Farm Journal: how many actual butchers do you know? Meet one.
Courtney wraps up (hah!) sausage of the week. Photo: Courtney Grimes-Sutton.
This is part of a series of farmers writing about life on the farm , week to week, through the season. Courtney Grimes-Sutton is co-owner of Mace Chasm Farm in Keeseville. Read all of Courtney’s journal entries here.
Asa’s off to the USDA slaughterhouse this morning to pick up a steer and two pigs that we sent last Thursday. It's a 200 mile round trip to drop off, and again to pick up – 400 miles for every batch of carcasses to get to the rail in our cooler! Yikes. We’d like to build a very small USDA slaughter facility here on the farm to slaughter & process for ourselves and potentially for some other small farmers.
The more common licensing that small butchers often choose to go with is the ‘custom exempt’ license, under which the butcher may not retail or wholesale cuts & products, but rather sells only the service of processing an animal brought to her by a customer who owns the animal, who will take the products home to their own freezer for home use. This flow of processing is called the ‘freezer industry’, and it’s relatively easy to set up and operate. One great aspect of the "custom exemption" is that pasture slaughter is possible, if the customer so desires, rather than slaughter in a squeeze chute in a holding area of the slaughterhouse.
I think that the holding area experience can vary greatly depending on the comfort & flow of the layout in that space, from an animal’s perspective, which is largely about how calmly they can be separated from the other animals when it’s time for their walk to the squeeze chute. This is also about the comfort of the person herding, and their priorities, I suppose.
Asa and beef on the rail. Photo: Courtney Grimes-Sutton.
In an ideal pasture slaughter experience, the animal does not know that it is being hunted. I learned a lot from the years of pasture slaughter that I was responsible for at the last farm that I worked at. I learned how to approach animals in their pasture with a calm casualness that they ignore, and I learned how to still my own adrenaline and mind to find a focus that is sort of… sacred? Personal. Quiet. I almost always prefer to head to slaughter alone, unless there is some exceptional factor of danger or some especially difficult component along the way. I am easily distracted by company who is not comfortable in a slaughter situation- and animals notice our awkwardness and move away from it, and then a longer hunt ensues.
Often, people who are interested enough in food to end up at a farm want to see slaughter. It’s a sensational, intense, and rarely accessible experience. Most of our meat emerges from within the guarded gates of large processing plants, all packaged up for long truck rides to their grocery isles. How many butchers do you know? It’s not as common a trade as it seems it should be for such a common product. I suppose that our nation’s ‘butchers’ are concentrated in the rural towns that host the big corporate processing facilities.
I’d sure love to see more small processing facilities and butcher shops peppered more evenly through our communities. It’d be great to see the process for attaining USDA licensing for meat-processing become a whole lot easier and more approachable. I was told by a Cornell specialist on the subject that the minimum budget that they could imagine for a very small processing plant is $1.5 million. That’s bonkers. Thankfully, that’s not what folks on the other end of the FSIS (our federal food safety inspectors) policy line told me – they were more encouraging about the approachability of very small plant construction, as they were aware of some examples on the west coast. A good manager can maintain good sanitation and food safety in a shop of any size, and that’s what’s important. Some say that a major bottleneck is availability of USDA inspectors, who must be present during slaughter in inspected facilities. If that’s the case, it seems like a positive move for the economy in agricultural regions for our USDA budget to support a few more inspectors to be out there inspecting for small plants.
When Asa gets back from picking up our carcasses, I have to get to cutting right away for orders that I must pack this evening. I cut in our 20-C commercial kitchen right next door at my friend’s dairy farm. She’s often in her creamery in the next building over, making cheese. We see each other when she comes in to stock the cooler display shelves of the 20-C kitchen (which is also our little farm store) with raw milk, fresh cheeses, and yogurt. We also share a market tent at the farmers markets. “Welcome to the protein station,” we say.
Courtney gets ready to cut pork. Photo: Courtney Grimes-Sutton.
Why am I a butcher? Because I learned how to do that work, and then found it in demand. Why did I learn to do that work? Well, I was into growing vegetables. Any harvest from the land requires that you give back to the land to maintain fertility in the soils from which we’re harvesting, and livestock can provide that piece of the puzzle in a number of ways. Clearly, I needed to learn about animal husbandry, and, clearly, if I am getting into animal husbandry I have to know how to deal with the animals – and part of dealing with them is their harvest. I totally look disapprovingly at my early twenties self sometimes, but I really do appreciate many of the decisions that I made and skills that I decided to work on. I was thorough in my immersions. I apprenticed in blacksmithing for a couple of years, out of an interest in fixing or altering the tools & equipment I needed to use in farming. I realized that forging is a great place to start to understand metalwork, but that I’d need to weld as well, and I found a full ride through an industrial welding school. All of the skills that I’ve worked on were means to an end for me – to be able to be a farmer, but, of course, they’ve served me in other ways.
I’m not attached to being a butcher. I may not even be attached to being a farmer, but I haven’t found something else that I’ve set off toward. I farm so that I can work outside, in connection to the weather, doing very physical work. I like how this small farming industry impacts the land and the community, and I like what we produce. I regularly consider other things that I could do that meet my criteria, within farming or without, and other directions to go in, given the components I have to work with. Butchery is, of course, not done outside. So I have a very clear limit to how much of that work I’m willing to do, and I’d like to get it down to two days a week in the summer, so that I can be outside on the farm plenty. At this time I’m probably putting in two and a half to three days per week, depending on how much is hanging fresh on the rail, or whether I’m working with cuts that I’ve frozen. I don’t have much help with butchery this season, but I’d like to find some consistent help in that department for next year.
I should also note, regarding butchery, that my threshold for doing that work is also about a balance of nurturing vs. harvesting of our animals- it’s important to me to get to do both to avoid feeling like the Grim Reaper. I’m not doing our slaughters this year (as I said, animals head 200 miles to meet their ends in a USDA shop), and I don’t mind that- aside from the driving & fuel costs. I don’t like killing an animal, but I have reverence for it, and can do the work. It’s the food chain. It’s the big, big shops that scare me… but I don’t know what the solution is, given our big, big population. Many small hubs rather than a few big ones seems better.
I really should head out now. Thanks for reading! And hooray for the nice, mixed weather we’re finally seeing!
Tags: farm journal, farming, fj1, meat, rural life, slaughterhouse, sustainability