Just over a year ago, an early morning fire broke out at the Blood Farm slaughterhouse and meat processing plant in Groton. Flames engulfed a major portion of the business that the Bloods (yes, that's their real name) have run for seven generations, forcing them to shut down.
But the larger agricultural ecosystem in Massachusetts also took a hit that day, because Blood Farm is one of only two USDA-certified slaughterhouses in the state. That’s one reason why the community of Groton joined with the local meat industry to save a type of operation that makes a lot of people squirm: a slaughterhouse.
Remembering the December 2013 fire that took his business, Dick Blood used the word “catastrophic."
“There was an aluminum table right near the fire, where it started in the smokehouse, it was just like a glob of aluminum,“ he said as he flipped through photographs of the aftermath. The remains of the table were contorted, charred and molten.
“You couldn’t make out what it was,” he added.
Firefighters weren’t able to cut open the slaughterhouse's scorching hot metal roof, so the building heated up like an oven, incinerating thousands of dollars worth of meat processing equipment. The smokehouse, butchering area and retail shop were destroyed.
Dick Blood grew up in those rooms. Now 55 years old, he's been working here since he was "old enough to hold a knife.”
From the family's house on the property, Dick Blood's father, 91-year-old Barney Blood, had a bird’s eye view of the blaze as it consumed his sweat, toil and livelihood.
“Worst thing I ever saw,” the family patriarch recalled from his perch by the window on the first floor. “I was sitting in this chair, somebody knocked on the window, and I looked and it was a policeman. And then I looked down and the flames were coming out of the door of the smokehouse.”
The elder Blood told the officer to call the fire department. The policeman said he already had. Then Blood said time slowed down while they waited for the firefighters to arrive. “It seemed like a long time they were coming, when actually it wasn't,” he said looking back out the window.
The people of Groton flocked to the farm to witness the four-alarm fire -- which was ultimately declared accidental -- and to support the family and the farm's 15 employees.
Like his son Dick, Barney Blood grew up here. He told me he was born in the same room as his father. But the family name can be traced back even further than that, according to Bob Collins. He’s one of two Groton town diarists charged with documenting the Blood Farm fire for posterity and says this tale is destined for the vault in the town clerk’s office.
“If you go back into the historical documents of the town you find the Blood name laced through the history of this community for over 300 years,” Collins said. “And you generally don’t find that strong a presence that has that staying power.”
Barney Blood’s great-great-grandfather was the Groton town clerk in the late 1600s. Blood Farm dates back to 1724. Early on, the current patriarch says dairy was the main product, but his grandfather maintained a small slaughterhouse. As a teen, Barney Blood hated milking the cows. What he really wanted to do was go to college. But that never happened, he says, because the family needed him on the farm.
Eventually Barney Blood became fascinated with the meat side of the business — specifically how much meat you could yield after butchering a whole animal. So he and his children expanded the farm’s slaughtering capacity, processing and retail — where they make the most money. But after the fire, Barney Blood faced a big decision that would affect the whole family. He recalls proposing to his wife that they retire.
“I said, ‘We haven’t done anything but work all our life.’ She kind of half agreed," Barney Blood recalled. "And you can’t believe the calls I got on the telephone, and the letters I got from customers wanting me to build up. Some of them were sending me money!”
The community rallied around Blood Farm. Elected officials, local business owners and customers from as far away as New Hampshire — including a pizza shop owner in Nashua who uses Blood meat on her pies — organized a fundraiser at a local restaurant to subsidize the employees as they waited for Barney Blood to decide the farm's fate.
Sharon Blood remembers the outpouring vividly. She manages hazard analysis for the family business and showed me shelves in her office that are lined with cards and letters.
“Groton is kind of a ritzy little town, you know?” she said. “To have them say, 'Bring your slaughterhouse back,' was really something. We must be doing something right!”
That something, according to Groton Selectman Jack Petropoulos, is the bacon.
“It’s thickly sliced. It has just the right amount of salty, smoky flavor to it,” he described with vigor. “And the fact is, you go down there and you pick it up.”
Petropoulos raises some cows and pigs on his property and has brought them to be killed at Blood Farm. But he admits even for him the word “slaughterhouse” can be uncomfortable.
“Anyone who eats meat every day has effectively sanctioned what happens in a slaughterhouse. It is what it is. It’s a place that processes meat from livestock to packaged meat and everything in between,” Petropoulos said. “But people don’t focus on that aspect of it, they focus on it as a community asset.”
For Paula Cruz, of the Gibbet Hill Cattle Company in Groton, waiting to hear about Blood Farm's future was really hard.
“We have about 100 head of cattle here, and these are calves that were just born this week,” she said as we took a tour off her newly expanded barn. Her livestock responded to her calls with a wave of “moos” and went back to contently munching away on their hay.
After the fire, Cruz says she was forced to take her animals to the only other commercial slaughterhouse in Massachusetts.
“I’ve been doing business with the Bloods since I was about 8 years old, so I had never gone anywhere else to process any animals,” she explained. “That was a very hard change for us.”
Cruz's ranch is just three miles from Blood Farm — the other slaughterhouse is more than an hour away. She says short travel time reduces stress on the animals and helps prevent a surge of fear hormones that can affect the meat's taste and texture. Once on site, the handlers at Blood Farm are fast and treat the livestock with kindness and respect, according to Cruz, who says that’s critical.
“Cause you know when you raise an animal and you’ve put all the work and effort into it — on cold days, on snowy days — you want them to be handled correctly on their last day,” she said.
And Cruz isn’t alone with that concern. Hundreds of small farms were affected by the Blood Farm fire because there are only two USDA monitored slaughterhouses in Massachusetts — the other is in Athol. A few smaller facilities can be found in the state, but they aren't allowed to serve commercial meat producers.
“There’s no question that eastern Mass. and southeastern Mass. suffered greatly,” said Jay Healy, who works for the government agency that regulates slaughter and meat processing. "The beef producers had to start thinking about other alternatives.”
Pork producers were hit too, according to Healy, who’s also a farmer. He says the demand for locally-raised meat in New England has grown five-fold over the last decade, and he calls Blood Farm a critical link in the food chain.
In the end, the fundraiser in Groton — which raised $30,000 for the out-of-work Blood Farm employees — and the flood of support from the agricultural industry and customers persuaded Barney Blood to spend $700,000 of his savings on re-construction. When asked why, he paused, then responded simply, “I don’t know. I think I would’ve felt guilty if I hadn’t.”
Now the Bloods have a gleaming new state-of-the-art facility with a vast cooler full of freshly killed animals, a busy butchering area, a frigid walk-in freezer that hovers around 10 degrees below zero, a spacious curing chamber, and the smokehouse where the beloved Blood Farm bacon gets its famed flavor.
Dick Blood's kids work for the business now too, the seventh generation to do so, and he hopes they'll carry on the family legacy.
“I’d like to have it rock and roll as long as possible,” he said smiling.
This segment aired on March 12, 2015.