Digesting after the New England Meat Conference…

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Author: Hillary Barter

Posted: April 10, 2013

Categories: Food Processing / GoodFoodBites / Local Procurement / The Meat Press

Sitting in the front row of a conference room in Concord, New Hampshire a few weeks ago, eagerly awaiting the start of my first workshop at the New England Meat Conference, the unlikeliness of the scene began to sink in.

A child of the mid-eighties, I was raised by hippie parents on the vegetarian recipes of Diet for a Small Planet, accustomed to crunching on celery sticks and stealing chunks of raw tofu while my mom made dinner.  Now, here I found myself perusing the menu for the night’s meal, which consisted of a whole roasted pig, a beef shank, and a pile of spare ribs thrown in for good measure! (To drive the point home, they did not serve a single vegetable as part of the evening meal…!)

Personal history aside, I was very excited to be there.  As a graduate student researching the geography of small & mid-sized meat processing ventures in Ontario, and as an intern working with Sustain Ontario on meat & abattoir issues (both of which my vegetarian parents find puzzling and hilarious – but are of course very supportive of), I was glad to suddenly find myself surrounded by butchers, farmers and …more butchers.  These folks had gathered for this 250+ person meeting aimed at enhancing the production and processing of “sustainable, nutritious, humanely-raised, and delicious meat.”  A conference designed to support the people who make up regionally-focused meat-based supply chains, this gathering was very unlike most other industry conferences, to be sure…

It was the first ever conference of this kind in New England (it was inspired by a similar event last year in North Carolina) and it was clear people were happy about it.  Of course, the value of getting together with people who face similar struggles is huge, and farmers and butchers in the world of small-scale meat are no exception!  Impressively, organizers managed to arrange sessions that appealed to a pretty diverse audience, inclugin everyone from the owners of small, isolated rural abattoirs, to farmers pasture-raising meat chickens, to butchers trying to keep their grandparents’ village butcher shops in business amidst increasingly stringent regulations.

Three sessions were offered each day with topics ranging from humane handling practices to strategic marketing to tips for successful farmer-to-butcher collaboration.  A meat industry trade show featured upscale butcher shops from NYC alongside companies manufacturing special chicken bags, among many others.  And then, of course, there was the ‘Meat Ball’ – the evening banquet – which certainly didn’t disappoint.  The bluegrass band took a break for a butchery demonstration (!) and a three hundred pound pig carcass was broken down, on a table in the centre of the dance floor, in 20 minutes flat – with running commentary – by one of the many master butchers in the room.  Never before had I seen such impressive knife skills at work!

I was the only Canadian present (as far as I know), but I repeatedly heard familiar concerns expressed by the Americans surrounding me: regulations are not always geared at small operations and are sometimes inconsistently applied; it’s hard to find qualified help; and, in general, it’s pretty darn hard to make a small farm or abattoir pay!  Like in Ontario, many parts of New England are faced with a lack of slaughter and processing facilities and people are trying their best to get creative as the problems worsen.

It was inspiring to witness this coming-together of people from all walks of life who want to strengthen their local food systems, and who see well-raised and slaughtered meat as one component of such systems.  Indeed, this is what caused me to consider the politics of meat production in the first place: while a lot of meat is raised in disturbing and unsustainable ways, there are alternatives.  Plus, it turns out that incorporating livestock into diverse farms makes a lot of sense!  This resurgence of interest was made clear by a common refrain throughout the weekend: that butchery is gradually being recognized, once again, as the skilled craft that it is.  Even though a lot of small-scale meat processing capacity has already been lost – as consolidation and industrialization have become the name of the meat industry game – there is still a lot of knowledge that can be retained, and a lot of room to expand local processing in ways that really do contribute to healthy communities.

I met lots of young men and women who want to be part of these changes.  They’re thoughtful and critical – and ready to get to work strengthening the parts of our food systems that ought to succeed, and many of them want to be butchers and livestock farmers.  Let’s take inspiration from their work and from this event, and keep trying to find new ways to share challenges and ideas with others in the meat sector.  It would be great to see a conference in Ontario that brings together livestock farmers, meat processors, and policy makers, wouldn’t it!

Some innovative models from the USA ….

The New England Sustainable Farming Project offers some interesting resources on poultry processing – click on “training” and then “more poultry processing resources.”  They operate several mobile processing units in Massechusetts.

Pat McNiff runs Pat’s Pastured, a small mixed livestock operation that does their own slaughter in a mobile processing unit (which actually doesn’t do much moving around, but was built very cheaply).

Farmhand Foods is an innovative distributer of local, pastured meats in North Carolina.

This is Philly Cowshare, a website devoted to connecting consumers who’d like to buy a portion of a cow for their freezer with one another.