Skipping the slaughterhouse is increasingly popular — and sometimes illegal
For Monte Winship — “pushing 59,” stout and jovial and a well-known itinerant butcher in southern Vermont — it was business as usual on a mid-November Monday morning. With a reporter in tow, he’d taken the back roads to Spoon Mountain Farm in Middletown Springs in his black Ford F-150, admiring the views and chatting about the history of old farms along the way.
Having left his .22 rifle behind in the cab, he knocked on the door of the little white farmhouse and said his good mornings to the Lewis family, who milk about 25 Jerseys at their organic dairy.
But it wasn’t milk on the menu today — it was meat. Winship, who has been butchering animals in Vermont since his boyhood, was here to dispatch a beefy steer destined for the dinner table.
“Hi, girls,” Winship said to the doe-eyed Jerseys as he followed longtime friend and farmer Toby Lewis to the corral near the house.
Lewis and his adult daughter, Bess, spent a few moments cornering the steer in the corral, sending the gaggle of a dozen or so cows hustling this way and that. “You might want to come in here, too, Monte. Join the party,” Lewis called, so the butcher, a second halter in hand, slipped into the pen. Lewis sprang into action at an opportune moment, and soon they had a halter over the steer’s head; the animal went still and calm as Bess and Toby Lewis leaned heavily against his sides.
“He’s in good shape, Toby,” said Winship, appraising the 2-year-old animal — a Jersey-Hereford cross that Lewis nicknamed a “Jerford.” Out of the ring, the steer went a little stubborn, reluctant to move down the dirt road to the barn, but Bess and Lewis urged him along. “That’s a good boy,” Lewis said in a low, pleasant tone. “What a good boy.”
Soon enough they had him alongside the rear of the barn, at the top of a slight incline and out of sight of most of the herd. Winship pulled the .22 from his truck and loaded two bullets. “Not that I thought I’d have to shoot him more than once,” he said later, “but better safe than sorry.”
“He’s going to go down quick,” Lewis warned Bess. Winship raised his rifle, pointing the barrel directly at the steer’s forehead, and pulled the trigger. Just like that, the steer collapsed, as if his legs had turned to jelly beneath him.
Winship slit his throat next, and the cow’s thick, red blood began its slow trickle down the hill.
“No fuss, no muss,” Winship said.
What used to be the routine manner of acquiring meat for many Vermont farm families — raising and slaughtering an animal at home — is today a choice that borders on countercultural. Individuals are free to raise and slaughter meat for their own families’ consumption, but to buy or sell meat that has been slaughtered like the Lewises’ steer is illegal, and it’s hard to pretend otherwise. Meat processed at custom cutting shops, as this steer will be, leaves the shop wrapped in butcher’s paper stamped “Not for Sale.”
Yet farmers, butchers, meat inspectors and ag advocates all say there’s a thriving underground market for meat slaughtered on farms instead of in slaughterhouses. “What we hear, we figure, is the tip of the iceberg,” says Randy Quenneville, section chief for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture’s meat-inspection unit.
For farmers, on-farm slaughter can be a way to make a little extra money, hashing out deals under the table with friends and family. And some consumers are choosing this route — despite its illegality — for any number of reasons, from taste preferences to philosophical beliefs about how animals should be raised and killed.
“[A farmer might] have a bunch of people over for dinner, and everyone says, ‘Oh, this is fantastic. Can I buy some?’” explains Andrea Stander, director of the advocacy group Rural Vermont. “If they want to be legal, they have to say no.”
But that leaves farmers — especially small-scale producers — facing something of a conundrum. Shipping animals to a slaughterhouse is expensive. Slaughterhouses are slammed during the times of year when many producers want to process their meat, typically the fall. In some cases, Stander says, “people are booking slaughter dates literally before the animals are born.”
There’s more to the choice than just convenience. Stander says some farmers — and consumers — much prefer killing an animal in the low-stress environment of the farm where it was raised to loading it onto a truck and shipping it to a slaughterhouse. Rural Vermont has pushed hard for laws that would allow on-farm slaughter, and helped pass a 2008 bill that would allow customers to purchase living livestock, which the farmer would then raise and slaughter on the farm. At the time, it seemed like a loophole that might loosen on-farm regulations.
But the state ag agency, after consulting with the feds, said the law would threaten Vermont’s standing with the USDA. Stander maintains the state wasn’t asking the right questions and didn’t push hard enough at the federal level. “We have been arguing all along that they didn’t get a definitive answer from the USDA,” she says. “They didn’t really go to bat for this law.”
Quenneville says that’s just not true. “We definitely got a definitive answer from USDA,” he says. Federal guidelines dictate that if farmers want to sell and butcher an animal on-farm, they must, at the very least, use a “custom” slaughter facility. That doesn’t have to be fancy — basically, it boils down to a sanitary room that has hot and cold water as well as washable floors, ceilings and walls.
Quenneville says the state could face serious consequences if it ignores USDA rules and allows farmers to butcher meat on farms and sell it to whomever they like. The USDA could yank its funding for Vermont’s meat-inspection program and step in to enforce federal rules.
With advocates and regulators at a standstill on the issue, a few farmers are looking into the USDA-sanctioned option of building small, custom slaughter facilities. Chip Conquest, a legislator and farmer from Wells River, is rebuilding his barn after a fire destroyed it several years ago. He’s including a small slaughter room and meat-cutting facility.
“I’m finding out that it is expensive,” says Conquest, who has a small beef herd of about 21 cows. He can’t separate the cost of the slaughter facility from the overall cost of rebuilding his barn, but he does say it’s greater than he had anticipated. But Conquest, who has also done some itinerant slaughter work, adds that the new facility makes the most sense for what he hopes will become a substantial part-time business.
“For me, it probably comes down to comfort and cleanliness,” he says. “You can set it up so it’s an easy work environment. You’re not out in the elements, and you’re not trying to jury-rig something to make it work. It’s just easier.”
Conquest and Stander want to see a pilot project that would make available basic floor plans and designs for on-farm facilities. And the state is on board. Earlier this year, the Vermont Agriculture Development Board recommended a similar plan.
“A lot of producers felt like the cost of that [facility] would just be prohibitive,” says Chelsea Bardot Lewis, the senior agricultural development coordinator at the ag agency. The pilot project would not only nail down costs but give producers a blueprint for moving forward.
Bardot Lewis still calls commercially inspected meat processing the “gold standard” in Vermont, but she acknowledges that, for small producers with direct relationships with their consumers, legal on-farm slaughter could be a better business model. “It’s a nice stepping stone,” she says. “Selling halves and quarters is a really great way for small producers to be profitable, and if we can get more consumers to think about buying meat that way, that’s fantastic.”
At the Lewis farm in Middletown Springs, Winship worked in the open air. First he rolled the massive steer onto its back and propped up the animal with a steel bar. He stepped into rubber boots and strapped on a long, black rubber apron. He filled a bucket with soapy water, which he used to splash his hands and instruments every few minutes. Though Winship admitted, “You’re not in a controlled environment” on the farm, he said he always does his best to keep his tools clean.
Before beginning the heavy work of skinning, gutting and cleaning the carcass, Winship rolled the steer’s long tail between his toe and the grassy ground. He always tests the tail because an old butcher once taught him that a cow’s tail is especially sensitive. “It takes a while for the nerves to let go,” Winship said. Though the animal was certainly dead, involuntary muscle reflexes meant it could still land a powerful kick if Winship wasn’t careful — just like the old saying about a chicken with its head cut off. “It’s the dead ones that always hurt you the worst,” he said, adding that he’s seen muscles “dancing” on beef that has hung in a meat locker for hours.
“Usually I take the tongue out first,” he continued, slicing the foot-long muscle from the animal’s head and tossing it into a plastic bag lining another bucket. Here he would collect some of the vitals — tongue, heart, liver — for adventurous diners. The feet followed, removed at the joints to make the severing easier and then tossed aside.
Winship has been butchering at least one animal every year on the Lewis farm for the past 35 years. “When you go, there won’t be many people doing what you’re doing,” said Toby Lewis, who sat on the grass near the butcher, looking on while Winship worked.
“Do you want this fat for the birds?” Winship asked, as he began the long cut down the steer’s stomach. Before long, he was ready to hoist the animal up on two hooks dangling from the bucket of Lewis’ John Deere tractor.
A foul-smelling liquid gushed out and rushed down the hill. Winship didn’t balk. He moved around the animal methodically, loosening its hide from the body with quick flashes of his knife. The animal’s fat — yellow, owing to its Jersey genes — gleamed in the mid-morning sun. When he finished splitting the steer’s belly, an enormous pile of innards — four stomachs and a curling mass of intestines — rested on the ground beneath the carcass. Winship stepped in among them and continued his work.
It’s not just inspectors who are skittish about on-farm slaughter. Some farmers take offense at the idea, too. Among them is Arthur Meade, who used to skirt the rules and allow Muslim customers to slaughter their animals in the Koran-prescribed halal fashion on his Morrisville farm. He straightened out after some run-ins with the state, and became the first farmer in Vermont to build a custom slaughter facility on his farm. Now he, and other farmers who rent his facility, can sell customers a live animal and then kill it legally on-site.
Meade alleges that there’s a “tremendous amount” of underground meat sales. The more time he spends in the meat industry, he says, the more he believes in the importance of the food safety rules that govern slaughter regulations. He worries that if a consumer got sick after eating illegally processed meat, the news would give a black eye to all producers.
“The first time we have a massive failure in the system where people are sickened, it’s going to kill us,” Meade says. “To do this will cripple a lot of good people.”
Plus, he has a financial stake in the industry. Meade says it’s just not fair when another farmer undercuts his prices by ignoring the rules. So when he heard about a farmer allowing illegal on-farm kills during the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha in October, Meade filed a complaint with the meat-inspection unit at the Agency of Agriculture. A few years ago, after his new facility was up and running, Meade could sell 40 or 50 animals for that feast holiday. This year, he sold two — a change he blames on illegal farmyard slaughter.
The complaint resulted in an ag agency investigation, which is still under way. Meade says he only filed the complaint after first approaching the farmer and offering to help explain the regulations. “I just want everybody to play in the same sandbox,” he says.
Meat inspectors admit it’s impossible to clamp down on illegal slaughter unless they receive such complaints. The state doesn’t even keep a registry of itinerant butchers, so no one can be sure who is providing the service. What’s more, Quenneville says, it’s difficult to catch illegal slaughter in the act. If an inspector stumbles on an on-farm slaughter, and the farmer says the animal is for his or her personal use, it’s hard to prove otherwise.
“We’re not the enemy,” Quenneville says. “I always tell everybody, ‘I would rather you put your money into your facility than pay it to us in fines.’”
Those fines can be steep, starting near $1000 in administrative penalties alone for each violation, and rising to as much as $25,000 for subsequent violations after warnings. “We don’t want that money,” Quenneville says. “We want you to invest that in your business.”
In fact, Quenneville is eager to help farmers navigate the complex regulations regarding raising and processing meat. As a meat inspector, he admits that custom slaughter and processing facilities don’t make him as comfortable as a fully inspected and regulated slaughterhouse. “It’s always been a kind of buyer-beware situation,” Quenneville says. But he sees the bare-minimum requirements as a big step up from unregulated on-farm slaughter — a situation where an animal might be processed in open air, hanging from the bucket of a tractor.
“They think that is just as clean, but they have no way to control those flying insects, or the milk truck driving 40 miles an hour down the dirt road spitting dust up in the air, and the wind, and the rain,” Quenneville says.
By the end of the morning, Winship had transformed the steer into a skinned carcass — not the living, breathing animal it had been two hours earlier, but not quite a supermarket steak, either.
He cut the carcass in half lengthwise with a reciprocating saw run off an extension cord from the barn, but left the two halves joined at the shoulder. Lewis kicked the John Deere into action and slowly rumbled toward Winship’s Ford. Winship explained that he liked waiting to make the final cuts until the tractor was poised above the truck — otherwise, two swinging halves of meat, each more than 300 pounds, could leave a smaller tractor “tippy.”
This time, though, that wasn’t much of a concern. “That tractor could hold up an elephant,” Winship said.
With the carcass still dangling in the air, Winship and Lewis unspooled a roll of heavy plastic wrapping and lined the deep truck bed. Then Winship severed the last bonds at the cow’s shoulder, and, as Lewis lowered the massive halves into the truck, the butcher made his final cuts — slicing through meat and fat and connective tissue to render the carcass into four hulking quarters. He folded the edges of the plastic around the quarters and covered the meat with a few clean, faded sheets — to let it breathe, he said.
“It’s all over but the crying,” Winship added.
But the mood on the farm was far from somber. Lewis’ wife and adult daughter ambled out to visit with the butcher.
“It just looks so small now in the back of the truck,” Bess Lewis said, peering into the truck bed. She remembered Winship visiting the farm when she was a little girl, and the sense of horror and fascination she felt in those days about the process of slaughtering animals. Winship was always kind to her, she recalled, dutifully teaching her about the parts of the animal’s body as he plucked them, still warm, from a carcass.
“This cow didn’t even know to be afraid,” she said a few minutes later. “That’s the nice thing about Monte. He always has such a calm presence.”
Depending on how far he travels, Winship charges between $50 and $75 to slaughter a cow and transport it to a custom meat-cutting shop. He also takes the animals’ hides; after cramming the steer’s thick, heavy hide into a large bag at the Lewis farm, he told me he could sell it for perhaps another $20 to a fur buyer in New York.
Winship first took up itinerant slaughter work as a young newlywed trying to make ends meet, but he said it was no get-rich-quick proposition. On this particular morning, the task required him to schlep from his home in Clarendon Springs down to the Lewis farm in Middletown Springs, then over to Fair Haven to deposit the quarters at Tom’s Custom Meat Cutting Shop. All in all, it took between four and five hours — and at 3 p.m., Winship would start his eight-hour shift at the General Electric plant in Rutland, where he’s worked for 32 years.
After a morning with Winship, it was hard not to suspect that he was in the slaughter business, at least a little bit, for more than just the money. He was a talker, and, after packing up the steer, he spent a long time leaning against his pickup, gabbing with the Lewises about old friends and neighbors.
As he took the back roads to Fair Haven, Winship had a story about every other farm along the road, not to mention every meat cutter who worked in this part of the state. There was Stanley Baker’s “cut-up shop” in Ludlow, and the Tarbell place, and the old Clark Norton farm. In the ’70s, it was “a lot of pigs, a lot of pigs,” he recalled.
When Winship’s three sons were teenagers, he used to take on lots of poultry jobs, bringing the boys along to earn spending money. All along, he said, his work had been mostly for backyard farmers.
In Fair Haven, Winship backed his truck right into the meat-cutting shop attached to Theresa and Tom Fitzgerald’s house on 2nd Street. Tom, 77, was wearing a Marine Corps ball cap and a white jacket.
Winship and the Fitzgeralds fell into a practiced routine: Winship pulled the quarters to the edge of the truck and snagged them with a large metal hook; Theresa operated the winch that hoisted the meat from the truck bed. They weighed each half — 311 and 326 pounds, respectively — and Tom Fitzgerlad stamped each quarter with a blue “Not for Sale” label. In five or six days’ time, the meat would be cut, frozen, packed and ready to truck back to the Lewis farm. “That’s a nice clean job, Monte,” Tom said approvingly.
Winship said he thought about opening a slaughterhouse as a younger man, and, a few years ago, the state approached him with a similar proposition. But now it’s too late for him — at nearly 60, he’s no longer game for the risk and investment of starting a business. Winship admitted the work is hard — tough on the fingers, in cold weather and physically demanding — but he’s determined to keep with it as long as he’s able.
“I don’t want to be one of those guys who fishes all day and drinks beer all night,” he said.
Winship described the work in prosaic terms — “not the most pleasant job in the world” — but said he likes to be outside and work with farmers. “I don’t think too much about the killing part of it. You can’t dwell on it.”
He respects the animals, he added, and prides himself on working quickly, efficiently and cleanly. Does he care whether the farmers he serves sell their meat on the underground market? “It’s like that old saying: If you don’t know, you don’t have to lie about it,” Winship remarked. He takes the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach, he said, just trying to do right by his customers and the animals.
“It’s honest work,” Winship said. “It keeps me out of trouble.”