Each weekend, we load our truck with free-range meat and eggs and head over the Blue Ridge mountain into farmers market in Washington DC. Everyone knows that farming is a full-time commitment, and as each year recedes into memory, I sometimes wonder how we manage to get it all done.
The truth is, we couldn’t get it done without the help of our two outstanding local butcher shops. Small scale butchers play an indispensable role for local farmers; without them, getting free-range meat into stores, restaurants and markets would be nearly impossible.
But now more than ever, small-scale family-owned butcher shops are an endangered species. If we truly want to “eat local,” then these shops must remain open and prosperous. As Jedediah Purdy suggests in this recent OpEd in the New York Times, it’s time to make slaughterhouse operations transparent. I agree. Come along as I take you behind the scenes at Blue Ridge Meats, a small USDA inspected butcher shop in Front Royal, Virginia.
***Spoiler alert: Farming celebrates the circle of life, and death is a part of this cycle. If you are sensitive to images of traditional butchering practices, then this might not be your blog. However, if you are genuinely interested in knowing how small farms and local butcher shops interact, then in the name of transparency and integrity, please read on. Knowledge is power.***
Of course, it all starts on our farm, Smith Meadows. We select three or four grass-finished cattle every Wednesday morning, and personally haul them to the butcher shop on our trailer.
About 40 minutes later we’re at the butcher shop, backed up and ready to unload.
Unlike most slaughterhouses, our animals are quickly dispatched without hours of waiting. After humanely killing a steer with a point-blank shot to the head, it is quickly skinned by a skillful butcher.
Two carcasses ready to dry age. “Dry aging” is an old fashioned technique whereby beef is hung for several weeks in a frigid (but not freezing) room. Cold air circulates around the carcass as it ‘ages,’ imparting tenderness and flavor to the meat. This is an increasingly rare technique in modern times, and nearly all beef in the United States is ‘wet aged’ instead. ‘Wet aging’ means placing beef into plastic sacks, and letting it ferment in its own juices. Clearly, we prefer dry aging! (As a side note, the yellow fat on these animals is giveaway that they were grass-fed. Corn fed animals have snow-white fat).
After weeks of dry aging, a beef is ready to be ‘broken down.’ Here, a butcher slices apart an entire side of beef in a few moments as I watch.
Have you ever seen a circular shaped bone in a sirloin steak or leg of lamb? That’s a result of the bone saw, seen here slicing the beef into slabs while cutting straight through the bone.
Three part harmony.
Inside the chill room, with beef dry aging in the background. If you look closely, you will notice that these pigs have been prepared in different ways, some with their heads left on, other removed, and the one in the foreground with the head removed but saved. Different customers have different preferences when it comes to pig roasts, and small scale butcher shops are able to cater to individual needs.
The Valley Proteins truck, hauling away offal to a rendering plant.
Operating a small butcher shop is extraordinarily expensive. Besides the normal types of overhead (payroll, utilities, mortgage, etc.), a butcher shop files significant amounts of regulatory paperwork each week. With appointments scheduled months in advance, a missed butchering appointment means a serious loss of revenue for a small shop. Hence, this notice!
The end result: delicious sausages, chops and roasts. As you’ve seen by now, the working conditions are clean, the process is transparent, and the artistry is unparalleled. Quality is maintained when only small numbers of animals pass through the doors each week. Conditions like these are harder to find in the mega-slaughterhouses, where thousands of animals per day are the norm.
Every butcher shop is unique, and Blue Ridge Meats is no exception. Here, owner Lois Aylestock smiles from her office through a hole in the ceiling, where she can see customers as they enter the deli. It’s eccentricities like these that make small butcher shops a vital thread running through our American tapestry.
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knowledge is power indeed! thanks for the insider’s look 🙂
You got it, happy to be a tour guide!
Spot on once again, Forrest. Your processor can make you or break you. When I went into the grass fed lamb business last year, there was only one choice for a butcher ~ The same small local butcher that has processed the beef, hogs, and lambs that I have raised for my own family to eat over the last 25 years. They butcher our lambs every week, and I know every employee there. I can’t even imagine using someone else.
Thanks for the insight, Jeff. I know that I’m very lucky to have not only one, but two butchers that I can trust. Most consumers don’t know this, but there is a huge shortage of processors relative to the number of farmers that are trying to grow good food. Some farmers have to drive for hours and hours one way just to get to their most ‘local’ butcher shop. Like you, I feel very grateful to have such an excellent relationship with my butchers. As such, I do my best to keep them in business by giving them lots to do, and paying them on time!!!
Great overview of the process and why small business is so important! – Heath
Thanks Heath, and I don’t know if you knew that the OpEd author is a fellow West Virginian Duke grad like yourself…
This is fantastic Forrest – my favorite story I ever wrote was on Blue Ridge Meats. Made me a believer!
Thanks Pam! Yes, great folks, and special thanks to them for opening up their shop to be photographed. They’ve raised the bar for transparency and consumer education.
Interesting article, Forrest. I don’t know the NYT OpEd author, but work with his mom occasionally. Small world…..
Its getting harder and harder to find a good butcher. This has made it that much harder to sell meat. Of course, people not having large freezer anymore has also impacted the sales of meat. Even a half lamb is hard to sell as most people don’t have room for that amount of meat.
Thanks for writing this. Very interesting! I’ve enjoyed the last couple of posts you’ve written and I think you should keep writing them – you know, in your spare time. I think meat is a hard thing for people a lot of times because they are so removed from it and its helpful to have things like this out there. And to see how it can be done right.
I think family farms are very important and saving them to pass down is a wonderful thing. Now were your food comes from and being involved in it is a practice that has unfortanly long been forgotten. We raise our family on our 3rd generation farm, and I want to be able to pass the knowledge and ability to do so to my children. We raise all of our meat here and butcher some ourself. We raise most of our vegetable and put up for the winter. I am so thankful for other people like yourself, who is willing to pass on knowledge. Best of luck to you.
Thanks, Forrest. Very good piece.
We love Blue Ridge Meats! As a personal chef, I have used them to source whole lambs and pigs for me – as well as processing whole animals. I have also bought already cut meat and sausages from them and ordered custom-cut pieces – both personally and professionally. I totally trust them – and yes, it is a luxury to have them. It should not be a luxury, but it is. The shortage of small scale slaughterhouses is definitively a bottleneck. Thanks for the great piece, Forrest.
I just dropped 2 pigs off yesterday at Blue ridge… I’d like to add to your story that they are humane certified and I find they are truly gentle with the animals, which, for me, is very important. I want to treat my animals with respect and dignity, giving them good lives in return for what they provide me and my customers with. I also work hard to try and bridge the gap between people and the food they eat these days… there is a huge disconnect… this article really helps bring the realities of where your food comes from to the forefront!
Hi Forrest – here’s a video I shot at Blue Ridge that’s been viewed on YouTube nearly 30,000 times https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cz2n0HIT50E –
[…] Pork Carcasses in a local slaughter house. Image via Smith Farms. […]
Excellent post. We take pigs to butcher weekly. Our week revolves around the trip to the butcher followed by deliveries day. I’m fortunate in that my wife does the driving and I get to stay here on the farm.
Blue Ridge Meats has been our butcher for several years. They do a wonderful job. Wish there were more operations like theirs!
There is nothing humane about murdering animals. Animals do not want to die. And for the cycle of life. No other species on the planet causes as much suffering to animals than humans. Compare us to an actual meat eating species and you’ll see we have very little in common where as we have more in common if you compare us to a herbivore or a frugivore.
Have been using Blue Ridge for years, and I just love Lois! They are so clean, clean, clean! I have never smelled an ‘off’ odor there, nor seen a fly. They set the standard!