Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Get Small or Get Out

I met Josh at Grundhofer’s Old-fashion meats in Hugo. Just as the word “farm” will often conjure up a cliché’ for people- white picket fence with a rooster on it and a red barn- so too the word “butcher” will conjure up an image of, well, Josh.
Bovine Mowers in May

A big man with a husky voice, he looked like he could easily make short work of a side of beef. He had a heart to match. With his usual laissez faire approach to grammar, he took a genuine interest in our small farm.

“You must’ve grained them lambs you brought in. Marbled all through. Not like them other suckers last year.”

At the time, we were living in the driftless region,in Southwest WI. The sheep had clearly benefited from the incredible pasture there. In the fall, we trucked half of the feeder lambs back to the Minnesota side where Josh was able to do on-farm slaughter and custom butchering for us at a friend’s farm for our grass-fed lamb fans in the valley.
Found in the Spud field

I had thought the occupation of butchering would have made him insensitive to animals in general-but he had a genuine affection for goats. He had dreams of starting up a small abattoir of his own and raising his family on a hobby farm.

In the end, the rules and regulations of the USDA made it too expensive for him to attempt. Here he was. He had the skill, the will, and some capital pooled with a friend- with the guarantee of plenty of business. We weren’t the only small farmers around looking for a place to send our hogs, lambs, and bucks to. But he was looking at a start-up cost upwards of $60,000 for a small meat processing plant up to code.

A vertically integrated food system in which we rely on large processing plants for our brats, boneless skinless chicken breasts, and steaks for the grill, may seem like an efficient way to get lots of cheap food to many people fast, but all it takes is a crisis like the one we are currently in with Covid-19 to reveal how fragile and vulnerable such a system is.

Very quickly in a crisis, the same system that supplies so much for so many can deprive so many as well.

As the sign from the meat supplier on the Marine General Store’s freezer says:

We are not experiencing a meat shortage, but a delay in the processing of the meat available.

I understand the concern for food safety, but as a small farmer I also know there are few better guarantees of quality than small scale production. All our major e coli contaminations of recent years were traced back to mega farms.
Romaine ready for it's close-up

As backyard producers of livestock, we need more small abattoirs and laws which encourage rather than stifle them. People are starting to think outside the box. Reports of hog farms in Southern MN having to euthanize hundreds of animals because the plant they send them to daily is temporarily closed reveal a problem with our current model of food production. It was striking how, when the larger grocery stores were running out of meat, Swanks, the local butcher in St. Croix Falls, still had plenty.

Critics say it’ll never happen. Farms like ours- throwbacks to the 1940s golden age of mixed livestock and diversified crop farming are all but extinct. “You can’t turn back the clock” they say.

But if there’s one thing this Corona Virus has already taught us, it is that the world as we know it can change shockingly quickly. We may well reach a point one of these days where we’ll have no choice but to consider some simpler ways of putting meat on the table.
the L.F.F. kitten tamer

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