The high demand for local food in 2020 has highlighted the limitations of our current local food ecology. One of the areas stretched to capacity is meat processing. This fall, butcher dates at local slaughterhouses filled up fast and rapidly became unavailable.
The knowledge that this essential service is stretched to capacity is not news to Karl Comeau. Even in non-pandemic times, it seems that skilled slaughter and butcher, as well as the facilities for the work, are in short supply. While Karl has been building his farming skills in a diversity of areas, it seems that this service is most often called upon to do.
This spring, Karl and Jenn Comeau are taking steps to give his skill set a permanent home at a custom slaughterhouse. The Comeaus have taken over the ownership of the Stone Barn Butcher, formerly D.L. Blanchard’s, and the Horizon Farm in Bennington, New Hampshire, from Linda and David Blanchard. The Comeaus will be processing beef from their herd and taking reservations from farmers selling quarter, half or whole animal shares directly to consumers. The Comeaus’ farm, renamed Hilltop Bottom Farm, grows meat, eggs, vegetables, milk and yogurt; Stone Barn Butcher is a customer slaughterhouse run by the young couple.
It was 2008 when Jenn and Karl first heard about the Stone Barn Butcher. They were piloting a comprehensive CSA (community supported agriculture) out of New Boston and were looking for a place to process their pastured pigs.
But when Karl arrived, Dave Blanchard turned him down, telling him that the operation was already working at capacity.
“So I told him. ‘I’ll just work here and do it,’” recalls Karl.
This was the beginning of Karl’s training. The consistency and flexibility of the work at D.L. Blanchard’s allowed Karl to keep working despite the rigors of also completing the firefighting academy. Karl also took on work at Lemay and Son’s, a USDA certified slaughterhouse in Goffstown.
“It was a huge growth period for Karl,” notes Jenn. “He was finding out that he was really skillful at this kind of work.”
It was not long before the calls started coming in. Farming can be dangerous and unpredictable for farmers, and this is also true for farming animals. Meat animals fall prey to accident and death, running through fencing and during complicated prolonged labor. At these stressful times for humans and animals, Karl has been on call to make the best of a bad situation.
“You want to salvage what you can and not waste the entire animal,” says Karl.
When the Comeaus moved north to the town of Carroll for two years (so that Karl could work for the Twin Mountain Fire Department), it seemed that he was getting more calls for slaughter than he was for fire. Fire season, the busy winter tourist season, was short, fast and dangerous, but processing deer and homestead animals was a year-round call.
After the Comeaus returned to Keene, Karl’s interview to become a full-time firefighter and EMT for the City of Keene turned into an inquiry about his meat processing skills. It seemed everyone hunted deer or raised pigs on the side and was eager for his expertise. His skill set was going to come in handy again. On their homestead property in Marlborough, Karl and Jenn purchased an old refrigerator truck from Manning Hill Farm (Winchester) and designated a shed to process meat. They continued to field calls from friends and community members for the service.
In 2017, the Comeaus jumped at the opportunity to buy a hay business from retiring neighbor, Hank Kenney. Together they managed 200 acres of hayfield and pasture on farmland leased from 13 of their neighbors, selling 20,000 square bales annually and growing a beef cattle herd. They also sold raw cow’s milk, yogurt and eggs to more than 30 families and bakeries weekly. The Comeaus knew they wanted to be farmers, but they didn’t want to remain tenants forever, so they began plans to build farm infrastructure from scratch on eight acres of forested property in Marlborough.
Meanwhile, David and Linda Blanchard’s had been struggling with a difficult decision. David’s physical health had suffered some setbacks, the farm work was becoming unmanageable, and the bills were piling up. They could have sold the 51 acres into development, but they both wanted the farm — which had been in David’s family since 1952 — to remain in agriculture.
A farm’s legacy is more than the infrastructure; it is the accumulation of thousands of decisions bore out in the soil. But succession is not usually straightforward. Farming is high on the list of professions that are inherited from parents, but most children, not just children of farmers, statistically choose their own professional path. So despite this higher than average legacy, farmers still find themselves unsure of the future of their farms. This is the situation that the Blanchards found themselves in. Ready to retire, ready to turn over the day-to-day operation to another farmer.
“I said to Linda, let’s call Karl. If he doesn’t know someone. He’ll connect us with someone who does,” recalls David Blanchard.
It was late summer, recalls Karl: “I was digging the foundation for my future house. I had to turn off the excavator because my phone rang.” It was Dave Blanchard. “He said, ‘I’m ready to sell my farm.’”
The Comeaus moved from Marlborough to Bennington, with their three young children, with the nip of frost at their heels.
“This is the farm we didn’t know was on our horizon,” says Jenn.
The Blanchards and Comeaus have combined their herds. They graze together out in the field.
“They invested in the farm and their life here. The fields are well maintained and loved,” says Jenn.
Linda and David Blanchard will remain on the farm property for a transitional period. Then, come spring thaw, they will start constructing a small house on connecting wooded land that they hope to put into conservation. It is a 20-minute walk, one Wilder, the Comeau’s four-year-old son, hopes to make regularly for muffins.
David will not be far, riding his four-wheeler out to see the cows. “He loves to watch the cows eat,” says Linda Blanchard. “He’s a farmer at heart.”
Learn more about Hilltop Bottom Farm and Stone Barn Butcher by visiting their Facebook page: @hilltopbottom or by emailing the Comeaus at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paige Lindell writes from Rindge, New Hampshire.