In March, I had the pleasure of attending the first annual New England Meat Conference in Concord, New Hampshire. A brainchild of a few Vermont movers and shakers — including Vermont Agency of Agriculture’s Chelsea Lewis, NOFA-Vermont’s Sam Fuller, and UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s Jenn Colby — the conference brought together meat producers, processors and retailers, fostering a collaborative and informative atmosphere, in order to further support the development of an impressive renewed interest in the regional meat industry.
As someone who is always focused on women in agriculture, I was especially encouraged to see so many women at the conference, confirming that a formerly male-dominated industry is turning a new, more inclusive, leaf. Chelsea Lewis agrees.
“It was encouraging to see such a large turnout for our first conference,” she said, “and especially exciting to see the number of women engaged in all of the sectors across the supply chain, from production to processing to marketing”.
Folks from all over New England shared successes, concerns, and hopes, during a unique opportunity to focus on regional meat. The workshops were diverse, including sessions on finance, marketing, labeling, processing, breeding, humane handling, as well as two longer sessions on whole animal butchery and charcuterie fundamentals. However, the most interesting aspect was the spectrum of diversity between people who were in attendance. People who don’t normally get a chance to spend time together were suddenly serving on panels with each other, having detailed discussions over lunch, and dancing to bluegrass music. Jenn Colby concurs.
“I appreciated the enthusiasm and spirit of cross-fertilization between people representing different sectors of the meat industry. Farmers were sitting with processors and butchers and distributors- all were asking great questions, and all were honestly listening to one another and learning from each other’s expertise,” she says. This unusual meeting of the minds seemed to have helped build stronger relationships between many stakeholders, which will serve to develop the regional meat industry for the future.
An especially inspiring workshop focused on women in the meat business, featuring a panel of outstanding women. Kari Underly, author of The Art of Beef Cutting and co-founder of Grrls Meat Camp, shared her experiences in helping change a male-dominated business, opening the door for more women to enter. Christie Brown, Director of Retail and Foodservice, Northeast Beef Promotion Initiative, spoke of her journey into the world of meat, overcoming the difficulties associated with being the only woman in her field. Kate Stillman, Owner, Stillman’s at the Turkey Farm, talked about juggling single parenthood with a booming regional business. Finally, Vermont’s own, Mary Lake, a butcher at The Royal Butcher, talked about what it was like to transition into a workplace that had never seen a woman before. In a room of about 45 women, it was amazing to see the passion, thoughtfulness and respect that came about.
Mary Lake of Royal Butcher in Vermont
Perhaps the most touching part of the conference, which occurred during the cleverly named Meat Ball, was an awards ceremony honoring a few of the finest members of the regional meat industry. Again, Lewis echoed this sentiment, noting, “a highlight of the event was seeing Commissioner Lorraine Merrill Present the Processor of the Year award to Beverly Mundell, who, over the past 40+ years, has built what is now one of New England’s largest slaughter facilities. She has overcome many challenges, and now has daughters and granddaughters employed in the growing family business”.
This was the inaugural New England Meat Conference, so stay tuned for details about next year’s conference!