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Local slaughterhouses come back to life

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By Samuel Fromartz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

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.

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"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.


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