Former dairy farmers Kristi and Russ Atherton open The Local Butcher in Center Barnstead
Russ and Kristi Atherton take inventory inside their new beef cattle facility in Barnstead on September 13, 2013. The Athertons recently switched from a partnership in a dairy operation in Lee, moving to Barnstead and building their new facility next to their new home, where they homeschool their two children.
(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)
Former dairy farmers Kristi Atherton and her husband, Russ Atherton, faced a dilemma last year. Milk prices were so low, there was no viable way for them to purchase their partners’ shares in their Lee dairy farm when the partners retired.
Instead, the family has moved to Center Barnstead, where they’ve built a slaughterhouse they plan to open this fall as The Local Butcher. Farmers interested in seeing the business before committing to bringing their animals there can attend an open house Saturday at 9 a.m.
Why were you and Russ so determined to stay involved in agriculture? Do you come from farming families?
Not really. My mother was a schoolteacher and my father was a seafood salesman. But we had a small hobby farm and my mother grew all of our food and we raised animals and had lots to do with agriculture. Russ’s family both worked outside the home but they had a small farm, too. Russ spent the majority of his teen years working on a dairy farm that was his cousin’s. We both went to college and studied agriculture. It’s a good life. I like being outdoors, and I like animals, and I like people. Farmers are fun people.
Was there a time when it looked like you would have to move on to another industry?
I don’t think we ever really considered giving it up. My life over the past 14 years has been more of a stay-at-home mother and home-school mother. That’s the really important focus to us as a family, that one of us work to bring in income and then some-
one is home with the children and that person that’s home with the children contributes as much as we can. When the time came to make the big change, we wanted to make sure we made the transition, whatever we decided, so that we could continue to home-school and we really liked the idea of the livelihood being something that the kids can be involved in, too.
You said you officially made up your minds to change fields on Memorial Day 2012. What was your next step?
We had a cattle auction for the dairy cows, an equipment auction and the farmland itself was offered on the market. We had our personal property separate, so we had to sell our personal property and find a place to move. The very first place we looked at is the place we bought.
And what have you had to do to get ready for opening the slaughterhouse?
We had to do a lot of work. We spent the first three months living in a camper, doing repairs to the house. It was us, two kids, a dog and a cat. We spent the hurricane in the camper. Then we got started on the butcher shop. There was nothing there before, just open field. Everything is brand new. Russ left in January for a month to go to (SUNY Cobleskill) to refresh his memory in the meat program.
We’ve just been going as fast as we can to build the plant; there’s a lot of paperwork involved because it’s going to be a USDA-inspected facility. My role has really been to build the plant on paper basically, and he’s been building it over there.
How much of an investment is starting a slaughterhouse from scratch?
Instead of saying a figure, I’ll say: This is a state-of-the-art facility where we need to be in compliance with code of federal regulations. The other part is just Yankee ingenuity.
That’s what’s neat about the plant, Russ is really good about designing things that are efficient, and he’s really good about designing things in a cost-effective way, that’s why he was so good at dairy farming and now he’s put those same skills to work here.
It’s an efficient and food-safe environment.
Fall is the busy season for slaughterhouses. Do you think you’ll have enough work to make it through the winter when it slows down?
It won’t be over completely. There will be slower times of the year, but we fully expect this to be full-time business, and we do have full-time employees, five people we’ve hired. It’s not a seasonal thing; it’s a full-time business.
Were you able to offer your employees health insurance?
Yes, we were. We’re working with Page Insurance in Pittsfield. It was something we thought was very important, and we always were able to do that for employees at the dairy farm, so we thought that, “If there’s any way we can make that happen for these employees, it’s a really nice benefit for them to be able to have.”
Do your children miss having live animals around, now that you’re not raising dairy cows anymore?
We still have a small farm for ourselves. My daughter has chickens, and my son has working steers. He takes them to different fairs, and he does work around the farm, hauling logs and plowing the garden, whatever he can find for them to do.
What will you have at the site for the open house?
Whether you’re a small producer, a farmer just growing one pig or you’re growing animals to sell, it’s for those people to come and see the facility, ask us questions.
We do have a guest speaker who’s going to cover cut sheets, because that’s usually where people have a lot of questions. The cut sheet is something they need to fill out before they come so we know how to cut their animal. You can do it a hundred different ways, it just depends on what you want, and the cut sheet tells us that.
It’s a good time to come see us, people need to, they want to see where they’re bringing their animals, and I don’t blame them. They put a lot of time and money into them, then they can make their decision as to whether they want to use us.
I was surprised by your website address, NewEnglandButcher.com. Did you think you’d be able to get an address that’s so straight-forward and simple?
I was, actually. It seems like there must be more local butchers somewhere, but I’m glad we got it.
(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or
email@example.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)