The Slaughterhouse Problem

While it’s never been so easy to buy pedigreed produce in Manhattan, 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, humanely raised and well-butchered. And 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 such restaurants as Gramercy Tavern and Tabla and at the Union Square 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 last few independent slaughterhouses.

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 identical edible machines, but small farmers who raise their animals outdoors have to work with nature’s variables, all the way down to the rain’s impact on the pastures. 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.

When one of our region’s last independent slaughterhouses shutters, God help the farmers who depend on it. Four years ago, just at the start of the heavy fall slaughtering season, Karen Weinberg, whose Three-Corner Field Farm sells lamb to Blue Hill and Mas and at Union Square, got a call saying the slaughterhouse she’d found, after months of trying, had burned down.

“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, 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?”

Chefs worry, too. “I can’t rely on getting a large volume of meat locally,” says longtime locavore Mary Cleaver of Cleaver Company Catering. “I just can’t.”

David Chang is in the same situation. “Momofuku is always on the lookout for farms raising animals with focus, care and respect,” he writes in an e-mail. “Local, sustainable meats are on the rise but sometimes we still have to look outside the New York area.” Last spring he visited Ayrshire Farm in Virginia and was impressed; he now gets regular deliveries of their poultry and humanely raised veal. “It would be ideal for these types of products to be available in every market,” he continues, “but we’re not there yet, and supporting farms that raise animals in the best way possible is crucial to the growth of sustainable agriculture everywhere.”

Meanwhile Gramercy Tavern serves a special dish of local beef cheeks—but not whole, as chef Mike Anthony would like, because USDA inspectors gouge samples from the very center. “I keep asking them to take it off the edge,” he says, but so far his requests have been in vain.

And chefs’ problems pale next to those of the home cook. Restaurants like Blue Hill, Gramercy Tavern and Savoy that bend over backwards to source and serve local meat generally buy whole or half animals and butcher them in-house. But if you want to cook local steaks (or beef cheeks) at home, you’re looking for parts. And 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, says Jake Dickson, who opened his own local-meat butcher shop in Chelsea Market this fall. But they don’t have nearly so much experience butchering. He says that before the USDA started writing the rules, animals were killed on the farm and taken to a local butcher to be cut up. “Farmers selling meat directly to the end customer is a new thing.”

For Peter Hoffman, owner of Savoy and Back Forty restaurants, the loss of butchering skills is a cultural tragedy. “When I was a kid, every supermarket had a butcher. Now that, in our infinite wisdom, we’ve figured out how to get rid of those guys, we’re left with a meat worker in an upstate meat-locker operation,” he says. “I don’t know how they learned to cut meat, but they didn’t learn it from pride in being a butcher.” Hoffman, who once upon a time spent his days off watching the artists at Florence Meat Market, is a mean hand with a knife himself and has taught his staff to break down the whole animals they get from a local farmer each week, saving prized cuts for Savoy’s dinner plates and grinding others into Back Forty’s unctuous burgers.

Some of the few remaining butcher shops in the city are responding to consumer demand by offering so-called “natural” or “heritage” or even “grassfed” meat, but few really understand these over-used 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 a dozen Manhattan 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 onsite 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 Catskillarea 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 smallscale, 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 Fleischer’s, one of the country’s first pasture-raised-and-organic-meatonly butcher shops (in Kingston, NY) and the original rock-star butcher. (Want to apprentice with him? 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 farmer’s rep in supervising their work. Back when he was a Sullivan County official, Bishop spearheaded plans for a new slaughterhouse near Liberty, NY, 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.”

Dan Barber warns that we don’t have much time. There’s a “tsunami” of aspiring young farmers headed toward us, he says. If they’re choked off at the meatprocessing bottleneck, developers will find it that much easier to pave over upstate New York.

Photo credit: Jason Houston