Monday, November 24, 2008

Postcard from a Slaughterhouse


Sounds good, right? Well it just so happens that Joe was a classmate of mine (for a little while anyway...he took off to buy the farm...no...really) and he's been helping me think about the distribution network for locally produced food. The rest of this post is directly cross-posted from Chewswise. I wish Joe the best of luck in recreating the local market for grass raised meat in his area (image from wallpapers.free-review.net). I know I can learn from him.
As owner/operator of a small local slaughterhouse, I see a lot of pigs over the course of a month. Some of them are raised in industrial operations in Pennsylvania. We buy them to make sausage in my plant. The rest are brought in by small farmers from all over Virginia to be slaughtered and processed for sale in farmer's markets, at restaurants, and directly to consumers.

The pigs all spend a day to several weeks in the humble little barn behind my plant. The moments when I go out to feed and water them are among the best parts of my day. Alone in the cobwebby old structure, I talk to them, bring them their corn ration, and take a moment to just watch them being pigs. I like to touch the pigs while feeding them -- lay a hand on a round hip, feel the warmth and the coarse bristle against my skin. Perhaps this is strange, knowing we will soon take their life, but I appreciate the sense of connection. This morning it was cold, and I had to smile looking at a pile of Joel Salatin's Polyface pigs peacefully sleeping in a big pile to keep warm.

It is fun to step into a pen full of hogs – and informative. Joel's little pig dudes run up eagerly like curious dogs, and immediately cover your legs with inquisitive round snouts checking out the smells. No fear or shyness here. They run and jump around, snuffeling excitedly. Black, tawny, red, spotted, their coats literally shine with health. Glossy bristles give their bodies a bright sheen.

But when I step into a pen of industrial hogs, the atmosphere is completely different. Sunk in a sleepy torpor, they lack awareness, and they startle with alarm. When you surprise a pig, they bark like dogs and scurry mindlessly around. Perhaps I should say hobble – many of them limp. Raised on hard concrete, their feet and joints are malformed, and they live in pain. The deep sawdust in my barn is the best they have ever had. Their white flanks and shoulders are covered with bloody scrapes – they have been fighting, working to establish their dominance hierarchies in middle age. Unlike Joel's hogs who are raised together in their little band in the woods, the industrial hogs have no sense of a pecking order because they have not grown up together.

We'd like to process hogs from small local farms, but that isn't an option right now. There aren't enough hogs raised locally. We bought a going concern with two dozen employees and customers to take care of. But the hope is to build these new local markets. Then maybe all the hogs out in the barn will be like Joel's. One day.

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