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A promotional picture from Sugar Mountain Farm's Kickstarter website, seeking online contribution to build a slaughterhouse.
Monday, April 23, 2012

Web trend Kickstarter may help create a much-needed slaughterhouse

David Brooks

Today’s GraniteGeek will examine the cool process of crowd-funding via the website Kickstarter, and whether it can literally bring home the bacon via an attempt to build a slaughterhouse on a Connecticut River Valley farm.

Before we celebrate the wow factor of crowd-sourced money-raising, however, let’s acknowledge a bit of reality: Novel ways of doing things can be a pain in the neck.

“I would have preferred a bank loan, if I had my druthers,” said Walter Jeffries, co-owner of Sugar Mountain Farm in West Topsham, Vt. “It’s simple and clean and you know everything right upfront.”

Egad! A family farm knowledgeable in the ways of the wired world (it has an excellent blog), located in smaller-is-better Vermont and prefers corporate bank loans to cool Kickstarter projects? Reality can be such a drag.

Reality is what brought Sugar Mountain Farm to Kickstarter in the first place.

The family farm’s main business is raising and slaughtering pigs for food. They tried chickens and sheep, but the money just wasn’t there, Jeffries said.

As such, it is part of the meat-raising subset of the region’s “localvore” movement. The subset is very small because of a big problem: Lack of licensed meat-processing facilities, necessary if you want to sell your meat.

This is an issue I’ve written about several times in the past. Slaughterhouses and local butcher shops have disappeared as tighter regulations, safety concerns, changing lifestyles and financial reality takes it toll. That has increased costs and effort for small farms that want to raise livestock.

For example, Sugar Mountain Farm, which isn’t that far from Monteplier, Vt., has to drive its pigs to Adams Farm slaughterhouse in Athol, Mass., to get them slaughtered and processed. This not only takes all day, Jeffriers said, but it limits production, since they don’t have a vehicle to carry more than 6 pigs at a time.

It’s also expensive: “Cutting meat costs us around $150 to $200 per pig. If we do it ourselves, we save almost all of that.”

Hence the farm’s desire to build its own facility. This is where recession-era reality rears its ugly head.

“I have borrowed $1 million from banks over the decades, always paid them back, on top, no problems,” Jeffries said. “In 2008, the economy tanked and Obama bailed out the banks, but they aren’t lending.”

He tried federal agriculture agencies, but found them focused on big operations.

“The farm service agency, USDA, they said our project is too small. If I needed a million, they’d just give it to us as a grant, but all we needed was $150,000, and they wouldn’t even give us a loan,” he said.

Vermont and New Hampshire agriculture agencies are sympathetic and can lend expertise, but neither has much money these days.

After tapping out savings, and loans from family and friends, plus pre-buys from CSA customers, Jeffries decided to try Kickstarter.

Kickstarter began in 2008 (originally Kickstartr – thank goodness they changed it) as a way to raise money for artists. It’s a good example of network effect, using the near-infinite reach of the Internet and modern money-processing methods to create something really new.

Popularity led it to expand its focus. I wrote earlier this year about some science research projects were using it, and The Telegraph has had stories about other businesses trying it out. Similar sites with names like EduLender and GiveForward have cropped up, a sure sign of success or at least trendiness.

Jeffries has set the bar pretty low. He’s looking for $25,000 to “help purchase materials and equipment such as a saw, grinder and vacuum packager so that we can reward you with our delicious pastured pork.”

(Mmmmmm. My diet these days is redolent with tofu, wheatberries and kale, but a little delicious pork would fit nicely around the edges.)

If you donate, you get a gift. These range from online pictures of pigs for a $10 payout, to a “genuine ivory tusk” or dice made from pigs knuckles for $545 or more, to 6,000 pounds of meat delivered over a decade for Patron Supremes who fork over $10,000. Such patrons also get to name a breeder boar and receive “an art print of him on pasture,” which would look nice over the fireplace.

As with all Kickstarter projects, if the farm doesn’t reach its goal ($25,000 by May 15), no money will be collected from anybody. They had $16,532 worth of pledges by April 18, so the goal seems feasible.

If it works, score one for Net-enabled connectivity, creating something that wouldn’t exist otherwise. Although scoring one for old-fashioned financing might have been even better.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or