Artisinal Butchering in NYC

Over the past fifty years, with the rise of the industrialized food system, nearly everything has been homogenized. Production has been centralized, scaled up, and the factory model has been applied to the production of meat.  Skills like small-scale cheesemaking, beer brewing, etc. have been marginalized at best and lost or forgotten at worst. However, as people and communities realize that we must reestablish local food systems in order to have a resilient future, we’re seeing these trends reversed.

In keeping with the theme of my last guest post by Scott Hoffman, I wanted to share this article from Good about a butcher in NYC who’s engaged in the revival of his artisinal craft.

He is a part of a movement of carnivores who eat meat but expect a higher level of consciousness about the process by which it arrives at our tables. For Jeffrey de Picciotto, there is a clear line between a living animal and the meat we eventually consume. He puts it this way: “By the time an animal gets to me in the shop I already view it not as an animal-recently-dead but as “meat.”” Picciotto admits that he thought a lot more about the gore inherent to his job at first but as he got used to butchering, it bothered him less and less. I have to wonder, as Picciotto himself seems to, about the implications for one’s mental health of killing or butchering day after day.

In order to decrease the strain and stress on people from these occupations we would have to decrease our meat consumption and decentralize our production, moving it back to farms.

What is clear to me is that the heightened consciousness with which someone like Picciotto approaches meat is way better than the relationship most American’s have with what we find in the grocery store wrapped in Styrofoam and saran wrap. I was struck the other day when I was given a ziplock bag containing some mutton recently slaughtered on a local farm. If I hadn’t been told by the farmer, I never would have been able to tell what species of animal the steak had come from. To me, it could just as easily been sheep as cow. It was a disconcerting realization.

People like Picciotto visit slaughter houses, they know and understand what is involved in the process of bringing meat to the table,  they respect the animals they’re working with and think about the fact that many animals exist solely for the purpose of human consumption. They advocate visiting slaughterhouses. After my first visit a couple of weeks ago, I can’t imagine a more important experience for a carnivore.

I’ll close with a question: What situation must the meat you eat come from in order for you to feel good about eating it?


Scott Hoffman’s Reflection on Lamb Slaughter

Sheep and Lambs at Dickinson Farm, May 2011

Scott Hoffman and I are both Student Workers at the Dickinson Farm in Carlisle, PA, a 180-acre farm that raises vegetables for our cafeteria, runs a vegi CSA, and is just starting to produce meat. The farm’s main goal is to provide educational opportunities in sustainable, organic agriculture to the college community. This Wednesday, Scott and I went along with Matt, the Assistant Director of the farm, to bring lambs to slaughter. Following the experience, Scott wrote this essay, reflecting on our trip:

It is a seemingly innocuous request, one very much in line with my goal of no longer being ignorant about where my food comes from. “Do you want to help take the lambs to the slaughterhouse next Wednesday?” I unhesitatingly say yes, due to the ignorance-eliminating potential of this task and the fact that I love farm jobs that require travel.  The week goes by (it’s finals, so it goes by very slowly and very quickly at the same time) and 6:10 Wednesday morning comes very early. Quickly and groggily, I dress, make coffee, grab truck keys, meet Daniel, load compost (not too many buckets this morning- do people just stop eating during finals?), drive to farm, meet Matt. We are excited. We shake hands and he thanks us for coming. The sun rises, a beautiful pink and purple (though overcast) sky, as we walk to where the flock is in the kidney bean field (so named because of its shape, not because of its contents). Matt leads the sheep with “sheep candy” (chicken feed) and Daniel and I make sure there are no stragglers. Once the whole flock (13) is in a permanent pen, Matt coaches us on strategies to isolate the male lambs, distinguishable from the females because their tails haven’t been docked. There are three, and working as a team we grab them one by one and lift them out of the pen. They’re heavier than I expected- about 150 pounds each- and I have to concentrate on holding them firmly around the neck and what would be a waist on a sheep for fear of them getting loose and running off. I had my first lesson in how difficult it is (very) to catch sheep when they’re not in a pen a few weeks ago when I opened a gate I shouldn’t have. However, no significant problems occur, and we get the lambs in the bed of the truck relatively easily.

After a quick conversation with the boss (next time, we are to put a tarp over the top of the truck bed), three men and three sheep depart. The ride to the slaughterhouse takes about 45 minutes. We talk mostly about sheep (shearing, optimal time for lambing, etc.– I calculate that the lambs riding behind us in the bed are about seven months old) but also about spelunking and bus rapid transit, among other topics. Daniel and I both look up immensely to Matt as a teacher, a mentor, a farmer, and a person- I believe I can speak for both of us when I say that I aspire to emulate Matt both in terms of his demeanor and his accomplishments. Thus, we listen carefully when he gives us these details and try to ask as many questions as we can. The conversation ends abruptly with promises of continuing soon when we reach the slaughterhouse, a small industrial-looking complex.

We wait our turn to back up to the gate and watch another farmer unload several large pink pigs from a trailer. Two slaughterhouse workers wait in the bay, donning plastic aprons and a plastic chain around their waist containing several knives. It is at the point when I see the workers that I begin to realize the reality and gravity of the situation I’ve just walked into. The small bay has a concrete floor, a complex of metal pens, and is presently housing five pigs, all fairly active. I am dimly aware of the loud noise being made by one of the pigs, but am focusing on the task at hand, unscrewing some boards we had in place to keep the lambs from jumping out on the ride. Matt and Daniel climb in the bed of the truck and coax the lambs out, onto a ramp and into the bay once I’ve finished.

From here things begin to happen very quickly. It is unclear if Daniel and I are to follow the lambs and Matt past the squealing pig pens into a room adjacent to the bay so we hang back, but the confusion is resolved via a reassuring glance from Matt and we walk quickly through the bay into the next room. There are five sheep in this room, our three plus two others from another farm, and a conversation ensues regarding which of the two new sheep are haired. This seems a little contrived to me given the imminent event, which is made even more poignant by the large pool of blood on the floor. Matt, Daniel, and I were alone with the sheep for a minute but now another worker enters, wearing the same apron and knives as the first two. Matt apologizes if we’re in the way (we want to watch, we want to understand, or at least I do), and the worker states that we must go back into the bay as he’s worried about “the bullet bouncing.” We all peer through a small vertical window in the door as the worker wields a .22 and aims for a few seconds. We hear a pop and then open the door fully to see one of our lambs down on its front legs. The worker roughly drags the lamb to the floor and using one of the knives, slits its throat. There is more blood. I become aware that I’m slightly nauseous, but remind myself that it’s only cells, I’ve seen blood before, I’ve killed animals before. The nausea increases as I see the worker unceremoniously drag the lamb, alive seconds ago (later Matt makes a remark about the fragility of life), over a ledge and into the next room. The sheep convulses slightly; I try to convince myself that the lamb is dead and residual neuronal activity is causing this but I can’t really be sure. I begin to contemplate scenarios in which I throw up.

We are now alone in the room again with four lambs, all huddled very close together in a corner with their faces away from us. I stare. Matt opens the door to the next room to inquire about paperwork, and it is made clear that we need to go to a different area to complete it, that we don’t need to be in this area any more. In a display of respect for animals that seems fit, just, humane and in stark contrast to the worker’s approach, Matt goes over to our remaining two lambs, strokes their heads and says goodbye, thanks them. He lingers for a little, clearly feeling something for these animals he has lived with for the last seven months. I watch his face; he looks somber, serious. I am almost moved to tears. I suppose this is why we don’t name the sheep.

Back in the bay, my attention is drawn fully at this point to the source of the (now hellish) squealing from before, which is happening every five minutes when a dark brown male pig attempts to mount a female pig in the same small pen. The female moves quickly in circles around the pen until the male is thrown off, a maneuver to be repeated several times in the few minutes we’re in the bay. There is another male in the pen with them, and no workers are here to witness this. Perhaps I am anthropomorphizing, but I feel like what I’m witnessing is attempted pig rape. Matt corroborates this, saying something about pig sexual assault (I believe he’s only half-joking) and I feel disgusted at what again appears to be lack of proper treatment of animals, in this case highly intelligent ungulates.

I think we’re all in shock a little (or at least I am) as we drive the truck around to complete paperwork. Polite conversation and logistics with another worker, a woman with a camo baseball cap involved in the processing of the meat into burgers, steaks, etc. She candidly remarks that she likes Daniel’s hat. I am to return in a week to pick up the meat. I’m not really looking forward to it.

The conversation in the truck, naturally, addresses what we just witnessed. Though the lambs we just slaughtered lived the best life of any lambs anywhere (never confined, allowed to run with the flock, plenty of feed and fresh pasture), admittedly the very end of their life was downright shitty. Matt remarks that if he were to be killed, it wasn’t such a bad place to go. We know he’s right; because this is a small operation and not a huge plant that processes hundreds of animals per hour, the care of any individual animal is going to be a little better than in the industrial plants. Still, we wonder if there’s not a better way, and realize that current law prevents the processing of animals for sale on the home farm. This is yet another potent reminder of the fact that the concentrated agribusiness model dominates, and that this model is, in addition to being unsustainable, inhumane. We also wonder about the effect on the workers, who surely would be desensitized (and clearly are) to killing after processing so many animals day after day.

After ten minutes or so of this debriefing, Matt receives a phone call and Daniel and I become distracted by an enigmatic lawn decoration. I realize later how quickly the transition went from being completely absorbed by the slaughter to resuming life as it was before this event. And so it must be, time doesn’t stop and we have other things to attend to. Still, Daniel and I agree in a later conversation, no one who saw that could not be affected by it.

This is the great tragedy in the modern food system; that we are so completely removed from the source of our food that if we were to see how it actually occurred, our eating habits would completely change. As long as giant agribusiness continues to be the paradigm, this forced and at the same time willful ignorance will continue to prevail. Lax bros, sorority girls, hipsters, librarians, physicists, doctors, teachers, schoolchildren, lawyers, policemen, day traders, cubicle sitters, the 99% and the 1%, will continue to perpetuate this system by their (our) rampant consumerism unless something is changed.

I already eat meat very sparingly, understanding that the amount of meat America consumes is inherently unsustainable. In the last 50 years, global population has doubled, but the number of animals produced for human consumption has quadrupled. Seeing the lamb slaughtered made it even more clear that eating less, or no, meat is the right thing to do. It was not the act of killing that made this so emotional; it was the lack of respect for life. An ideal world would see the killing of animals happen infrequently and with ceremony, yet the present reality sees animals processed by the thousands “as if they were wrenches,” to quote journalist, Mark Bittman. Seeing one of the “better” systems for processing animals makes me understand how badly most animals have it (way worse than our lambs), and this makes me want to work towards stopping that larger industrial process. The commidification of life needs to be stopped. The separation in our minds of living animals from everyday burgers needs to be eliminated.

That we eat more meat than we really need should be made blatantly obvious to the population as a whole; a large scale change in consumer behavior needs to be pushed. Legislation is needed to support small, sustainable farming practices, farmers are needed to start implementing those practices on a wider scale, and conscious consumers are needed to support both of these groups. The moral of the story, I suppose, is think next time you sink your teeth into a chicken sandwich. Respect life: eat less meat, and if you’re going to eat meat, buy from a farmer who knows his animals.

-Scott Hoffman, Dickinson Farm Worker

Industrial Ecology at The Plant, Chicago

Once the setting of Upton Sinclair’s novel about the meatpacking industry, The Jungle, the Union Stockyards neighborhood of Chicago is receiving an injection of vitality in the form of an inspiring redevelopment project called The Plant.

Plant Chicago, the recently formed nonprofit which serves to organize this massive endeavor is lead by Executive Director John Edel who has gone through a variety of careers including chef on a railway car but who has envisioned growing plants indoors since he was a child.

The idea of the plant is utterly revolutionary and simple common sense at once. The building is an ex-meat plant which will become both an urban, vertical farm and a food business incubator, recycling all the food waste it produces (plus an additional 6,500 tons diverted from landfills) into anaerobic digesters which will be responsible for producing all of the heat and electricity needed for the operations of the businesses in this 93,500 square foot space. While vertical farms have typically struggled with how to get sunlight to the vegetables, The Plant seems to have solved this problem by producing, in-house, the electricity it needs to run grow lights. The building will have net-zero energy use and net-negative waste.

Businesses already slated to join Edel in his visionary endeavor include a sustainable brewery, a mushroom farm, an aquaponics company, and a vermaculture worm supplier. The space will also include a certified community processing kitchen which will be available for rent by the day or hour.

The most important and exciting thing about the Plant is its community-based approach. The Plant takes a hands-on approach to rebuilding the  local food economy of Chicago– a step towards fixing our country’s broken food system. Entrepreneurs with even the best ideas will fail to affect change unless they engage and invest deeply in the community in which they’re rooted. In order to allow local producers to market their value-added goods, they need access to a certified kitchen in which to process them. While it’s cost-prohibitive for each operation to have its own processing space, community-supported kitchens (CSKs) can allow small food businesses to become profitable. The Plant is forward-thinking in this way and it’s also engaged in its community in Union Stockyards; they’ve already held two open houses for community members and businesses.

Tellingly, Illinois sees promise in this type of urban redevelopment as well: the Plant recently received 1.5 million in grants from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

So, to recap: a nonprofit housing for-profit businesses; closed loop systems that feed each other; growing food indoors with grow lights powered by decomposing waste; a community centered approach and room to grow! We need more of this in more places. Check it out!

From the Post Carbon Institute

This video, from the Post Carbon Institute (of which Oberlin Environmental Studies Professor, David Orr, is a fellow), discusses, in the broadest of terms, how the industrial revolution and the creation of the market economy have gotten us to where we are today. I think that the most important take-away from this is not the solutions at the end of the clip but rather, the reminder that comes at the end of the history section, when the speaker points out just how much change has occurred in our systems in the past 200 years.

This goes back to the idea from my first post that all forms of Capitalism are ultimately transitional.

We live in a system created by our choices. As such, we have the option to make the individual choice to opt out, to reconceive our futures, to change the ways we live, and to look towards a more sustainable future. Call it youthful, naive idealism but it’s the best chance we have.

Occupy Industrial Agriculture by Occupying Sustainable Farms with Labor

I’d like to get your reactions and considered thoughts on this idea, please:
How about, as a means of protesting against industrial agriculture and our educational institutions’ involvement in its perpetuation, we organize a PA state-wide sustainable agriculture support day where students state-wide refuse to go to classes and invite their professors to join them as they volunteer for the day to work on sustainable farms in their area?

Rogoff and the (sustainable?) future of Capitalism

In his CNN  blog post entitled, Is capitalism sustainable?, Harvard Econ Professor Kenneth Rogoff makes a case for the ability of capitalism to perpetuate itself. His argument misses the point of sustainability and conflates it with capitalism’s ability to persist. If sustainability means that we are able to provide for present needs without damaging our ability to provide for future needs, the capitalist paradigm of infinite growth and the material throughput of finite resources are inherently in conflict with each other. The answer here is clear: our capitalism is not sustainable. 

Rogoff’s statement that there is no “viable replacement waiting in the wings” to supersede capitalism isn’t an argument for the viability of the current system. Instead, it is an admission of our collective creative failure to conceive of a new, sustainable system.

It is this kind of rhetoric about capitalism which encourages us to think that we are stuck with this system. It is this kind of rhetoric that promotes the idea that the human economy is somehow an immutable representation of the natural order of things and that competition, rather than cooperation is the most effective means to our collective ends.  

In his piece, Rogoff is actually arguing that our capitalism will persist, not that it is sustainable. He writes that “all current forms of capitalism are ultimately transitional” and points to the failures of leading capitalist economies to price public goods, to prevent inequality, to provide social support (health care, etc.), and to value the welfare of unborn generations. The neoclassical habit of calling these problems with Capitalism “market failures” should be telling and instructive; they are endemic of the ultimate market failure–the failure of capitalism write large to provide for societal needs and provide a sustainable future for people living on this planet.

Markets fail to address societal and environmental needs not because of small flaws in the capitalist system euphemized as ‘market failures but because our government is willingly handcuffed by corporate interests (under the guise of Capitalist faith in the free-market, and the invisible hand paradigm). The very systems which we established to provide a better life for all citizens have been turned over to a small number of immensely wealthy individuals who use our political system to grow their corporations, banks, and private accounts. This brand of capitalism is clearly unsustainable.

The task now is to actively engender the shift from greed and corporate-driven capitalism towards a holistic, democratic system which places the power back in the hands of the people from whom it has been wrested.