I stood behind Monte Winship on a frigid morning last December as he raised his .25-caliber Winchester rifle and aimed at Léo, a two-and-a-half-year-old Holstein steer.
In an era when Food and Water Watch, an environmental group, reports that four giant corporations—Tyson, Cargill, Swift, and National Beef Packing—process 84 percent of this country’s cattle, the scene in that snow-covered field in Vermont is increasingly rare: an animal was about to be humanely slaughtered on the very farm where it had been raised.
Winship and his old, lever-action rifle represent the polar opposite of the huge, 5,000-animal-per-day meatpacking plants that were so graphically brought to the country’s attention in Eric Scholsser’s Fast Food Nation. “There aren’t many of us left,” said Winship, who is in his fifties. “When I was a kid, every town had someone doing this job.”
In the jargon of the meat business, Winship’s work is considered “custom slaughter.” He is a freelancer, traveling from farm to farm, killing cattle and hogs and transporting their gutted carcasses to a nearby facility to be cut into parts, wrapped, and frozen. As a means for converting a living steer into meat, the practice has a lot going for it. For one thing, it is as humane as killing an animal can be. “It’s the best way to slaughter them because you don’t have to transport them,” Temple Grandin, the renowned author, livestock-handling expert, and associate professor at Colorado State University, told me. Being trucked long distances and then herded shoulder-to-shoulder into confined areas with strange sights and noises is a huge stress on animals, she said. A cow killed on its home turf doesn’t know what hits it. “If on-farm slaughter is done properly, it’s very, very humane,” Grandin said.
It is also a way for a skeptical consumer to make sure that the animal had access to pasture and did not spend its final months in a feedlot pumped full of hormones and eating an unnatural diet of corn fortified with of antibiotics.
A humane death for Léo; healthy meat for the consumer. What’s not to like? Plenty, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)—the same folks whose rigorous standards all but guarantee that yet another E. coli outbreak hits the news every week. Because the USDA refuses to give on-farm slaughter its little purple stamp of blessing, it is illegal to sell that meat butchered that way. Léo’s meat would be consumed only by the family of the farmer who had raised him.
On-farm slaughter is one solution to a problem plaguing anyone who wants to raise or consume local sustainable meat—getting it properly killed and butchered. Legal questions aside, on-farm slaughter has a major drawback for anyone wanting to process more than an animal or two at a time. “Once you get into more than a few animals,” said Grandin, who is never one to mince words, “you’d have a dirty mess.”
An alternative is to take animals to small, local slaughterhouses for killing and processing. But even as consumer demand has soared, the number of local processing facilities nationwide has plummeted. More than 1,500 have closed in the last two decades, according to the American Association of Meat Processors, which represents small- and medium-sized processors.
“The lack of slaughterhouses is the biggest bottleneck in the food business,” Patrick Martins, of Heritage Foods USA, the sales and marketing arm of Slow Food USA, told Food and Water Watch.
Such back-ups create huge problems. In one case, a dozen Vermont farmers pooled their resources to purchase a truck to serve the lucrative New York and Boston markets, where their products sell for three times the going rate in rural Vermont. But the scarcity of slaughterhouses means that the animals must be trucked alive out of state to be processed—both inconvenient and expensive. The situation is even more dire in New York State, where only 41 slaughterhouses remained in business in 2008, down from more than 120 in the 1980s. Pam McSweeny, a New York farmer who raises organic meat, has to truck her animals ten hours to Pennsylvania and back to have them processed, a huge expense.
To get around such backlogs, some small, sustainable producers have opened (or purchased) their own facilities. These include Will Harris of White Oak Pastures, Georgia’s largest grass-fed beef producer; Sallie Calhoun, owner of Paicines Ranch, a grass-fed cattle operation in Benito County, California; and Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm in Virginia, made famous in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Many of the problems forcing small operations out of business (and preventing would-be investors from building new plants) can be traced back to red tape imposed by the USDA. According to the Food and Water Watch report, the USDA’s regulations favor huge facilities that can spread the costs over hundreds of thousands of animals. Complying with policies is too onerous for many small operators. Extensive record-keeping and ever-fluctuating safety criteria add additional burdens. And Food and Water Watch reports that there have even been accusations of USDA inspectors singling out small facilities for harsh treatment because they make easier targets than national corporations with their staff scientists, legal experts, and well-paid government lobbyists.
Having witnessed the process firsthand, I would have had no qualms about eating beef from Léo. The steer dropped and lay motionless in the snow, dead before Winship’s shot had finished echoing. After the carcass was hoisted by the hind hooves with a front-end loader, Winship skinned and gutted it, retaining the heart, tongue, liver, and kidneys. He used a saw to cut the carcass in half length ways, and after that severed each of the halves in two. The four quarters—over 800 pound of beef—were loaded into Winship’s pickup truck. In all, 90 minutes had passed.
I followed Winship for about 30 miles to a building not much bigger than a two-car garage off to the side of a winding gravel road. The unimposing structure was headquarters for the company that had hired Winship, Rup’s Custom Cutting, a mom-and-pop business, run by Rupert LaRock and his wife, Jeanne. The spotlessly clean facility is regularly inspected by health officials, so apart from the manner in which he had died, Léo would have complied with all state and federal policies regarding the sale of meat. LaRock, who has been a butcher for 41 of his 55 years, hoisted Léo’s quarters onto meat hooks connected to an overhead rail. He immediately started spraying them with a high-pressure hose, commenting on the size and high-quality of the carcass, but nonetheless grumbling, “Cows get so dirty this time of year.” I could detect no traces of filth.
Because of the shortage of slaughterhouses, the LaRocks are run off their feet. They process only one cow per day. “And it gets busier all the time,” he says. If you want Rup’s to butcher, wrap, and freeze one of your steers, you have to book an appointment three to four months in advance.
For those of us who want to eat local, sustainably raised, natural meat, LaRock has some words of encouragement. “Every time there’s an E. coli scare, my phone starts ringing. There’s so much demand out there that they are going to have to open on-farm slaughter to commercial sale soon.”