The last thing I expected to find on a hilltop in Athol was a giant slaughterhouse, but there it is: Adams Farm, the largest USDA-certified slaughterhouse in New England.
The giant building with its bright red siding shines cheerily above a spectacular panoramic vista. Surrounded by the farm's 122 acres and Bearsden Conservation Area, the state-of-the-art facility is not exactly in a central location. But it's reached by farmers from all around the region, some driving as far as central Maine and New York State for the exceptional services provided by this family-run business.
In addition to growing their own cattle, pigs, goats and lambs, the Adams family processes animals for over 250 farms. In 2011, 5,200 pigs and more than 3,000 cows were slaughtered. The site also has a storefront selling local and often free-range and hormone-free meat at competitive prices. The refrigerated and frozen cases are filled with fresh cuts of steak, short ribs, pork chops, roasts and more. The Adamses also make their own sausage on site.
"Norene and Melissa are always experimenting with mixtures and flavors of homemade sausage, so there's always something different to choose from," explains general manager Ed Maltby. He is referring to the daughter and granddaughter of Lewis Adams, the original owner who opened the first slaughterhouse on the farm in 1946. Now his wife Beverly, two of their children, and roughly 10 grandchildren are keeping the business going. In fact, Maltby is one of the only managerial employees who is not related to the original family.
"It's definitely a family-run and -owned business," Maltby says. "They know [the business] because they've worked it. Many of them were brought up in a playpen in the office. From a very early age they were helping sort hides and do chores around the farm." The facility prides itself on using as many parts of the animals as possible, including the hides, which are kept and sold locally.
The family's commitment was tested in 2006, when a fast-moving fire engulfed the entire slaughterhouse, destroying everything. A few days after the devastating event, the family began talking about rebuilding.
"Their desire to continue and rebuild and commit all their assets to the bank for this reconstruction was because they wanted to serve the farmers in southern New England and beyond. That's what they've been doing for decades," says Maltby, who was hired as a consultant after the fire and stayed on as general manager.
The family expanded the business to three times its original size—the new facility is nearly 14,000 square feet—and secured USDA, organic, kosher, and Halal certifications. The team went from 15 to 45 employees, and their gross income tripled. "They responded very well—they've all had to learn new skills," Maltby says of the family's adjustment during that time.
One of the biggest expenses was the humane layout of the slaughterhouse that they constructed with assistance from Dr. Temple Grandin, the well-known animal behaviorist who designs livestock handling facilities worldwide. From the clean, comfortable holding pens where the animals are given plenty of food and water to the one-direction pathways they are led through on the kill floor, the experience is calm and orderly. Nothing in the process gives the animals reason to panic or produce adrenaline.
"What Grandin helped us put in place was just common sense, and she put it in a format that was easy to understand," Maltby explains. This stress-free environment is beneficial to both the animals and employees, and produces a higher-quality meat. The customers appreciate this extra effort. According to Maltby, the extra labor and expense "has definitely paid for itself."
In the years between the fire and the facility's reopening, the slaughterhouse options for southern New England farmers were very few. Although many farms produce livestock in the region, animals can only be processed at certified slaughterhouses; the disaster created havoc for local farms that suddenly had nowhere to process their animals. Many were driving three or four hours on a regular basis. The expense and hassle put a strain on the local meat economy, and discouraged other producers from continuing.
The new facility opened in November, 2008 and quickly changed all that: old customers returned and increased their orders, and new customers who required the many services Adams Farm provides sought it out. Maltby says the facility's customer base has grown not only because of its multiple certifications and humane system, but because the Adamses can go an extra step, producing labels for meat processed there: their USDA certification allows them to verify a farm's claim to be free-range or certified organic, which they can then add to its label on site.
Maltby says the most recent USDA statistics show that in the past few years, the fastest-growing farm business in Massachusetts has been in livestock. Whether that's a happy coincidence or a response to Adams Farm, "the direct correlation is interesting," he admits.
The company offers on-site smoking and aging of meats for customers who request them. Its own smoked products, sausage and ground beef are sold in the storefront, as well as a wide array of other meats processed in the facility. There are local cheeses, vegetables, ice cream, and a multitude of herbs and spices for any rubbing, brining or cooking project. To ease the decision-making process, there are weekly specials and meat packages ranging in price and content. There are tastings on Saturdays.
Traveling to Athol can seem like a hike for those in the southern Pioneer Valley, but it's easy to make it a day trip: over 10 miles of hiking trails that pass wetlands, the Millers River and gorgeous vistas can be found at the Bearsden Conservation Area just up the road. For the less active, the view from the farm's parking lot is perfect for a snack and a break.
With the lush grasslands surrounding it and the peaceful view, the property is ideal for livestock. If there has to be a place for animals to meet their ends, perhaps this is the perfect spot for a slaughterhouse, after all.?