Nice to Meat You

Nice to Meat You
Black Earth Meats employs "Grandpa's way" in raising and processing animals

Bartlett Durand remembers a particular trip to a large grocery store in 2007. He was walking through the meat department when suddenly he did a double take.

There it was—cooked ham in the glass display case, priced at $1.19 per pound. He couldn’t believe it. “I knew it costs $1.89 per pound just to raise the animal,” he says.

So there’s a seventy-cent price discrepancy. Big deal. Stores offer sales and discounts all the time. But to Durand, managing member of meat processing business Black Earth Meats based in the Dane County village of the same name, this price deviation is more than just a markdown. It represents decades of change in the meatpacking industry that has pushed out small farmers and butcher shops in favor of the more efficient and cost-saving model of the mega-sized factory farm. The more-cheaper-faster mentality these industrialized processors embrace has seeped into the average consumer’s mindset, and that’s how a meat department at a large grocery store can afford to sell ham at a price lower than what it costs to raise the hog itself. With giant feed lots and assembly line facilities churning out chicken breasts like Model Ts, the whole system has been able to bypass the individual scale.

But there’s a way to restore the industry and get back to the butcher craft as it once was. Through small, whole-animal butcher shops—like the Conscious Carnivore shop Black Earth Meats opened on Madison’s near-west side last fall—the meat industry is slowly undergoing a renaissance. It’s a trend in-step with the ongoing artisan food movement, marked by small-batch production using high-quality ingredients often sourced from nearby.  You can see it elsewhere in Madison, like at the Underground Butcher on Madison’s near-east side.

For its part, Black Earth Meats goes beyond the butcher shop aspect of the revival, operating on both the production and distributions sides of the food system. Before its meats even arrive at its Conscious Carnivore shop, they are processed in the company’s own organic, USDA-certified facility. That facility, only eighteen miles from Conscious Carnivore, is one of the few slaughterhouses in the country to meet the rigorous Animal Welfare Approved standards. And before that, those cattle, hogs, lambs and goats were raised with room to roam on small, antibiotic free farms in Wisconsin, Iowa and northern Illinois. By working with about one hundred such farms, Black Earth Meats can maintain the values of the small farmer while producing far more than what a single farm can raise.

“We’re recreating a system,” says Durand of Black Earth Meats’ unique model. It’s a system he’s hoping to perfect and replicate across the country. It’s as simple as building more Conscious Carnivore-like shops near more Black Earth Meats-like meatpacking houses. He has the demand. He has the engineering drawings. But he’s thinking it will realistically take another two to five years to scale the business. “I would do it today if I had the money,” he says.

What he wants to duplicate is the pipeline—from the farm to the processing facility to the consumer—that Black Earth Meats has been able to sustain while still meeting their own lofty quality standards. That kind of full circle control is extremely rare for a company of its size. The facility in Black Earth processes about two hundred animals, mostly cattle and hogs, each week. Every animal is handled individually by a highly trained butcher. Contrast that to Tyson, one of a handful of food companies that currently dominates the world’s meat market, which processes more than four hundred thousand hogs each week. “I could do five hundred per day,” Durand says, “but you don’t do it with people. You do it with an assembly line.”

To the forty-six-year-old Durand, the model he’s championed has one crucial component that is lacking in the Tyson era of meat: connection to the process that ushered that tasty, tender burger from the pasture to your plate. That connection is at the heart of what he wants to recreate in other regions. “The goal is to create greater resilience in the overall food system, to reconnect people with where food comes from in a very direct way. It’s that the processor should be the common ground between the country grower and the urban consumer.”

It’s not that Conscious Carnivore, located in the Shorewood Shopping Center in the same strip as Penzeys Spices and Vom Fass, is the only place to purchase Black Earth Meats’ products. The company does sell its meats in a retail shop at the front of its processing facility in Black Earth and in Willy Street Co-op and distributes directly to around ninety restaurants in the Midwest. But having a physical presence in Madison is crucial. “This is home. It’s the most direct connection [to consumers] we can make,” Durand says.

For customers, buying ethically raised meat and interacting with a highly skilled butcher is as simple as a quick pit stop on the way home from work or while running errands on Saturday. Merely walking into the shop is a lesson in meat consumption. The display case contains the easily recognizable sirloin and rib-eye, but you’ll also find oxtail, liver and other cuts that are less familiar. “We’re trying to re-educate people,” Durand says. “There aren’t four kinds of steak. There are twenty-one.” The shop also allows Black Earth Meats to  transfer knowledge through classes like whole-hog butchery and sausage making.

Durand says he is actively pursuing plans to open more Conscious Carnivores. But there’s a holdup to duplicating the processing facility aspect of the Black Earth Meats business. Complaints from village residents about animal noises and byproduct waste came to a head in late 2013 and early 2014, and in December the village board told Black Earth Meats it had 120 days to present plans to move its facility out of the village.

“The problem is that in order for us to move, it’s going to require capital,” says Durand, a former lawyer. “We can’t do it on our own.” So he fought the decision, claiming $5.3 million in damages. That claim was denied by the village board in January. Now a few third-party moderators are involved, like economic development group MadREP and Rep. Fred Clark, who represents Black Earth in the state Legislature.

“It certainly raises a lot of questions for me,” Durand says. “Instead of having a nice, solid business, I have all these questions. Do I move? Do I fight?” While the issue still hasn’t been resolved as of press time, Durand has no plans to abandon his plans. It’s rare. It’s needed. And he’s determined. “There are certainly more people trying to do sustainably raised butcher shops,” he says. “But I have run into very, very few people doing what we’re doing.”

Grace Edquist is associate/web editor of Madison Magzine.