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Student Tom Acampora wants to butcher hogs at his own slaughterhouse.
Student Tom Acampora wants to butcher hogs at his own slaughterhouse.

Training the next generation of butchers

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Mostly gone are the days of the neighborhood butcher. They may never come back. They've been replaced by vast meat processing plants putting out shrink-wrapped cuts for supermarkets. But foodies and locavores are fueling a demand for meat raised, killed, and butchered closer to home. The problem in the North Country and much of the Northeast is there aren't enough slaughterhouses or meat cutters. David Sommerstein visited New York's only certification course for the next generation of butchers.

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Director Eric Shelley teaches the fading art of meatcutting.

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It's lamb day at SUNY's Meat Lab in Cobleskill, a little town in the Mohawk Valley. Guys in white smocks and hard hats haul carcasses out of the cooler. They slaughtered the animals yesterday. Instructor Clint Lane runs through the cut list and offers tips as students slice the carcasses on the brand saw.  They've paid $3000 for a month of killing, cutting, and grinding up beef, pork and lamb. At the end of the course, each receives a meat processing and food safety certificate and the basic know-how to work in the industry.

The students come from a variety of backgrounds, but all recognize the need for more butchers. Fred Beckman, who's worked in Manhattan's fanciest restaurants, wants to sell  his own foie gras, terrines, and sausages. "There's nothing that's more satisfying than biting into something that has a great deal of good fat," he proclaims. Fellow student McKeever Stanley is out of a job but loves to dress the venison he hunts every fall. His wife suggested he go to school and learn to be a butcher. And there's Tom Acampora, a construction worker who wants to build a slaughterhouse next to his home. He can't wait to "walk out in the morning with a cup of coffee, start doing some cleanup and get going at my own leisure."

The local food movement is driving more farmers to raise animals for meat. But between farm and table is a bottleneck--a shortage of small slaughterhouses serving small farms, especially in the Northeast. Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, says that the slaughterhouse infrastructure needs to change. "What we need is for that smaller operator who may have 100 acres or 150 acres, he would like to take and raise a few cattle or a few hogs and be able to slaughter them and sell them locally. To do that, you have to have an infrastructure," Vilsack said.

There are a couple of reasons for the shortage. It used to be aspiring meat cutters learned their way around an animal by apprenticing with a butcher, or in the meat department of the neighborhood grocer.  But like most everything, meat cutting has industrialized. Plants in the Midwest slaughter and cut up tens of thousands of animals a day.

At the Meat Lab, director Eric Shelley teaches his students about every step of meat processing, from food safety and humane animal handling to knowing how to cook different cuts. He drills a student on the lamb's basic parts, or primals, asking them to name the shoulder, rib, and loin. Shelley used to work at Walmart where like most supermarkets today, meat arrives pre-cut into primals. "Basically, it comes out of a box. You've gotta know which end to start cutting and then just start cutting, whether it's on a saw or with a knife. The skill of knowing where that part came off and how to get it from a carcass has left," Shelley said.

Even with the skills, starting a USDA-certified slaughterhouse can cost more than a million dollars. Hundreds of abattoirs went out of business in the 1990s after new, technical regulations, called HAACP plans, took effect. Betsy Hodge of Cornell Cooperative Extension in St. Lawrence County says it's daunting. "They need help with the regulations that have to do with the waste and a lot of regulations on inspection and these are good, they're put in there for safety reasons, but they are sort of overwhelming for these smaller slaughterhouse operators to handle."

In the North Country, there's movement to fill the void. A state-of-the-art slaughterhouse opened last fall in Washington County and is busier than expected. A group in St. Lawrence County is exploring applying for a USDA grant to start a mobile slaughterhouse, an abattoir on wheels that goes from farm to farm. Tri-Town Packing in Brasher Falls is adding on 3,000 square feet of new space, including a new smokehouse, cooler, and storage space. Owner Tom Liberty says he was booked up in the busy fall months when farmers want to bring their animals to slaughter. "Right at the present time, we're cramped for space. So this is going to alleviate that. There's certainly plenty of work around this area in this type of business to justify this expansion."

Back at SUNY Cobleskill's Meat Lab, Jason Cramer says he wants to start a brick and mortar slaughterhouse on the farm where he works near Buffalo. They breed and raise 300 Hereford cattle. But they have to truck them to Pennsylvania for butchery. "It's just a shame to see it go out of state and to go into these big factories and get mixed in with all this other meat when, in my eyes, it should be sold locally because we put so much time and effort into the animals," Cramer said.

Meat Lab director Eric Shelley says the local food movement is bringing the butcher back into public view. With concerns over E Coli and antibiotics and feedlots, Shelley says that's a good thing. More than half his Meat Lab graduates are working in the industry to take, starting to take up where local butchers left off. "If you can at least see somebody's face, you can usually tell what you're gettin'," he laughed.

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