Three Mangalitsa pigs huddle in the shade of overgrown Christmas trees on a hot day on Bainbridge Island. It’s one of those crystal-skied days that Seattle lives for, but the pigs are sleeping the afternoon away. Summer isn’t kind when your body is over 50 percent fat.
The Hungarian breed is known as much for its curly, gloriously fluffy coat as for exceptional meat. This trio comprises nearly 800 pounds of superlative marbled flesh. The pigs grow fatter by the day, pastured on this tree farm. That’s a problem: They’ve reached ideal slaughter weight; from now on their meat will only decline in quality.
See, Bainbridge Island chef Brendan McGill and his farming partner, Kevin Block, have virtually no access to USDA-approved slaughterhouses, a necessity for anyone who wants to sell their meat in restaurants or markets. Though Western Washington is an epicenter of the sustainability movement, many of the region’s small livestock farmers lack the resources they need to stay in business.
A year ago, Block and McGill—whose restaurant domain includes Hitchcock and Verjus, a pair of delis, and soon a pizzeria—would have loaded the animals into a trailer and driven two hours south to Kapowsin Meats in Graham. A full-service slaughterhouse that took small orders and let farmers retain ownership of their meat, Kapowsin was a rarity in an industry that largely caters to factory farms. In August 2015, its ever-reliable operations came to an abrupt end when nearly 200 people fell ill in a salmonella outbreak likely borne in one of the slaughterhouse’s scalding tanks. Preeminent food safety attorney Bill Marler took Kapowsin to court, and by the end of the month the slaughterhouse had suspended operations. All told, over half a million pounds of pork were rendered useless in the recall, including one of Block’s prized Mangalitsas. Suddenly Kapowsin was gone, its loss putting small farmers’ livelihoods in jeopardy, as well as the city’s ability to eat carefully sourced pork.
The closure is by no means an anomaly. Slaughterhouses consolidated rapidly in the second half of the twentieth century, echoing consumer demand for cheap meat. About a decade ago, a small farmer’s cooperative in the San Juan Islands pushed back against factory slaughter by building the country’s first mobile slaughter unit, known as an MSU. It was inspected and approved by the USDA, but comes with a tangle of requirements ranging from number of lights to the location of ventilation. A typical MSU fits in a semitruck trailer, theoretically offering more flexibility than a brick-and-mortar alternative.
Suddenly Kapowsin was gone, its loss putting small farmers’ livelihoods in jeopardy, as well as the city’s ability to eat carefully sourced pork.
But Vashon farmer and restaurateur Matt Dillon doesn’t mince words: “MSUs are a pain in the ass.” For starters, they require a great deal of infrastructure to be operational; the need for electricity hookups, potable water, penning, chutes, and a large paved parking space often means these slaughter units end up just as stationary as their brick-and-mortar counterparts. They also lack the scalding tanks that allow for use of an animal’s skin, a major con for charcutiers like Dillon and McGill. And even though Washington state still leads the nation with a whopping three mobile slaughter units—the San Juan unit, one north of Spokane, and one in Thurston County—all are chronically overbooked and vulnerable to closures. Some farmers have built their own MSUs at considerable expense; others drive as far as central Oregon to get the job done.
“USDA slaughter is not a viable business model. It just flat-out isn’t,” says Tracy Smaciarz, proprietor of artisan butcher shop Heritage Meats in Rochester and the brand new, if slightly reluctant, owner of that third MSU, in Thurston County. In April the local meat producers’ co-op surrendered ownership of the unit, unable to make a profit. The butcher felt he’d had little choice but to buy it; Kapowsin’s closure had hurt his business tremendously, to the point that he sometimes had no meat coming in at all. Smaciarz might have entered the slaughter business out of necessity, but he’s also poised to be the guy who fills this void in our region’s meat delivery system.
Luckily for small farmers, Smaciarz’s purchase of the Thurston County unit dovetails with a grant from the King Conservation District and SnoValley Tilth to fund mobile slaughter infrastructure in King County. By the end of 2017, Smaciarz’s unit will be moved to an as-yet-undetermined location here, and the region’s pork, beef, goat, and lamb farmers can start booking slaughters.
Even then, it probably won’t be enough. The unit is bound to book up fast, and it still won’t have a scalding tank. “It will be a great day when we reach capacity and have to build another brick-and-mortar unit,” says Patrice Barrentine, who does agriculture policy work for the county. Still, she hopes the grant could be a model for other states, many of which have even fewer small-scale slaughter resources than Washington.
A great day for Brendan McGill and Kevin Block, perhaps, who can’t do much but wait until then. For their pigs, not so much.
Updated June 24, 2016. An earlier version mistakenly referred to the stewardship agency as King County Conservation District.