June 2, 2013

Gardiner business aims to bring more Maine meats to state's tables

By Paul Koenig pkoenig@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

GARDINER — The founders of a new meat processing plant on Brunswick Avenue are looking to put more Maine meat on the plates of consumers around the state.

click image to enlarge

Craig Linke holds onto meat hooks Thursday at Northeast Meats, the new meat processing plant on Brunswick Avenue in Gardiner he is opening. Northeast Meats will prepare Maine animals for consumption.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

click image to enlarge

Northeast Meats will prepare Maine animals for consumption at a plant in Gardner. Thursday May 30, 2013

Craig Linke, head of the meat processing operations at Northeast Meats, said their goal is to provide Mainers with affordable local meat and allow farmers to keep more of their livestock in state.

"I want to see local meats everywhere at a reasonable price," he said.

The 3,500-square-foot processing plant will process and package beef, pork and lamb, all from local farmers, after it's first shipped to a slaughter facility. They'll produce a variety of cuts of meats as well specialty sausages.

Linke said the company will target the approximately 500 animals shipped out of state each week that end up at large-scale facilities in Pennsylvania and other states. "Trying to keep Maine in Maine," he said.

The company already has lined up around 10 to 12 beef farmers, three farmers for pork and one for lamb, Linke said, from Aroostook County to Windham. The company is awaiting a final inspection from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, probably happening in the coming week, before it can begin processing meat, Linke said.

It plans to hire five other people to work in the processing side of the operation. Linke said Northeast Meats will be the only facility of its kind in the state.

Some retail stores also perform meat processing, but they don't sell wholesale, as Northeast Meats plans to do.

Jennifer Wade, chief financial officer for Northeast Meats, said the company is in negotiations with large distributors to put its products on the shelves of area grocers. She said it also will deliver the meat to smaller community stores.

"We're trying to find a way to provide a high-quality product but keep it at a fair price, so people don't have to buy the stuff coming (from) out of state," Wade said.

The venture's other goal is to create a job-training program for high school graduates or those who dropped out, Linke said. He said he's looking for another organization to help set up a program to give young people an opportunity to learn how to butcher and process meat.

Linke, from Damariscotta, said the venture has been in the works since 2006, although they settled on Gardiner only within the last couple of years.

Linke said the company will start processing 7,000 pounds of meat of week and could increase that to 15,000 pounds a week.

The project's second phase includes adding a kitchen that will allow Linke to make value-added products such as pâté and smoked meats.

Growing the industry

U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service doesn't record the number of animals slaughtered in Maine or the total shipped out of state for slaughter, according to Gary Keough, director of the New England field office.

Keough said the vast majority of Maine cattle go to large, out-of-state slaughter facilities.

Linke said many of the farmers they'll be using ship their livestock to Pennsylvania.

Commercial slaughterhouses in New England slaughtered around 20,300 cattle in 2012, compared to more than 980,000 in Pennsylvania, according to the USDA.

Northeast Meats isn't the only group looking to grow Maine's meat industry. The Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society — a Bangor-based nonprofit educational organization serving all types of farmers — has a project called More Maine Meat that's bringing stakeholders in the industry together.

Andrew Files, director of the agriculture organization, said the group is working on surveys for livestock producers and slaughter and processing facilities to give the group a better idea of the industry's problems.

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