Adams family and their farm, all part of a humane process.
Margaret LeRoux lives and writes in Central Massachusetts, where an abundance of locally available meat keeps her backyard grill in operation year round. You can read more of her articles at www.margaretleroux.com.