By Samuel Fromartz; Special to The Washington Post; Wednesday, March 17, 2010; E01
“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.”
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. “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.