By Samuel Fromartz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 17, 2010; E01
HARRISONBURG, VA. -- Huddled in a small pen in the slaughterhouse, the four sheep and two goats were quiet and still. A few men nearby in thick rubber aprons cut away at still-warm carcasses hanging on hooks.
"They don't seem to know what's going on," a visitor remarked.
"Oh, they know," one of the butchers replied. "They know."
Maybe it was that awareness that led the men to work quietly and efficiently, dispatching each animal with a bolt shot to the head, until the last sheep, perhaps realizing that the flock was gone, began to bleat. Then she too fell silent.
So began the hard work of turning the animals into meat. The process is usually hidden from view, so that all consumers see is a steak or chop in a shrink-wrapped package. But at True & Essential Meats, one of about a dozen small slaughterhouses in the state that work with local farms, even school classes have visited the kill floor.
Co-owner and manager Joe Cloud, a 52-year-old former landscape architect from Seattle who bought the plant in mid-2008, welcomes visitors so they can see what's at stake, for the eater and the eaten. "It is a slaughterhouse, but I'm not going to shrink from showing who we are and what we do," Cloud said. "The industry has walled it off and is in a defensive crouch. I want to be different."
Cloud is riding a wave of consumer demand for meat from local farms, which has burgeoned along with the rash of deadly E. coli food poisoning incidents, hamburger recalls and undercover videos about grossly inhumane practices at a few large plants. Prominent chefs, who work with farmers and processors like T&E to get high-quality meat, have also championed the products.
For farmers, the sales are alluring; they make more money per animal when they sell direct, even if these channels represent less than 2 percent of all meat sales. It's also a way to escape the conventional system of meat production, since Virginia cattle typically are raised in-state for a year before being shipped to feedlots in Nebraska, Kansas and Texas to be fattened up and slaughtered -- and then shipped back as meat.
"Every step of the journey, someone has their hand in your pocket," said Jeff Lawson, who raises cattle and sheep at Green Hill Farm in Churchville, Va., a few miles outside Staunton. "If I could sell every animal I raised through Joe Cloud to get to your dinner table, I would. Any farmer would."
Small-scale slaughterhouses like Cloud's faded as processing concentrated in a handful of huge operations in the Midwest and as grocery chains sought out bigger suppliers. But the four-decade decline in niche processing plants has begun to turn around in the past five years, said Arion Thiboumery, a researcher at Iowa State University who helps run a national assistance network for small processors.
Richard Hackenbracht, head of the Office of Meat and Poultry at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, said farmers had pleaded for years for more small-scale processors, with inspectors on hand. Without a federal or state inspection seal, meat can only be eaten by the farmer or given away.
Larger plants often won't take on a farmer with a few animals, and if they do, some farmers question what happens inside. "I looked into it and was not all comfortable with the process," said Nick Auclair of Green Fence Farm in Greenville, Va., between Staunton and Lexington. Auclair, a former Defense Department intelligence analyst, processes his sheep, goats and hogs with T&E and sells the meat out of his truck on Capitol Hill and in Northwest Washington.
That lack of confidence in the conventional food chain also affects consumers, who have been seeking out more "ethical" meat. As a result, programs such as American Humane Certified have been growing nationally.
Humane concerns prompted Doug and Lois Aylestock, who had been raising sheep, to open Blue Ridge Meats of Front Royal, Va., in 2006. "We didn't like the way the animals were handled and thought there was a better way to do it," Lois Aylestock said. So they bought a slaughterhouse, went though a lengthy process to get humane certification, and opened a store selling local meat.
Bev Eggleston, who went deep into debt to start EcoFriendly Foods southeast of Roanoke in Moneta, Va., is blunt about what he's trying to do: "The food system is broken and dysfunctional, so we had to start building our own," he said.
His company buys animals from about 45 small farms and processes and sells meat to restaurants and to consumers through venues such as the FreshFarm Market in Dupont Circle. After nine years, he's breaking even.
Even small farms are getting into the act. Last year, cattle farmer Charlie Potter reopened Donald's Meat Processing, which had been shut for two decades, in Lexington, Va., because he had tired of driving five hours round trip to process his animals. Now he sells his beef to Washington and Lee University in Lexington and through an on-site store.
Access to an abbatoir was tough even for Joel Salatin of Polyface Inc., a high-profile farmer thanks to his role in Michael Pollan's book "The Omnivore's Dilemma." He had relied on T&E to process the cattle and pigs he raises on his farm near Staunton, but it became clear several years ago that the owners would soon retire. "It was absolutely our weakest link," Salatin said.
He paraded many potential buyers through the 70-year-old plant, but said "it took a lot of hooks in the water before I got a bite."
Cloud was a good prospect because love of food and wine runs in his family. His brother Roy Cloud runs Vintage '59 Imports, a French wine importer in the District. After his father's plans to start a vineyard on farmland near Staunton were thwarted by an accident, Cloud began helping his mother manage the farm. Soon, he was wondering whether to trade his office in Seattle for a herd of cattle in Virginia. Salatin, who was leasing a few of their fields, proposed that Cloud buy the slaughterhouse instead.
"You certainly don't have the allure of the country life in a slaughterhouse, the kind of thing sought out by the weekend farmer," said Salatin. "But processing plants and distribution are the two biggest hurdles in the local food movement."
Cloud eventually agreed, sinking 40 percent of his retirement savings into the deal and signing up his mother, Helen, and Salatin as partners. They bought the plant in July 2008, and Cloud has been pulling 50- to 60-hour weeks ever since, managing a workforce of 20 and fielding calls from restaurants and farmers.
T&E now processes meat for more than 100 farms, up from just a handful before the sale. The number of animals he slaughters has shot up 70 percent -- during the worst recession since the 1930s.
Cloud sells local beef, pork, lamb and poultry out of T&E Meats' store, but unlike Blue Ridge, he can't make the business work without buying some beef from the Midwest and pigs from Pennsylvania. He can't get enough locally, nor can he sell it at a price his longtime customers are used to paying.
"For 40 years it was the cheapest place in town," says Salatin. "Now we're trying to make it the best."
T&E, for example, sells conventional ground beef for $2.67 a pound. The local ground beef, from animals without antibiotics or hormones, goes for $3.50 a pound, and local grass-fed beef runs $3.99 a pound.
Cloud is putting every dollar he makes back into the business, expanding into poultry processing this year and hoping to grow again in 2011.
Oren Molovinsky, general manager at Mie N Yu restaurant in Georgetown, who coordinates local meat sourcing for half a dozen Washington chefs, says those plans are well placed. "Right now I could sign up 20 more restaurants for our local meat program, but I know the capacity is just not there yet," he said.
Fromartz, author of "Organic, Inc.," blogs at http://www.chewswise.com.