Standing outside the Conscious Carnivore butcher shop in Madison, Wisconsin, from left to right, Bartlett Durand, Dave Gathy and Rhonda Slinde. The shop is the retail arm of Black Earth Meats. Durand hopes to open more Conscious Carnivore stores.
Dave Gathy, a master butcher for Black Earth Meats, cuts up a pig for sale.
A customer asks Durand questions about cuts she sees in the meat counter. Large cuts are in the cases behind it. The jars hold rendered lard.
Durand looks on as Dave Gathy works on half of a hog. Until he saw how well the animals were treated at Otter Creek, Durand was a vegetarian.
A young couple walked into Bartlett Durand’s farm-to-butcher shop, The Conscious Carnivore in Madison, Wisconsin. Durand greeted them and asked if this was their first time in the shop. The young man said it was. “We’ve been vegetarians for the last three years until we heard what you guys were doing and decided to check it out,” the young man said. Durand nodded. He understood. For 18 years he was a vegetarian himself. He had wanted to avoid the products pumped out by the industrial food complex—on both health and ethical grounds.
What changed his mind about eating meat, he said, was working with Gary Zimmer, his father-in-law at Otter Creek Organic Farm, a pasture-based dairy that also raises beef and hogs. “I remember being out there—and this will sound weird—but I was giving a tour, looking around, and I realized that these farm animals live better lives than 99 percent of us,” Durand said.
He said the animals ate a great diet, they got regular exercise, lived in close family groups, enjoyed the outdoors and experienced very little stress. But they also were raised to be eaten. “I thought, ‘I can honor that,’” said Durand. “I can put myself back in the ecological cycle.”
Otter Creek’s beef and pork were in high demand. When the owner of the local meat processing plant in the village of Black Earth told Durand and Zimmer that he was going to close the plant, Durand, Zimmer and Mary Ann Litchfield, another farmer/investor, decided to purchase it.
An Organic Plan
They wanted Black Earth Meats to focus on local, organic and grass-fed animals from small farmers, to move away from the massive industrial model of food production, connect people to the food they eat and give them the knowledge to do more for themselves. They also saw a need in their community for this kind of small-scale operation.
“If you drive outside of town, you’re going to run into beef,” Durand said. “Whether it’s the hobby farmer or someone who grew up always having a few head of cattle, there will be regular folks raising a small number of cows who are not pumping the animals full of growth hormones or antibiotics.”
He decided to make arrangements either to process the animals for these small operations or buy the animals they didn’t need and sell the meat to local customers and area restaurants.
Between 2008 and 2013, sales doubled each year at Black Earth. It became a USDA-inspected facility and could sell across state lines. Durand became something of a celebrity, known as the “Zen Butcher.” In September 2013 he opened the Conscious Carnivore in Madison, Wisconsin, a retail butcher shop stocking the meat processed at Black Earth Meats.
Where’s The Beef?
Back in Black Earth, Durand had been talking to local officials, trying to come up with ways to address complaints from people who lived near the processing facility about the noise the livestock made, the traffic from trucks and the odors. His efforts came to a halt in December 2013 when the village board ordered him to relocate the slaughter facility. This action caused the USDA to withdraw its promised loan guarantee and the refinancing to collapse just days from closing.
Durand scrambled to find alternatives, but the board insisted that the slaughter could not continue in Black Earth, and was unwilling to discuss helping him find financial assistance for building elsewhere. Finally, in July 2014, the board rejected the four alternative plans Durand presented, reaffirmed its decision that slaughter had to cease and authorized its lawyer to proceed with legal action against the company. A judge threw out the Village’s action but the damage was done. Durand announced that he was shutting down Black Earth Meats. He had to let all but seven of his 47 employees go and outsource the slaughtering for the 200 farms he served. His out-of-state distributors and the almost 100 restaurants that relied on his services lost their source for local meats. On the positive side, the Conscious Carnivore had a strong customer base and Black Earth Meats a national following.
Old-Fashioned Butcher Shop
The Conscious Carnivore harkens back to the time when every community had a butcher shop that sold local meat and poultry. Durand made a decision not to sell any pre-cooked products. “I want people to go home and cook—it’s a fundamental thing we’ve lost in our society,” he said, adding that people go to college to become “highly specialized,” but most don’t know how to do simple things that were routine to people a couple of generations ago. “There’s this craving for how to do stuff.”
The shop offers all kinds of meat and cuts, above and beyond what you find in your average supermarket, including ground goat, heart, an organ mix called “offal tasty,” ground veal and cheek meat.
Many of the meats are labeled “Grandpa’s Way,” a designation specific to Black Earth Meats that means the meats are from local farms using simple farming practices—pasture-based, small-lot agriculture that uses no antibiotics, no hormones and no confinement practices.
“It’s grandpa and grandma doing their thing. No one is going to be unhappy to eat that animal,” Durand said. The employees educate shoppers about the array of cuts and types of meat available with the goal of expanding their palates—helping them realize there are more parts to the animals they eat than boneless, skinless breasts, chops and ribeyes. The Conscious Carnivore also hosts classes teaching people how to butcher a hog.
Black Earth’s Future
Determined to keep the spirit of Black Earth Meats alive, Durand came up with a plan that he called Black Earth Meats 2.0. He used a Kickstarter campaign in an attempt to raise $225,000 by December 4, 2014. Based on that campaign, investors agreed to expand the Conscious Carnivore and rebuild the local meat infrastructure that Durand had begun. It will take years of work, but by focusing on the community, Durand hopes that the overall ecosystem will be stronger and the connections deeper between farmers and consumers. For more information, visit conscious-carnivore.com.
This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Spring 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.
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