RAY BROOK - Old foes came together here Tuesday for a well attended forum on agriculture in the Adirondack Park.
The meeting at the state Adirondack Park Agency headquarters was organized by state Sen. Betty Little and Essex farmer Sandy Lewis, who won a lengthy and bitter legal battle with the APA over farmworker housing in 2009. The case officially came to an end earlier this year when the state paid Lewis more than $71,000 to cover his legal fees.
Several APA officials and commissioners were on hand for the meeting, including the agency's director, Terry Martino, and top lawyer, John Banta, who sat across the table from Lewis. Despite the past friction between the two sides, there were only a few brief references to the Lewis Family Farm case during the two-hour forum.
Essex farmer Sandy Lewis, left, and state Sen. Betty Little talk Tuesday during a forum on agriculture in the Adirondack Park at the state Adirondack Park Agency headquarters in Ray Brook.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
"Sometimes government goes astray, as do we all," Lewis said at the outset of the meeting. "It's been my unfortunate experience to experience the APA when it's gone astray, and I'm very hopeful that that stuff is a thing of the past. We're here today to discuss farming."
The roundtable session brought together farmers and farming advocates, including representatives of Cornell Cooperative Extension and officials from the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. The discussion focused on the need to establish a slaughterhouse in the Park to serve the region's livestock farmers.
Lewis said his 1,200-acre farm has recently been designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a certified organic grass-fed cattle farm. While he's proud of the designation, Lewis said it won't mean anything unless he can find a cheaper and more practical way to get his cows to an organic slaughterhouse. Although there are several USDA-certified slaughterhouses in the North Country, they aren't certified organic.
"We've spent millions to develop the world's best farm," Lewis said. "The bad news is I think it's going to fail. You can't run an operation of this quality without some expenses, and you have to be able to market the product at a price that will give you a delightful result. And we can't do that when I've got to truck an animal three hours to Westminster, Vermont, four hours to Athol, Massachusetts and six hours to Troy, Pennsylvania. That's simply too much travel time and money."
Lewis said he needs to send his animals through an organic slaughterhouse where the killing is being done by "reluctant, well balanced people," and not "nut jobs." If the animals are under stress when they're killed, it can affect the quality of the meat, he said.
Locating an organic slaughterhouse in the Park could also provide an economic boost by putting people to work and helping the region's livestock farmers, Lewis said.
"We have the same issues," said Keene Central School District Superintendent Cynthia Johnston, who's also a beef farmer. "We need slaughterhouses, and we need good quality slaughterhouses. I can send my almost grass-fed beef to a slaughterhouse and have them destroyed, and the quality gone. I can't afford that."
Town of Thurman Supervisor Evelyn Wood, who also is a farmer, said farms in her community have suffered because of the distance involved in bringing their livestock to be slaughtered.
"I'd like to see a processing facility centrally located," she said. "That would bring back many of our farms."
So what will it take to get a new, organic slaughterhouse built?
Rick LeVitre, executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension in Franklin County, suggested farmers come together and form a cooperative to spearhead such a project.
"You start talking about a farmers' cooperative and people start to shy away, but that's what will bring people together," he said. "You've got people with the sheep, people with the beef, and you want to have it slaughtered correctly. The people that are raising it, they need to get together and work together."
Anita Deming of Essex County Cornell Cooperative Extension told the group that Keeseville has an industrial park where town officials have supported locating a slaughterhouse. Others suggested pushing for state funding through the North Country Regional Economic Development Council.
But Lewis said a slaughterhouse should be a farming function, not something put in an industrial park. He also said he didn't think a cooperative would have the financial wherewithal to make it happen and said government shouldn't be involved.
Questions were also raised about whether a slaughterhouse in the Park would need an APA permit. A slaughterhouse that would serve just one farm would be considered "farm use," which generally doesn't require an APA permit, according to an agency memo. But a processing facility for commercial use would be considered "farm service" and would require a permit, unless it is built in a hamlet.
Banta said the agency has never asserted jurisdiction over an on-farm slaughterhouse facility.
"Put it on your farm, and it's going to be an on-farm use," he said. "The statute says if it isn't on the farm, it then is an ag service use and it needs a permit. That's all. We would certainly process that permit. We're very supportive of agriculture, and we've tried to protect agriculture in the Park."
Lewis said he doesn't want to start another fight with the Park Agency.
"Let's not go there again," he said. "Let's find a better way to work things out."
As the meeting came to a close, Little said the conversation needs to continue, and state funding should be pursued for a slaughterhouse project.
"There's a definite need for it," she said. "We need to develop more opportunities for the farmers in the Adirondack Park and the North Country to be sustainable and keep them here."
The meeting was recorded. A webcast will be posted on the APA website, www.apa.state.ny.us.