The Slaughterhouse Problem

While it’s never been easier to buy pedigreed produce in Brooklyn, conscientious carnivores are asking: “Where’s the beef?” Not to mention pork, lamb and even poultry.

The marbled-with-morals meats they seek come with a long list of adjectives: local, grassfed or pastured, humanely raised and well-butchered. Yet, although dozens of farmers (and would-be farmers) within a few hours’ drive of the city are enthusiastic about raising that kind of meat and selling it to New York’s burgeoning market of discerning carnivores, a formidable roadblock stands right at the intersection most of us would rather not think too hard about: Small, local farmers have a really, really hard time getting their animals killed.

“The first thing livestock farmers ask one another when they meet—the very first thing—is ‘Where do you get your animals processed?'” says Jennifer Small, whose Flying Pigs farm sells pork, complete with all those adjectives above, to Marlow & Daughters and Saltie and at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket.

Unlike vertically integrated factory-farm operations, which house their own killing facilities, small farmers lack the expensive equipment to slaughter and butcher, depending instead on the region’s fast-disappearing independent slaughterhouses.

Chef Jacques Gautier of Park Slope’s Palo Santo cites this as the biggest challenge in his efforts to source humanely raised meat from small, local farms. He’s dismayed that no matter how much care farmers put into raising animals, they have next to no say in what happens at the slaughterhouse. “The supposed benefit is that USDA inspectors will observe and regulate the operation,” he says. “But in most cases I would prefer to put my trust in the farmer to maintain the standards of animal welfare and hygiene.”

As slaughterhouses close, farmers have less and less say over their animals’ last day. How bad is the problem? Well, if you think it’s too much trouble to call a few weeks ahead for a Saturday night dinner reservation, be glad you’re not a livestock farmer. They often have to book nine months to a year in advance to get a slot at one of the few remaining local slaughterhouses that service the little guy. That kind of prior planning might work for industrial ag, where the animals are treated like so many interchangeable machines, but small farmers who raise their animals outdoors have to work with nature’s variables, all the way down to the balance of sunshine and rain on pasture grasses. And if an animal’s at ideal slaughter weight three weeks before the scheduled slaughterhouse slot, too bad.

“You can get incredibly high-quality lamb if it’s slaughtered when the grass is good,” says Blue Hill‘s Dan Barber. “You can taste the garlic and onion and clover.” But if the farmer can’t get his just-right animals into the slaughterhouse just then, tough (in more ways than one).

Because slaughterhouses are so few—and literally far between— farmers can spend up to four hours just driving their animals to slaughter, a trip that’s hard on farmers and animals alike, and turns both gas money and food-mile cred into so many fumes.

It’s not surprising that local slaughterhouses are so scarce. Despite the fees they charge the farmer (which can account for as much as half of the cost of the final product), small-scale meat processing is no wildly profitable business. And because they can’t afford to pay a lot, it’s hard to attract staff for the difficult, unpleasant work.

It’s not surprising that local slaughterhouses are so scarce. Despite the fees they charge the farmer (which can account for as much as half of the cost of the final product), small-scale meat processing is no wildly profitable business. And because they can’t afford to pay a lot, it’s hard to attract staff for the difficult, unpleasant work.

“We started calling around like crazy,” she says. “We spent six months fitting in two animals here, 10 there. And some places were far from our first choice.” The lambs she’d helped birth in spring and had moved to fresh grass every single day of the summer quickly grew past their prime. Being forced to sell them as mutton had a silver lining: She discovered an unexpected demand for that older, stronger-tasting meat, and still sells some, but the experience shook her.

“I turn people away every week,” says Ernie Ward, whose E&L Meats slaughters and butchers animals for several farmers who sell in the city. So Dan Gibson of Grazin’ Angus, who sends two to four cattle a week to E&L and sells the meat at the Carroll Gardens Sunday Greenmarket, treats him “like gold.” But the better he likes E&L the more he worries.

“Every once in a while it creeps into the back of my head—what if he dies?”

Even when local farmers have a good slaughterhouse relationship, USDA rules and procedures mean they can’t always give Brooklyn’s chefs what they want. Take blood. Saul Bolton, of Saul and the just-opened Vanderbilt, would love to get his hands on blood from local, sustainably raised animals (think blood sausage). He once thought he’d found some—in fact, the slaughterhouse was bagging it up for delivery—when a USDA inspector walked in. “He had to dump it out,” Bolton says sadly.

Applewood‘s David Shea, who gets whole lambs and goats from Vermont each week, hit a similar wall. “We use everything, make head cheese, even put brain ravioli on the menu. A few customers who live around the corner will eat all the brain we can provide.” Then the animals started showing up headless. Shea was dismayed to learn that the slaughterhouse’s stun gun, a captive bolt to the head, had broken, and the animals were being dispatched with a pistol instead. The new method destroyed the head.

Chefs like Bolton and Shea who bend over backward to source and serve local meat generally buy whole or half animals and butcher them in-house. It’s not easy, in the close quarters of city kitchens. Rose Water‘s owner John Tucker admits, “our tiny space allows for only so many carcasses and we don’t have the big band saws that would allow us to take beef on that scale.” He adds that small local farms’ inconsistent supply often requires the restaurant to serve meat from further afield; DeBragga, D’Artagnan, and Pat Le Frieda source from small farm cooperatives in the midwest and beyond. Similarly Gautier buys some local meat at the Greenmarket but has become a regular client of Heritage Foods USA—ordering a whole pig from them every other week. It’s not local, but it’s humanely raised on small family farms the Heritage staff has personally visited. “I trust them to provide me with a product that fits with the ethical standards of my establishment,” he says.

Chefs’ challenges pale next to those of the home cook. If you want to cook local steaks, a side of beef simply won’t do. But if it’s hard for farmers to get their animals killed, it’s even harder to get them properly butchered.

Many slaughterhouse owners have been in the business of killing animals for generations, but they don’t have nearly so much experience butchering. Some of the city’s few remaining butcher shops are responding to consumer demand by offering so-called “natural” or “heritage” or even “grassfed” meat, but few really understand these overused and under-regulated terms—other than that they can motivate customers to pay more. So New York’s discerning meat eaters procure proteins from the city’s Greenmarkets or a neighborhood CSA where they can ask every last detail about breeds and feeds. But those meats are usually frozen and the quality of the butchering can be uneven or worse.

Nancy Brown, who sells her own meat and that of other farmers through several Brooklyn CSAs, regularly asks her butcher for 1- to 2-pound sirloin tips, but what she gets can weigh 3 pounds or ¾ of a pound. “Either they’re not reading my instructions, or the guy is inexperienced,” she says. When flatiron steaks became fashionable, she had to tell her butcher where on the animal to find them and how to cut them: He didn’t know. Other farmers have even worse stories: the steer carcass that hung next to a goat so that the goat-flavored meat had to be sold as dog food; the pig that came back from the slaughterhouse as nothing but sausage meat, and so on.

Flying Pigs got so frustrated by lousy cutting of the meat they’d raised with such care that they got a license from New York State and hired their own butcher. Those who haven’t taken that step think twice before complaining. “I let my wishes be known, but I don’t push,” says Craig Haney, livestock manager at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture (who happens to be married to this magazine’s editor). “I don’t want them to tell me to take a leap, because I have nowhere to leap to.” He’s built an on-site poultry slaughterhouse but still spends a day a week driving to a larger facility to process his pigs and lambs.

A farmer’s worst fear is that the animal he sent in on the hoof won’t be the same one that comes back in a cooler. One Catskill area farmer whose meat is bound for Manhattan restaurants says that once when he sent his pastured heritage chickens to be killed, the birds he got back in bags were the standard supermarket variety. And Rick Bishop, who sells his specialty produce at Union Square and has also worked in the meat business, tells the frustrating tale of a calf that was milk-fed when the farmer sent it to slaughter, but clearly not when it was delivered to the buyer. Fearing such switches, Bishop says, farmers have been known to put a dime in the back of a veal calf’s leg before sending it to slaughter, so they can check for it when the meat comes back. “It’s not nice to do that with a live animal,” he says, “but that’s how crazy it can get.”

There’s more at stake here than a great steak with a nice list of adjectives. The state’s landscape is ideally suited for small-scale, pasture-based livestock. Pair that with downstate dollars and you’ve got a much-needed boost to the upstate economy and environment—how many industries can you say that about? But if area slaughterhouse capacity isn’t expanded, the local livestock boom is doomed to sputter to an untimely halt.

“A farmer can raise the most perfect beef in the world, but if you can’t get it killed, you’re done. And I’ve heard many stories of farmers killing animals in the field and burying them because they can’t get kill slots,” says Josh Applestone, owner of Fleisher’s, one of the country’s first pasture-raised-and-organic-meat-only butcher shops (in Kingston, New York) and the original rock-star butcher. (Want to apprentice with him, like Tom Mylan did? That will be $10K a month, please.)

So farmers’ organizations and local governments alike are working on the so-called “slaughterhouse problem”—and a few potential solutions are in the hopper. The Northeast Livestock Processing Service Company, founded and run by farmers, plays matchmaker between farmers and slaughterhouses and will act as the farmers’ rep in supervising their work. Back when he was a Sullivan County official, Bishop spearheaded plans for a new slaughterhouse near Liberty, New York, but progress slowed once he went back to farming and stopped pushing it. “I feel like a deadbeat dad,” he says ruefully.

And Glynwood Center, a nonprofit whose mission is to help save Northeast farming, has rounded up funding and developed plans for an innovative piece of infrastructure that has helped meat farmers elsewhere—a mobile meat-processing unit that could travel the area, adding to capacity and cutting farmers’ drive time. Glynwood President Judith LaBelle says the USDA “has met the concept” she says, but has “concerns. It’s like anything kind of new.”

Meanwhile, chefs like Shea embrace the hurdle: “It’s hours and hours of work to break down a whole animal, an all-day job to do it well and make sure nothing gets wasted. It would certainly be easier to just order tenderloin—but there’s no magical pig that only grows loin. I take a whole animal because I want to do right by the animal and by the farmer. It is a joy every Thursday to get that delivery. It’s fun . . . and it’s a mountain of work.”

Ann Monroe, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, has written for MSN’s Green Channel, National Geographic Green Guide, Edible Brooklyn and many other publications. She lives in Fort Greene with her husband, a beekeeper, and hasn’t darkened the door of a supermarket in a decade.

This Little Piggy Went to Market: It’s hard work raising animals, but it can be even harder to get them slaughtered.

Heavy Lifter: Chefs of Applewood in Park Slope take butchering into their own hands.

Nose to Tail: Chef Jacques Gautier of Park Slope’s Palo Santo has a standing order with Heritage Foods for a whole pig every two weeks.