When I was a tween, there were no video games, computers or smart phones. We had 3 or 4 television channels, cable was not a thing and VCR’s were still kind of a novel concept that would cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars if you could find one. Growing up in a rural community, most of the kids would do summer work in the fields detasseling corn. Since I had a late birthday, I did not make the cut with most of my classmates so I would not be old enough to be on one of those crews. Since we lived just down the street from the corn processing facility, I would see these kids walking home after work with their Styrofoam coolers looking completely filthy and tired. They were kind of like young dirty zombies.
Instead of working for Dekalb, I would wind up working for a local meat processing plant outside of town. In the beginning, I was the grunt kid who would mow, paint, clean, move shit, and then do it all over again. Eventually, I would go on to trim meat, work in the processing area, learn how to butcher and cut meat as well as produce a variety of meat products, sausages, hams, bacon… whatever. I did do a little college and a couple of other jobs here and there but I would spend about 23 years in the meat business.
That said, it was about 42 years ago when I first saw a beef slaughtered. As I write these words about the way things happened, I do so with the knowledge and experience of how I learned things as well as what was commonly known in the meat business at that time. I won’t say it was butchery. Butchery is the wrong word to use, it was butchering. Butchery is more of an awful act… like a bunch of hand to hand combat where one side wipes out the other. Meat processing is just what it is and there’s no way to really make it anything else. I’ll also guess that the act of processing meat for human consumption goes back longer than anyone alive can remember.
I saw a beef slaughtered. I saw a man kill a Charolais heifer. I watched Bill knock a beef. See, any way you say that, it never sounds pretty. There was a room off in the back that was an area for livestock to be held before processing. (Processing does not sound as violent as butcher, kill or slaughter. None of any of this was ever done in a violent manner… the words just sound worse and you don’t really want to know what happens in there anyway, you just want a burger or brat.)
The kill floor (name for the room where this stage of processing takes place – the place where the animal is killed, bled, skinned, gutted, split, hung on a rail and then rolled into a cooler) was a brightly lit white room. You could hear motors running somewhere. The floor was wet, as was most everything else as it had all been hosed down recently. It was humid. A processing plant smells a certain way. It is a mixture of livestock, manure, urine, hot internal organs, smoke, seasonings, blood, processed meats like hams, bacons and sausages, smokehouses, soaps and a lot of other things. All of this stuff becomes one smell, the way a processing plant smells. The heifer came into the chute, which was a gated area just large enough for the animal. Bill, the butcher at the time, wearing dark high rubber boots and a long yellow apron, walked over to the head of the animal, placed the end of a bolt stunner over the head of the heifer and depressed the trigger. The device is a cylindrical thing about 14 or 15 inches long. Inside, a charge is placed and when the trigger is depressed it fires a steel pin into the head of the cattle. The pin retracts back into the bolt stunner.
The heifer dropped straight down to the floor. The body of the animal was sort of lightly twitching. Bill opened the gate and the animal rolled sideways onto the floor. Bill put a chain around the hind hooves, hooked the chain into a hoist and raised the animal high into the air. Once it was up, he walked over to it, pushed one front hoof and leg up and out of his way as he inserted a knife into the neck to cut the jugular vein and bleed the animal. The blood was caught in a 5 gallon pail and then dumped into a 55 gallon drum for later collection.
The whole thing, that part of it, only took a few minutes. I don’t know, or maybe I don’t want to know what that animal was thinking at the time. I do know that whatever we did way back then, 42 years ago, was done with skill and in a professional, respectful manner. This was a time in American history where the “every town has a processing plant” or two, was coming to an end. We were still the guys who would take in your cattle and know how to do everything from getting it in the door alive to getting it frozen into the trunk of your car – and everything in between. That is what we did. That is a job people used to do.
We were also a “locker” plant. What that means is that we had a very large walk in freezer, the size of a large room, filled with large cabinets with drawers… kind of like a very large filing cabinet. You would rent a drawer or “locker” and keep your meat there. The drawer was locked at all times. It was sort of like a safe deposit box for your meat. You would come in and I would take you to your locker. You would take whatever meat you wanted and go home. You did not have to have a large freezer at home. This type of operation has also mostly gone away.
We worked with new farmers and generations old farm families. We worked with a lot of Chicago people who came to NW Illinois to live or to start a small farming operation. Many people purchased sides of beef and pork through us or directly from the farmers and then we would process for them. We worked with smart people and people who did not have more than a couple of brain cells to rub together. A lot of what I learned there gives me the ability to work with a variety of people today as well as have a no bullshit, get the work done kind of attitude, most of the time.
In those days, as the “every town” processing plants were fewer and fewer, a lot of the old timers would wind up working in the plant I worked. From them I would learn tips and tricks and techniques on everything meat related. Many were from other countries such as Switzerland, Germany, Austria, or Mexico. The inspectors usually were meat men as were most of the spice and seasoning salesmen as well as other salesmen from places like Oscar Mayer and Dubuque Pack. We knew the farmers, how and what they were raising, who had a certain kind of quality meat and who was eating garbage. We knew who treated their livestock a certain way and others who did not treat them well at all. I learned stories from people who had been in the meat business since they were kids in the Chicago area when Chicago was still a meat-packing town. In the years that would follow, I would also have my own stories and experiences.
For example, One day a man brought in a pretty nice looking heifer for slaughter. The animal was highly agitated for some reason. Looking at it, there did not seem to be any obvious reason for the agitation. There were no other animals in the pen at the time and nothing out of the ordinary going on on the kill floor. There would be no calming this animal down, and there would be no sticking my arm into the box with the bolt stunner… it would take my arm off. So, I had to use a rifle. I shot it, it went down. Now I would continue the processing. When I started to skin the animal, I began to notice some very obvious marks under the hide. These were representative of the animal having been beaten with a long pipe, I suppose in order to get it loaded on a truck. This guy became known as someone who would abuse his stock. As I continued, I also discovered that the heifer had been bred and that the unborn calf had died long ago and was never aborted. Pretty much all that was left was a calf skeleton. Not the best story, but it happened.
On the other hand, I once could not get a beef off of a truck. We did not use prods, sometimes we would use a board as a barrier between us and the livestock, pushing it in a certain direction. I could not get it off. I walked to the front of the building where the owner was giving cutting instructions. I told her I was having issues and she told me I was doing it wrong. She walked into the livestock trailer with me, produced a Snickers Bar, opened the wrapper and said “Come on, Boom-Boom.” Boom-Boom’s eyes lighted up and followed her right off the truck and into the pen. And then, the reality of this cute story is that I killed Boom-Boom and this lady ate her.
We had escapees. Once in a while, one would get away. This was usually due to the farmer not positioning the truck or trailer correctly and leaving an opening where something could get out or through. This once happened in another plant I was in. I was a meat cutter at the time, someone came to the front of the room and called for help, a beef got out. We went out to see a black steer hightailing it over the nearby train tracks. The butcher and I gave chase while others piled into a truck. The steer ran about a block and a half and then actually jumped a fence INTO a nearby livestock pen. We figured it could not get much easier than that. We would just re-load it and go back to the plant. Evidently, the steer figured out our plan as it jumped yet another fence and ran into a nearby golf course. Once again, the butcher and I gave chase. As we were all running thought the golf course, a couple of ladies drove up and asked if we would like to use their golf cart. By then, the steer had left the golf course and continued out into the country. We caught up with it in some field where it was shot. We had to have a tow truck come out and lift it into a pickup to be taken back to the plant. Yeah, it happens sometimes.
We were a group of skilled professionals who performed a service. This type of service has mostly gone away for a number of reasons. There are not as many family farms as there once were. Larger operations can process a greater volume in less time. People do not eat meat the same way they did 30 or 40 years ago. Even then, with lot to freezer processing you would wind up with things you seemed to never use. Liver, heart, tongue, soup bones, pork neck bones… many people never knew what to do with those items, or simply did not like them. People want to heat it and eat it and go on with their business. Beef grades have changed over the years and newer “creative” cuts have been introduced. These are things that look like a decent piece of meat but are actually things we used to use for things like ground beef, sausage, canning beef and the like. They were never anything you would want to put on the grill. Now, with grade changes, price changes and such, meat markets look to produce something “new” and “innovative” to fool you into thinking you have something better than your really have. You get what appears to be a lean cut at a low price. Creative packaging also comes into play with meat that looks nice and lean, is covered with a nice slick plastic cover and placed in a meat case illuminated by slightly pink fluorescent bulbs. Put a nice green plastic parsley divider between the items and it will look like Christmas. A lot of what happens on the retail end is PR and marketing, creative labeling and other things to make what you are about to purchase look absolutely delicious. And there’s not really anything wrong with that. Just know that no matter how much you pretty it up or talk about how kind and careful and thankful you are for those animals that gave their lives so that you can eat… all that other processing stuff HAD to happen before this point.
So, Jeff… why go on and on about all of this boring and maybe even creepy stuff, no matter how real it is? Well, my little friends, I’m about to tell you.
One of my good friends recently posted in support of a Kickstarter campaign.
Kickstarter is a vibrant community of people working together to bring new things to life. Friends, fans, and inspired strangers have pledged $1 Billion to projects on Kickstarter, funding everything from homemade postcards to Oscar-winning documentaries.
Since this particular fundraising effort was for a small meat processing place, I was interested. I began to do some research on the small Wisconsin town processor. Long story short, a few people purchased a small processing plant. They built up the business, developed a brand and became successful. Then, I began to read about how one of the owners of this place is known as “The Zen Butcher.” A former vegetarian, traveling the world and doing yoga with his wife, he realized that his body was not getting enough protein. After eating a fish curry or something fishy and feeling energized, he began to see some good things about consuming meat. He was concerned about animals not being treated humanely, animals who might be raised on chemicals, growth hormones, chemically enhanced feed and the like. If he was going to eat meat, or process meat, it was going to be done in a new, modern, humane manner. The small processing plant was purchased and the branding and PR began to take off. Some people can be really great at certain things and promote a thing in a way you might not have thought about it before – if you thought about it at all, like meat processing. Kind of like how some people can sell ice cubes to Eskimos. Signs were posted stating “We honor these animals, for by their death we gain life.” I suppose things have changed in 30 or 40 years. Most of these animals could not read for shit back then. They barely understood basic hand signals.
The concept of marketing yourself or your product or brand is nothing new. Having also been a sign maker and advertiser of sorts for the last 25 or more years, I completely get it. Having been in the meat business, where you have a product you want to sell to people also made me understand the importance of perception. If you believe something is a certain way, a way that appeals to you, you are more interested in that thing. If I can manipulate you into believing that something can be seen differently, more important or whatever, I succeed in my goal to sell you on that thing. Nothing new, been going on forever. In this case, one of the selling points is making you believe that his method of slaughtering hogs and cattle is done in a manner that is somehow kinder and gentler than ever done in the past. Watching the videos of this man and his operation, I see nothing much different than anything I had ever experienced myself. In fact, I could get a little picky about things like suggesting that using a hog panel to move a hog off a truck and into the kill chute is nothing new. I could complain about people working in the background and not completely wearing their safety equipment or the fact that the work table looked as if it had not been scraped in a while. You know that all of that table goo is going to be combined with any of the trim you are working on, which will wind up in your ground meat or sausage trim. I could question the notion of a quiet and peaceful setting for slaughter when I can certainly hear the normal sounds of a meat plant in the background. Placing signs in areas suggesting how much you honor the animals you are slaughtering does nothing for the livestock. Remember, they can’t read and still get the same bolt in the head, electric stun to the head and throats slit. No, not a very gracious way to state that but it actually is what it actually is. Describing a process in a new way, calling a small town operation a “micro” butchering operation, describing skilled butchers and meat cutters as “artisans” are all marketing tools to make you think something that has been going on forever is now something new, different, better for you and better for the planet. Keeping the business open is better for this guy’s bank account and that’s the bottom line.
The city where this plant was located decided to close down the slaughtering part of the operation. There had been complaints of noise and smells as well as the street being blocked by trucks. Looking at the Google street view of the place, it is easy to understand why the neighbors were having issues. They claimed that they were slaughtering 45 cattle and 100 hogs per day. That amount of livestock is going to make noise and there’s nothing really that you can do about that. A business like this in a downtown location with that volume of livestock… not a good mix.
A business like that is tough to do with all of the State and Federal guidelines you have to follow. Starting new certainly will cost a lot of money, which is why he is looking for you to help him out with a donation to Kickstarter.
My opinion is mixed. I’m sorry that this guy somehow did not have the marketing skills with the city like he seems to have in Kickstarter. I don’t know what things he did, or could have done but did not do to solve whatever problems he was having with the neighbors. If the business is as good as he says, you would think someone else would help back it, build new and it would continue on elsewhere. That has not seemed to happen which makes me wonder why. Is this guy and the business plan not as attractive as one might like? Perhaps, with today’s new tech communication and the retro memory movement as well as the thought that organic, humane, honoring the dead is new or better, and Kickstarter… he will succeed.
I’m sorry to see a business like this go out. Over the years I have seen many of these cease operations and they become a memory of something we used to do. One the other hand, it bothers me that he is selling this in a 2014 hipster manner, honoring the dead, bringing back Grandpa’s method of raising and finishing beef, packaging shit no one eats like offal products and telling you it’s good for you as well as your furry friends, and asking for your money above and beyond what he would make in profits from those products in order to continue a business that – on the current scale – is doomed to fail.