For decades, efforts have bubbled from the ground up to raise animals with respect for their well-being. This includes a conscientiousness for the quality of their deaths as they become food for people, and a regard for them that isn’t wasteful or careless. Usually, these values are accompanied by care for the land and the human workers that make good meat possible. These efforts have gained momentum thanks mostly to farmers and the direct relationships they’ve built with individual customers who desire good food.
Direct sales between farmers and consumers are somewhat removed from the mainstream. These relationships have led to a revival of the art of butchery, a new interest in meat preservation, and smaller economies of scale in meat processing. But these relationships aren’t big enough or affordable enough to serve everyone, nor are they able to exist unencumbered by the challenges ingrained in the industrial food system.
The result is that smaller-scale efforts toward good meat happen on two fronts: wealthy communities, where sales from farmers to buyers tend to be certified, advertised, and taxed; and rural communities, where transactions between hunters or livestock producers and buyers are communal and outside of regulatory oversight. It’s time for these interests to unite and focus cohesively on a functioning system that serves animals, people, and land.
Cure for a Crisis
As I write this, the coronavirus crisis has made the need for shortened supply chains painfully clear. Meat processing facilities are closing because of working conditions that spread disease and endanger the safety of workers. If plants don’t reopen in time for finished animals to be processed, a bottleneck at the farm level will lead to lack of sales. This will increase costs for producers, as they face feeding more animals through the winter than they have forage or stored feed to accommodate. Animals will be culled and euthanized. At the worst, plant workers and farmers will continue to put themselves and their families at risk, and animals not euthanized will flood into auction houses as the temperatures drop. And grocery shelves will empty quickly.
If the farmers markets that have thrived in the margins over the past several decades can scale and shape up, then supply and demand can happen on smaller, more communal scales. On-farm slaughter by community tradespeople, bartering, direct sales, bulk buying, and collaborative access hubs will gain momentum. How can local supply chains provide a safety net? Will community and regional economies grow stronger and find a way to support people during the COVID-19 crisis?
The answers lie in several places. Without a doubt, the skilled laborers that make meat available are indispensable, from farmers to processors to butchers who provide education, work, and raw materials. The buyers and barterers who desire the work and materials have to be able to find the skilled laborers. Buyers and barterers also have to find one another to get access to meat and meat products. And finally, buyers and barterers must be able to tap into the knowledge base of the laborers and other experts.
In short, the first step is to find your people.
Seeking Like-Minded Meat Lovers
One way to get started is to approach the people you know best, and who are close to you: friends, family, and coworkers. Are they interested in starting a meat-buying club with you? Perhaps they even have connections with livestock producers and butchers, or know other like-minded individuals who are willing to buy meat collaboratively. At this early stage, make sure everyone agrees on the same standards — how the animals will be raised, whether barter or trade is allowed, and so on. See “When You’re Ready to Organize” (below) for sample questions to ask potential farmers, butchers, and club members at the outset.
People have created food access groups on Facebook. If you can find one in your area, you’ll be introduced to people nearby who have either meat or meat skills, and others who may want to collaborate and share costs in a meat-buying club.
Search online for a food hub in your city or town. There may already be a group of people aggregating and distributing local and regional products near you. You can check out the Food Hub Directory on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service website. Search the switchboard at the Good Meat Project, which includes postings from people all over the country specifically in support of successful local meat supply chains at the grassroots level.
Visit my website and fill out a form for the Local Meat for Everyone Network Signup. This form is to collect information to identify available resources and unmet needs, and group them together geographically or virtually. The effort goes beyond certified, taxable sales. It’s legal to trade meat; legal to slaughter on-farm if the meat isn’t sold commercially; and entirely acceptable to incentivize community ownership of production and processing that enables food access for everyone without dependence on the mainstream, consolidated, industrialized meat system.
Many resources exist to assist people who decide to butcher and process together. My books, The Ethical Meat Handbook and Pure Charcuterie, can help you make excellent use of the entire carcass in the butchery and meat-curing process. I also have online training videos for those who learn better by watching.
Aside from the global pandemic, there are many reasons to engage in community-level meat sourcing, butchery, and collaborative trade. These include increased food safety and security, improved animal well-being, higher nutrient density in slow-made meat, fewer chemical and artificial additives in prepared meat products, worker rights and safety, and greater access for under-resourced individuals and families.
Above all, be patient with yourself and others. Organizing and working together can be challenging and slow-going, but remember that you’re learning, and learning something new is never a cinch. Remember also that you’re building something extraordinary: a network of neighbors and workers who can make things possible. Together, you’ll be strengthening the success of your local farmers and small processors and butchers, while taking more control over the food you feed yourselves and your families. You’ll be building invaluable skills that will allow you to depend on yourselves again, and you’ll also probably create a group that can be counted on for other vital needs.
When You’re Ready to Organize
Once you’ve secured a farmer, butcher, and other buyers like yourself who want to collaborate, you’re ready to organize a meat-buying club. But first, you’ll need to gather information from all parties. Here are some suggested questions.
Questions for Farmers
- What are your production priorities, including feeding regimen; breeds you raise; agricultural model; and values toward the earth, your animals, and product quality?
- Do you need to sell whole carcasses to make your farm financially viable? Or are you able to sell processed, ready-to-eat fresh cuts and prepared meats?
- What are your prices on boxed meat, or meat that’s already been cut and wrapped?
- Do you need more buyers at certain times of year, or for certain products?
- What are your hanging carcass weight prices for meat that our club can cut and wrap ourselves?
- Are there bartering options?
Questions for Butchers
- Do you offer just cutting and wrapping services, or can you also offer consultation and education for buyers on how to make use of the meat purchased, and how to cook it?
- Will you arrange slaughter with reputable abattoirs?
- Can you help buyers locate farmers?
- What are your values regarding meat quality and your work as a butcher?
- What will you charge to cut meat? Will you also process meat into sausages or other value-added items, and if so, what’s your charge for those?
- Will you accept any bartering options?
Questions for Club Members
- Do you seek to buy or trade? If trade, what do you have to offer?
- Are you willing to work as a butcher, delivery person, or organizer; provide refrigeration; or make sausage?
- Are you willing to eat lesser-used cuts, or are you only willing to buy rib-eyes and pork chops?
- Are you willing to pay upfront to help farmers invest in increasing production, or are you paying only after receipt of meat or services?
Questions for Yourself, as Organizer
- How will work or trade be incentivized? (For example, will someone who helps with organizing be given lower prices?)
- Who will determine whether bartered goods have value to the seller, or to the collaborative group?
- Will people who are willing to use lesser-valued cuts (tongue and brains, for example) receive benefits or discounts?
- How will you fill in the gaps that arise from questioning all the above parties? For example, if you lack a butcher, how do you plan to butcher yourselves?
Glossary of Terms
Here are some important terms to know as you begin working directly with farmers, butchers, and slaughterhouses.
Cut list or cut sheet.This is a list explaining how you want the animal to be butchered. If you’re a beginner, get the help of someone who knows butchery, because they’ll have an understanding of all the options. A detailed cut list will ensure the entire carcass is used and valued. On the other hand, if you’re a beginner and don’t have access to professional advice, your cut sheet can be relatively vague; for example, “We prefer as many steaks as possible, at least 20 pounds of ground meat, and some roasts. We want all the organs and bones.”
Live weight. This is the weight of the animal when it’s alive. People also say “on the hoof” to refer to live animal sales.
Dressing. This is the process of removing blood and organs.
Kill only. Having a processor slaughter and dress an animal, but otherwise leave it intact, is known as “kill only.” There’s usually a flat fee. Afterward, the animal can be picked up for further processing and butchery by your butcher or your meat club.
Hanging weight, hot carcass weight, or dressed weight.This is the weight of the animal once it’s been killed, bled, and dressed.
Cut and wrap.In cut and wrap processing, the dressed animal is broken down into smaller portions and, eventually, retail cuts that are packaged and sealed for resale. This is one of the most expensive aspects of small-scale meat production, and a great reason for your group to learn do-it-yourself butchery.
Cut-out weight.The sellable weight of meat from the carcass once cut and wrap processing has occurred is called the cut-out weight.
Primal cuts. These are the first cuts made to the carcass in cut and wrap processing. Primal cuts are based on muscle activity (see illustration, above); similar muscle types are grouped together for subsequent steps in the butchery process. Subprimal cuts are the next set of cuts in the butchery process; that is, the muscle groups within primal cuts. Note: If you’re just getting started, consider asking the abattoir if you can buy primals or subprimals, because they’re easier for beginners to handle than the whole animal.
Retail cuts. These are ready-to-sell individual cuts from the subprimals — those you’re accustomed to seeing at the market.
Meredith Leigh pursues good food as a farmer, butcher, chef, writer, and speaker at MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS. She’s the author of Pure Charcuterie and The Ethical Meat Handbook.