A forest of good intentions surrounds the realm of sustainable, local, pasture-raised meat. Readers steeped in the canon of sustainable-food lit are looking for it. Farmers, seeing the price per pound that it commands, want to sell it. Chefs want to advertise it on their menus—and a certain kind of diner, in fact, demands it.One factor stands in their way: logistics.First, there's the problem of properly slaughtering an animal that's lived its life contentedly chomping sweet grass and staring up at the sky. Then there's the problem of dividing the 80- or 700-pound animal into consumer-friendly cuts, not to mention the problems of marketing, distributing, and selling the meat. On the consumer end, there's an entirely different problem for home cooks who are only familiar with T-bones, burgers, and lamb chops: How in the hell do you cook the rest of the animal? The forest of intentions grows so thick that everyone gets lost.Enter the artisanal butcher, the guy who's clearing paths and setting up road signs. In the past few months three butchers have taken on the problem of working with farmers, USDA inspectors, slaughterers, chefs, and diners to make the path from farm to fork as direct and well-lit as possible.Much has been made in sustainable-food circles about USDA-inspected mobile slaughter units, trailers that can drive to a farm to kill and perform the initial processing of animals (bleeding, gutting) on-site. Ecofoodies are trumpeting the fact that these trailers give small farmers who want to raise just a few cattle or two dozen hogs a way to sell that meat to the public. (In Washington state, the quarter-carcass is the smallest cut that farmers can sell of meat processed in non-USDA-inspected facilities.) Without these trailers, farmers have to truck their animals to Oregon or Yakima to be killed in the same facilities that handle factory-farmed meat. The transportation costs are prohibitive.Farmers' groups around the country are gathering to set up mobile slaughterhouses, and western Washington has several groups of early adopters. The Island Grown Farmers Cooperative, based not far from Samish Bay, started up its USDA-inspected mobile abattoir in 2002, and the Puget Sound Meat Producers Cooperative just started operating a trailer out of Pierce County this August.But killing is just the first step.Tracy Smaciarz (pronounced SMAH-chez), owner of Heritage Meats just northwest of Centralia, is taking on the next, equally crucial step: getting the meat cut up for retail shops and restaurants. He's been involved since the beginning in helping get the PSMPC's mobile abattoir up and running, and has started working with local chefs to make this meat available to them.Smaciarz, burly and genial, is a second-generation butcher. "I was 6 years old when I started stuffing sausage," he says. His father, a meat cutter for Safeway, started East Olympia Meats in a converted garage in 1977, drafting the entire family into his business. Throughout Smaciarz's teens and 20s, he kept attempting to avoid his fate by cooking in golf courses and restaurants, with stints in and out of the butcher shop. "In 1996, I was living in Bellevue, working for the phone company," he recounts. "I told my girlfriend my dad was going to shut down his business, and she says, 'Why don't you take it over?'" All she had to do was ask—and within three years Smaciarz was dreaming of scaling up. Open since 2006, his new facility, located 90 minutes south of Seattle, has two sides—one for custom-processing farm animals and game and one for USDA-inspected meat. Organic certification is in the works. Not only does he process meat for many of the local farmers who sell directly to customers, he's becoming a broker himself.At a beef tasting held at Crush last year, Smaciarz met up with Canlis' chef, Jason Franey. A cutting demonstration for the Canlis crew led to a relationship—and to additional Seattle restaurants that were trying to get a hold of local, sustainably raised meat. As Smaciarz says, "I'm a voice for that farmer who doesn't know how to talk to a chef about cuts of meat. And if chefs can talk to me about what they're looking for, I can source it and cut it to their specifications."What Smaciarz is starting to work on with Canlis is one of the central problems small-scale farmers have in selling to restaurants: volume and portioning. It's all very romantic for chefs to say they're buying direct. But they can't exactly put "Pork: chef's choice" on the menu. Chefs buy from wholesale meat suppliers because they want to have 30 pork chops that they can portion out to the precise size and weight they'll need for a Friday night. Few small restaurants have the capital and the space to buy and store a 100-pound whole pig, and even if they do, most can't sell exactly 12 chops, then switch to shoulder roast when those run out, followed by pork belly.So the beef program that Smaciarz launched with Canlis in September provided a model of how this might work: The butcher sold Franey the steaks from eight head of cattle he'd processed for Tracey Baker of Gleason Ranch, a farmer whose grass-fed beef Smaciarz says has a bold, rich flavor with no gaminess and marbling resembling grain-finished beef. At the same time, he dropped off boneless short ribs from the animal to Dana Tough at Spur ("Tracy's amazing because he thinks about meat like a chef," Tough says) and brisket to Jason Wilson at Crush. The rest of that animal—not the offal, but the rest of the commonly used meat—was sold to the Canlis staff for their home use and ground into whole-cow hamburgers for Pike Brewing Company in Pike Place Market. (Smaciarz continues to supply burger meat to Pike Brewing Company, but remarkably the brewery doesn't advertise its beef's origins, a rarity in this supplier-obsessed town.)The beef program ended this fall. "I can only do monthly or even weekly programs," Franey says, "because small farms can't keep up with production." Canlis still buys most of its beef from wholesalers, but Franey continues to do special projects with Smaciarz, and has driven down to Heritage Meats three times so far to learn from the butcher.While Smaciarz is working with restaurants, Bill the Butcher—aka William Von Schneidau—is working with home cooks. His tiny butcher shop opened two months ago in Old Woodinville. Decorated with burgundy walls and garlands of smoked sausages, the shop is stocked with a couple of meat cases, a dairy case for eggs and cheese, and shelves of marinades, rubs, and other gourmet-store staples.Von Schneidau, a handsome, sky-eyed guy in his early 50s, got into the meat business almost three decades ago when he moved to Vail, Colorado. A professional ski racer, bike racer, and triathlete who had to make a living during the off-season, he ended up running a custom game-processing business to cater to all the rich hunters who needed their prey dressed and wrapped by the time they flew out of the mountains.When Von Schneidau and his family moved to Seattle 10 years ago, he joined the wholesale side of the meat business, selling to restaurants and grocery stores. But for some time he's been thinking about how to apply that knowledge to the local food movement. "About five years ago," he says, "I started riding my motorcycle around the Puget Sound. And everywhere I saw animals, I'd climb the fence or find the farmer to talk to them. I eventually generated relationships with ranchers and farmers around the area."Right now, Bill the Butcher is selling pork, lamb, beef, poultry, and eggs from more than a dozen farmers and ranchers. It involves more than just placing orders. "I'm working with the farmer to have him produce meat to the specifications I want," he says. "We're working together on his field, as well as the breed and the [slaughter] age of the animal, not to mention how to finish it." He also stays in contact with the mobile slaughter unit to make sure they cut and trim to his specifications. "I believe I'm just the connector between the rancher and the public," he adds. (Von Schneidau is also protective of his plans. Questions like "What are these specifications?" and "What are you having the farmers do with the off cuts like tripe and tongue?" are shut down with "I'm not going to get into that.")A second small, artisanal butcher shop following the same principles recently opened in West Seattle. Gabe Claycamp and Heidi Kenyon's Swinery storefront, on California Avenue Southwest south of the Admiral district, is committed to buying whole animals from farmers not more than 300 miles away. Like Von Schneidau's meat, it's mostly processed in the mobile abattoirs. And like Von Schneidau, Claycamp turns the meat into fresh cuts, ground meat and sausages, and smoked products. "We sell a cow a week, two pigs, a couple of lambs, a couple of goats," plus poultry, says retail manager Damiana Merryweather.Working directly with farmers and mobile slaughter units presents challenges that butchers who buy through wholesalers don't have to face. The Pierce County mobile slaughter unit's first few months of operation have been rocky—Smaciarz says that design flaws in its compressor have caused the refrigeration system to break down repeatedly, and it's been down as often as it's been up. Last week, a farmer had to cancel a pig delivery to Claycamp at the last minute because the trailer broke down again.And, not surprisingly for a man whose permitting troubles with the county health department helped close his Culinary Communion facility last year, Claycamp's still hustling to make this new system work. Last week he had to move into a new commercial kitchen after the communal kitchen he was working out of booted him for trafficking in gigantic, bloody beasts. Part of the solution, in fact, has been to have Smaciarz break down whole carcasses into primal cuts, which are easier for Claycamp and his assistant to cut up further for sale.Seattle doesn't lack for high-end butchers, even high-end butchers selling grass-fed beef and organic chickens: A & J Meats on Queen Anne, University Seafood & Poultry in the U District, Don & Joe's Meats in the market. And customers who are paying more attention to cooking are rediscovering what their grandparents knew in the pre-supermarket era: A butcher isn't just a meat dispenser. He or she is someone who can suggest new things for you to try, cut and trim meat to your needs, and tell you how to cook it.Von Schneidau, Claycamp, and Smaciarz say that they provide that service, plus guarantee that they're working directly with farmers. And just as important for customers who've been buying their meat at farmers markets, the butcher shops are open regular business hours, five to six days a week.The catch is that diners, like chefs, have to develop a new approach to buying meat: There are only so many T-bones in one animal, and if the butcher runs out, he's out. This Thanksgiving, for example, Von Schneidau had taken orders for eight turkeys from one of his farmers—and then owls ate four of them. Von Schneidau says, "Sustainability is obtainable if humans are retrainable." He says the personal relationship he develops with customers means that he can send a customer seeking a certain cut of meat home with an entirely different one—and with directions on how to cook it.For ranchers already selling their meat directly to consumers, the butcher shops offer yet another opportunity to expand their herds and flocks. I heard about Bill the Butcher from Doug Krepky of Dog Mountain Farm, who was excited about selling 10 to 15 more chickens a week to the store. Linda Neunzig of Ninety Farms, who has built a successful business brokering her lamb and veal to restaurants just as Smaciarz does, has begun selling to Von Schneidau, too. It's one more outlet for her. "If William can say this veal that you're buying was butchered two weeks ago at this farm," she says, "and there's never been any stress to the animal, it wasn't hauled to a slaughter facility, and I've been to the farm, it gives the customer confidence."As for Bill the Butcher, he refuses to talk about the future of his role in the local, sustainably raised meat industry, but drops one wry clue: "Puget Sound has really cool glacial pasture all over the place. I'd love to see us slowly fill it up."email@example.com
Bill the Butcher 2637 N.E. Woodinville Dr., Woodinville, 800-781-3677, billthebutcher.us. Open Mon., Wed.–Sun.The Swinery Meats 3207 California Ave. S.W., 932-4211, swinerymeats.com. Open Tues.–Sun.Heritage Meats 360-273-2202, heritagemeatswa.com.