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Meat in America: Turning offal into energy, and other aspects of small-town butchery in northern Vermont

October 15, 2010

interview by Maria Gould
This article originally appeared in 
Meatpaper Issue Thirteen.

THIS IS THE FOURTH in an ongoing series of interviews about how Americans buy and consume meat. In this installment, Meatpaper checks in with Phil Brown, owner of Vermont Rabbitry and Custom Meat Processing in Glover, Vermont (pop. 966). Here, Phil discusses the pleasures and challenges of running a small business in a small town in a small state.

So, tell me about your business.
I started out raising rabbits and marketing to local supermarkets and restaurants, and started a customer base back in ’87, and have just grown a little bit. In the early stages, I was moving a lot of rabbits to large wholesale accounts, and not really liking the wholesale end of it, so I went back to dealing with my restaurants and my supermarkets and gourmet shops directly. You know, bigger wasn’t better. So we went back to the old “deal with your customers one-on-one and give them the best price you can with the best product you can.” We process on a Wednesday, deliver fresh on a Thursday, vac-packed or not — that’s a new option we offer, the vacuum packing to give them a little more shelf life, but everything is delivered fresh, whole carcass.

Are you still raising rabbits yourself?
No, now I have growers that grow for me. I have three growers that grow the rabbits for me, and I do the marketing for them.

And besides the rabbit growers in St. Albans, you also do custom meat processing?
Yes, for local farmers. Custom meat-cutting is for the farmers’ own use, not for resale. We process moose, bear — any type of great game — along with beef, pork, lamb. It’s something people in this part of the world are into: You grow vegetables all summer; you can them, freeze them, to put them up and get through the winter. It’s a survival thing.

And are the farmers doing the slaughtering themselves? Or are they using mobile slaughterhouses?
The state of Vermont has one of them, but it’s only for turkeys and chickens. They don’t have one for large animals. But I’ve got several good, qualified people that I use. They do a good clean job, a good clean kill. I set them up with a farmer, and they take care of it, and then we hang it up to four quarters, and it hangs for a week or better, and then we cut it off the rail…. Everything is slaughtered on the farm; then it comes to us and we do this end of it. We can only do stuff for the farmers’ own use, not for resale. We’re a State of Vermont–approved custom meat-cutting facility.

What kinds of methods are the farmers using to slaughter the animals?
I would say no different than anybody else. Shoot them, hang them, stick them. Get it done according to humane ways.

Is it state policy that you can’t slaughter and butcher at the same place, or do you just prefer to have the animals slaughtered on the farm?
We’re not state-inspected for the slaughtering end of it. I have been planning on expanding in that direction to put in an on-site slaughterhouse, but there’s a lot more involved than just the slaughtering. I want to compost, and do that end of it, but it all takes a lot of money, and being in a wheelchair, physically I can’t do a lot of that stuff — at least I haven’t figured out how. Because when you compost, you need to move your compost; there’s a lot more involved than just saying you’re gonna compost. If you’re gonna do it, do it right.

But as it is right now, we just butcher for the farmers. They slaughter it on the farm and we process it, do their cut-ups here. The animals have it better. They’re a lot calmer, you’re not getting them aggravated, when they’re killed on the farm. It’s better meat. It’s done immediately, it’s not getting abused to get in the trailer, not all wound up about going into some place where it can smell blood. It’s killed in a pretty relaxed atmosphere when it’s done on the farm. That’s the nice part about it.

But the rabbits are an exception?
Yes. That’s different. We’re able to slaughter them on the premises. There are no restrictions in the state as of yet for rabbits, except that they need to be processed in a state-approved facility, and I’m state-approved. When I started the business, that’s how we started, with the rabbits. And I knew that I needed to use the building a little bit more than just for the rabbits, to at least pay for it. So then I expanded on, and expanded on, and expanded on, and started cutting meat.We cut deer to start with, during the rifle season and the bow season and the muzzle-loader season. And then I got my state inspection for butcherhouse, and just kept moving on and on, trying to survive. Survive and pay the bills.

Has the current growth of the local food movement and interest in local food systems affected your business?
Yeah. We used to move quite a few rabbits to different ethnic groups; now it’s getting more universal. People are getting more educated about what they put in their bodies. And rabbit is one of the best meats on the market. Clean, healthy. A rabbit can’t live in dirty conditions; they can’t survive on dirty water; they have to have the best of the best; they have to be catered to, so to speak. Whereas a chicken can live in any nasty condition you can imagine, and a lot of other animals can, rabbits just don’t — if they’re not taken care of, they don’t do well. And my growers require certain requirements for what they have to do to keep me happy. One is to keep them in all-steel cages, with automatic water systems, and when they come through this door, they have to have white hair on them — they need to be white, not covered with any feces. Good, clean, in and out.

What do you do with the skins and the offal? For the rabbits as well as the other animals?
The [rabbit] hides go right into the dumpster and they go to the landfill, and they’re actually making power with it. I pay to get rid of it. And it goes to Casella’s Waste up in Coventry, and it goes into the landfill. But that stuff has got to be fairly important in making power — the bones, the scraps, the garbage, and all that stuff, once it’s broken down, that must create some gasses.

Same with the organs?
Yes. The heart and liver and kidneys go with the rabbit. The beef is slaughtered on the farm; everything we cut up here is slaughtered on the farm. So I don’t see any of the hides. During the moose season, we skin the moose here, and any of that stuff, they take the heads and hides; they’re required to take them. And usually they’ll tan them, or sometimes they go to the landfill too, or out on the back 40 and feed the coyotes!

Do you do the cutting yourself?
No, I have a guy who’s been cutting meat for 42 years, my main butcher. And I’m, so to speak, his assistant. But he does the main breakdown. Of course, you know, I’m in a wheelchair, so I don’t stand too tall! [Laughs.] But he does the breakdown off the rail. He started in his dad’s store at 15 years old, breaking down his old beef and cutting meat. It’s kind of a funny story: His dad was a meat cutter; he taught my grandmother how to cut meat, and my grandmother, in turn, taught my meat-cutter how to cut meat, and now he pretty much has taught me. It’s been a pretty wild and crazy cycle, how it’s come back around.

So who is next in line?
I don’t have any children, and I don’t have any nieces and nephews that are knocking on the door to come to work. They’re here, and they come to help once in a while, but at this point they’re all young, so I don’t think that they have the interest in it, but one never knows. It’s a tough living. It’s hard on your body parts, your hands. You’re always working in the cold. Arthritis is a common thing. If you look at a meat cutter’s hands, you’ll tell how good they are by the looks of their hands. Because if they haven’t been a meat cutter for very long, their hands are fine.

Do you think that this art and trade is dying out in Vermont, or is there a lot of potential for it to persist?
Oh it is. There’s fly-by-nighters showing up every so often, but how long they last, I don’t know. There are only a few of the old boys left; they’re thinning out rapidly. And all of the meat that comes into the supermarkets now, it’s broken down at the big processing plants. It comes already in the groups, so the people that have any experience in breaking down off the rail are pretty limited. They have no experience in the old style of breaking down off the track.

Any final words or thoughts?
We’re a small company trying to stay small. Bigger isn’t better. That small shop that can take care of your needs, that whole farmers’ market thing, is nice to get back to. The bartering system, dealing with your neighbors, everybody working together to try to get through it. Here in Vermont, we’ve been in such a survival mode for so long, people are like, “God, how is the recession affecting you?” And we’ve never  come out of it! We’ve always been in survival mode.


MARIA GOULD is a freelance editor, full-time graduate student, and part-time vegetable seller.


This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Thirteen.
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