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Peterborough

Sunnyfield seeks answers for lost meat

Mass. slaughterhouse fire costs farm approximately $6K, but insurance won’t cover the loss

PETERBOROUGH — Ruth and Dan Holmes of Sunnyfield Farm in Peterborough lost the meat from two cattle and two lambs when the Blood Farm slaughterhouse in West Groton, Mass., went up in smoke back in December. Shawn MacEachern of Field O’Dreams Farm in Amherst was about to pick up the meat from a 920-pound Angus steer that had just been butchered and packed, but was still being held at the farm. Now they’re both wondering if they’ll get even partial reimbursement for their loss, after the company that insured Blood Farm sent letters denying their claims.

The Dec. 29, 2013 fire destroyed the Blood Farm smokehouse and meat-processing facility and put the facility, which has been in the Blood family for seven generations, out of business for months. The Blood’s insurance carrier, Farm Family Casualty of Albany, N.Y., has settled a claim from the Bloods, and the slaughterhouse is being rebuilt. But Farm Family is refusing to reimburse clients of the Bloods who had meat on the premises at the time of the fire.

“We put in a claim for $6,000,” Ruth Holmes said last week. “We understood that [Farm Family] might have offered us less. But they’re telling us we would have to go and sue the Bloods. That’s not what we want to do.”

Both Holmes and MacEachern received letters from Farm Family stating that their claims would be denied because the insurance company is not legally obligated to pay. In the letters, Patrick Manning, a senior liability claims representative, wrote, “The investigation conducted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts fire investigators and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts State Police has determined that the cause of this fire is ‘undetermined.’ We must respectfully deny your claim, as there is no proof that the cause of this fire was due to any negligence on the part of our insured. Therefore, our insured is not legally liable for the damages you sustained.”

Holmes said the letter she received came as quite a surprise. She said Manning immediately referred her to higher level officials at the company when she called him after the letter arrived.

“We have not been able to get a call back from Farm Family regarding an appeal process,” she said. “Insurance companies are baffling to me.”

Calls from the Ledger-Transcript to Farm Family were not returned until Thursday, when Manning referred a reporter to Timothy Cotton, a vice-president for claims at Farm Family, who in turn referred the paper to the company’s media relations department. Rosemary Schader, Farm Family’s director of market development, returned a call on Thursday afternoon, saying only, “We aren’t at liberty to discuss claims or coverage that may have been in place.”

MacEachern said he is disappointed about the letter from Farm Family, but he’s also discouraged about the response from Bloods.

“After the fire, I couldn’t get much information out of them,” MacEachern said on Thursday. “We’ve been working with them since 1972. We always had a gentlemen’s agreement, a handshake deal.”

MacEachern said he eventually talked to Elliot “Barney” Blood, the 91-year-old owner of the slaughterhouse.

“He asked me for information on what was lost,” MacEachern said. “They aren’t a company that keeps a lot of records. I told him the [steer] we lost was estimated at 920 pounds.”

MacEachern said Blood took the information and told him it would be passed on to the insurance company.

“He told me, ‘If you have trouble getting money from them, you can take me to court,’ MacEachern recalled.

Sharon Blood, who is Barney Blood’s daughter-in-law and works at the farm, said the letters Farm Family sent were a surprise to her as well, because the Bloods were discussing getting reimbursement for their customers’ losses.

“We thought we were in negotiations with them,” Blood said last week. “We didn’t realize they considered everything was done.”

Blood said Farm Family had paid a claim on the building, which is being rebuilt.

“It’s not enough, but we understand. We were underinsured,” she said. The business could be reopened in September, after interior construction work is finished.

But the insurance hasn’t reimbursed Bloods for the contents of the building, including the meat belonging to customers that hadn’t been picked up.

“They say it’s not covered by any of our policies,” Blood said. “We have an umbrella policy and a general liability policy. The only way we can collect is if somebody sues us. They don’t have a policy that covers other people’s material under our control.”

Blood said they were asking Farm Family for about $100,000 so they could cover the losses to their customers. Holmes has estimated Sunnyfield’s loss at about $6,000, MacEachern said his loss would be a little over $4,000, and a number of other customers from New Hampshire and Massachusetts had animals at Blood Farm, which is one of just two USDA-approved slaughterhouses in Massachusetts.

Blood said if Farm Family is not willing to negotiate and continues to deny claims from customers, her family will have few options.

“I would assume we may have to be suing them. It may take years,” she said.

She said so far, none of the customers has sued Blood Farm.

“I wouldn’t blame them if they did, but we’re all like family,” she said.

MacEachern said he’d been advised by a lawyer that the next step to take is a small-claims court lawsuit.

“That’s where I’m at right now,” he said. “It’s kind of a sad turn of events. You really have to know who you’re doing business with. You can’t rely on a handshake any more.”

MacEachern has switched his business to a slaughterhouse called The Local Butcher in Center Barnstead.

“They have a great operation,” he said. “It’s a little farther to travel, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

Meanwhile, Holmes said Sunnyfield will probably absorb the loss if they can’t get some compensation from Farm Family.

“We do not want to sue Bloods,” she said. “Elliot is 91 years old. He thought he was covered by insurance. If the only recourse is to sue him, we’ll probably just eat our losses.”

Holmes said Sunnyfield Farm has purchased its own insurance from Farm Family for many years, but the situation has prompted her to seek another insurance carrier.

“A lot of farmers go with Farm Family,” she said. “We felt they understood the needs of families. Now a lot of people are thinking about changing.”

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