Homeschooled Farm Girl and I just got back from the local butcher. Our flock was shorn over the weekend, so this was an ideal time to get the lambs processed. We got up early, then jammed eleven lambs into the back of our old 1984 Ford Bronco II. The trip is always interesting, to say the least, with that many nervous animals in the back — especially when slowing for stop signs, starting back up from stops, and going around curves.
As I’ve noted previously, these custom slaughter operations are getting increasingly difficult to find. Back in Illinois, we had to drive a great distance to reach the one and only place for many miles around that still does this kind of work. Here in Michigan, the place is closer — but it is still our only option. With the decline of small farming operations, it seems there has also been a decline in small meat processing operations.
The one near us is one of the survivors. It’s run by a man named Jack, and he looks to be in his mid to late fifties. He has employees, but he is personally involved with every aspect of an animal’s trip through the facility. Dressed in a blood-spattered white apron, he meets our truck when we pull in the back with a load of lambs or goats, helps us unload and secure them in a holding pen on death row, and then goes around to the retail portion of the place to write up our order. Put all the animals together or keep them separate? How many people in your family will be sharing a package of steaks or chops? You want the ribs, or should we remove the meat and grind it? Shanks? Rear legs as whole roasts? You want the organs? Neck as soup bones? Okay, I think that’s it.
Jack is not a chatty or extroverted guy, but this morning he happened to mention something interesting. As he finished writing up our order, I asked him if we could get a couple of male goat kids in next week. He flipped through his order book (it’s all still done by hand — nothing in the place is computerized), and sighed about how incredibly jammed they are. And then he added something to the effect of, “I hate killing those little baby animals, and having to charge you for all that labor.”
I assured him they weren’t “babies,” but that I totally understood if he wanted to wait on taking the goats in. He said we should hold off, because (waving at the calendar on the wall), they are super busy from the time of the Fair through February. Nobody wants to over-winter anything more than they need to. And then there are all the deer that hunters want processed. You could see from his face, and the way that he leaned on the counter, that he’s tired. But the tiredness was more than physical, and gave a further hint as to why these custom slaughter operations are getting harder to find (despite how much business they can do). “Everybody wants us to kill this, kill that,” he said, shaking his head. “When I first started doing this, it was easy for me to kill everything. I’m starting to hate killing things.”
Killing things isn’t fun. We butcher our own chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese; I’ve personally killed and cleaned hundreds of birds over the last several years. But I’ve been holding off on butchering our larger animals. As HFG and I drove home in our truck, I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty for “outsourcing unpleasantness” onto someone else. If I invested in a good set of knives, and a block-and-tackle, I could butcher our lambs and goats myself. It wouldn’t be pretty, and I wouldn’t be able to package things up as neatly as Jack’s people do. But is the quality of the finished product the only reason I’ve balked at butchering our own lambs? Am I hesitant about looking a lamb in the face before putting a bullet through its brain? Do I have the emotional strength to cut the lamb’s throat so it can bleed out as it thrashes with death throes? Can I get my hands dirty cleaning out a lamb’s intestines and lungs? And pulling the pelt off?
I don’t see “butchering my own meat” as a moral obligation or anything — but I am a believer in taking a personal stake and having a personal connection with one’s food, unless there’s a good reason not to. For instance, there is simply no way I could possibly butcher a beef cow. But lambs are small enough for anyone to handle. And if squeamishness is the real reason I’ve been outsourcing this work to Jack, I’m starting to wonder if I should at least give butchering a try next fall with one of our lambs.