In recent years, there has been a local meat renaissance going on in Wisconsin. At the center of the movement was a business called Black Earth Meats. The operation, owned by Bartlett Durand, or the Zen Butcher, included a retail space, a buyers club and a community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscription service, as well as a U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected slaughterhouse.
Black Earth Meats served as an important support for nearly 200 farmers, most of whom raised animals in small numbers on pasture, free of antibiotics and hormones. After moving into a local slaughterhouse in the 1,500-person town of Black Earth seven years ago, the company grew considerably, allowing the “good meat” economy in the area to scale up alongside it. “We took the plant from 70 beef a week to 140-150 a week, supplying the local food scene,” says Durand.
In addition to operating the only certified organic and Animal Welfare Approved slaughter facility in the area, Black Earth meat also prepared and sold the same meat at its retail space, and served as an important middleman between busy farmers and the restaurant and retail industry. “We aggregate from a number of small, sustainable farmers to provide a consistent supply of quality animals,” reads the company’s website. “In addition, as a small plant, we try to keep the prices as unadorned as possible – we do not have a “marketing budget” or extensive sales programs. Instead, we develop a relationship with our chefs and grocers to learn together how to utilize more of each animal.”
For most purposes, this approach worked. Customers drove to Black Earth to pick up meat from local farmers, and many area farmers invested in growing their operations once they were confident they had a processor they trusted.
Then, late last month, Black Earth Meats announced it would be closing its doors.
A Town’s Resistance
The Village of Black Earth—prompted by a small group of neighbors—had ordered the company to relocate. Whereas the company it replaced had been slaughtering animals one day a week, Black Earth had 40 full-time employees and processed animals every day.
“The problems started about three and a half years ago,” neighbor Mary Mickelson told local Wisconsin paper Isthmus. She described the operation Black Earth replaced as a “mom-and-pop butcher shop.” She said didn’t like the noise, the trucks, or the smells.
As Durand put it, “It was a Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) thing. But two neighbors in particular who were home during the day would see the animals being unloaded, etc. It got under their skin, and freaked them out. They called the police and the village board over and over and over. ”
The Black Earth village board told the company to leave, and in response, Black Earth Meats is suing for $5.3 million, including $1.3 million, or the value of the company’s current facilities.
Durand says the litigation, “forced the financial community to pull out. The USDA couldn’t guarantee a loan, and the local bank could not maintain a loan because the single purpose of the building we had—our collateral—was not able to serve that purpose. It dramatically de-valued property. And that’s where we’re flailing now.”
Meanwhile, many of the farmers who worked with Black Earth Meats are caught between disbelief and frustration in the process of replacing the many roles the company played.
The Farmer’s Perspective
Take Vince A. Pope of Double Ewe Farm in Arena Wisconsin. He and his wife have day jobs, and raise sheep on the farm his grandfather bought in the 1920s in their free time. They sell around 60 lambs a year, and while the profit margin is small, they’re animal lovers who prioritize the humane aspect of their work. “I’m proud to say I’ve never sold an animal through a livestock auction,” says Pope. “You don’t know where they go, or how they’re handled.”
Double Ewe Farm is Animal Welfare Approved and that means they must follow a strict set of standards from the animals’ birth up until the moment they are harvested. Black Earth Meats made that last part possible. For one, traveling just 12 miles to get to the slaughterhouse put the animals under a minimal amount of stress.
“To be honest, market day isn’t my favorite day of the year,” says Pope. “But that’s these animals’ purpose in life. They’re giving us life, and they had a good life,” he says.
Now that Black Earth is closing, the Popes are at a loss to find a certified humane processor. Even if they do, it will be much further away. They’ll have to buy a freezer, and start delivering their meat directly to customers. And they’re faced with big questions about how to market and sell the meat. It’s enough to make Pope worry about the future of his farm.
“American lamb is getting outpaced by imports, and if we continue to lose processing infrastructure, we’re going to lose our industry,” he says. “That might sound far-fetched but go back and tell the textile industry that in the late 90s.”
The Big Picture
Bartlett Durand speaks in similar, unequivocal terms about the vacuum that could be left behind when Black Earth Meats closes. “This is a really big deal. We need to bring the small-scale processor back into viability. That is the connection between the farmer and urban dweller.”
Keeping food production out of sight may have been effective in recent decades, when big box stores were rising to power and most eaters didn’t care about where their food came from. But making the process visible–even the parts we may not want to see—can help eaters get in touch with the true value of their food.
“We as a society need to understand there can be messes sometimes,” says Durand. “We need to make room for meat processing, and cheese making, and hot sauce making.”
Nicolette Hahn Niman, who co-owns California’s BN Ranch with her husband Bill Niman and is the author of Righteous Porkchop and the forthcoming Defending Beef, sees the closure of Black Earth meats as part of a larger problem.
“It’s a good example of the phenomenon where people want local food and they want local farms, but they don’t want local slaughterhouses and meat processing,” she says. “But we have to have the full food chain restored if we’re going to have a really good sustainable system. Somehow we have to come to grips with this as a society.”
Shortly after a recall and the closure of the Rancho slaughterhouse in Northern California left many farmers in the area in financial straights, Niman wrote a New York Times op-ed calling for more local food advocates to Support Your Local Slaughterhouse. In it she wrote, “From 1979 to 2009, California went from having 70 slaughterhouses to 23. Because it is more complicated and costly to do so, nearly all large facilities refuse to work with smaller farms. This makes slaughtering the most serious bottleneck in the sustainable food chain.”
Back in Wisconsin, farmers and consumers are waiting to see what comes next for sustainable meat processing in the greater Madison area. And Durand says the response to the business closure on social media has given him hope about other investors and entrepreneurs carrying on the Black Earth model. For one, he hopes new owners will eventually take over the retail space. And in the meantime, he’s trying to stay positive. In late July, he implored the Black Earth Meats Facebook followers to “eat like we’re all connected.”
“Now is the time for our community to push forward together,” he wrote. “Do not devolve into negative feelings, but take what we’ve built and know it is possible to create a better food system … Join Slow Food. Join Slow Money. Help the next food entrepreneur, join a CSA, support local ‘good food’ businesses. Go forward with joy in your heart and grow the community.”
Photo captions: At top — Bartlett Durand, owner of Black Earth Meats, poses with photographs of the community of farmers and customers the company cultivated over the last seven years. Below — Nancy Pope raises sheep humanely at Double Ewe Farm with her husband Vince. Photo by Beth Skogen.