Commentary
1:15 pm
Tue August 26, 2014

Essay: Black Earth

Credit Martin Gommel / Flickr

Food freedom, and the contradictions between what we say we want and what we actually do to get it, is on the mind of contributor and Wisconsin Foodie Kyle Cherek.

Wisconsin has lost two distinctive and significant beef slaughter houses in the last month.

First, the news of Black Earth Meats closure, and second, the blow of Cargill shuttering it’s Milwaukee Menominee Valley operation and setting 600 folks out of a job.

News of both closings came within a week, and though the world went on ordering tenderloins and t-bones, burgers and beefsteak, it gave a Foodie like me more than pause. 

Black Earth Meats, scaled up from a small town butcher shop 7 years ago, helmed by Bartlett Durrand (labeled the Zen butcher by the press) and it was, by it's own definition, a humane meat processor. Bartlett came to his calling after travels in India and health benefits of clean animal proteins after maintaining the diet of a vegetarian.

What “humane” meant in practical terms was that the animals Black Earth processed where raised  in small numbers on pasture, free of antibiotics and hormones. Black Earth Meats operated the only certified organic and Animal Welfare Approved slaughter facility in Central Wisconsin.  Close to Madison and Milwaukee, it was perfectly situated to serve the localvore, foodie, conscious eating customers in the state's two biggest and best restaurant towns.  Arguments that the beef, pork, and lamb coming out of Black Earth Meats tasted better, where not unfounded either. Three years ago, as folks who want to know where their food comes from, kept calling, and Black Earth's production went from processing 70 animals a week to more than double. 

Black Earth is a village of roughly 1,300 residents in Dane County. 

As the humane processor's  business expanded, complaints of animal noises, blood, trucks off-loading livestock and general discontent over the reality of getting animals processed where made. The culmination was the village insisting the processor move, and in response,  Black Earth Meat's suing the village. I take no sides here.

As the Wisconsin Foodie, I wish and work for more humane animal processor's like Black Earth Meats to spring up all over the county. Factory farms accounts for 37 percent of  America's methane (CH4) emissions. Methane has more than 20 times the global warming potential of CO2. As a Wisconsinite familiar with the many layers of small town personalities and politics, I know better than to imagine the whole story gets to print.  Blood in the streets should be avoided, small town or not.  Details on the legal shouting match can be found with one Google search.  I get lost after the first paragraph.

From 30,000 feet, the perfect storm between folks who want humanely processed meat, the literal growing hunger in the market for that style of food, and a small town reckoning with a change they never sought. The downside is chef friends all over Madison and Milwaukee telling me they lost a vital resource for the kind of proteins they loved to work with, and in many cases relied on for their business.   

Small family farmers lost access and affordability in processing.  Strangely, Wisconsin is home to only 4 or 5 small scale processors. None but Black Earth Meats,  are  Animal Welfare Approved.  In some cases for the small farmers, that cost chasm of transport cannot be bridged. As Black Earth Meats closed it's doors, a lot of tasty and humane dishes, along with the profits for the restaurants that keep South East and Central Wisconsin's cooking scene vital and relevant, disappeared too.

Some 100 miles away, a meat processing plant that had operated since the 1940's  on the banks of the Milwaukee river, owned by Cargill , gave it's 600 employee's a 2 days notice and closed it's doors.  “The harsh reality is that the U.S. beef cattle herd is at its lowest level since 1951, with any significant herd expansion being years away," said the president of Cargill Beef.

The nation's recent drought, skyrocketing land and feed prices prior to that, are all factors, while demand ticks ever upward as third world counties climb toward being first world contenders. They want the North American and European menus, and animal proteins are a daily cornerstone of those menus.  

Approximately 10 billion meat and dairy animals are raised every year in America, yet beef farmers, who answered the consumer call in the last few years, are holding back cows and steers to keep prices high, and breeding more for new markets.

It strike me as odd, as the Wisconsin Foodie, where in one Wisconsin town, there is plenty of need and desire for humanely processed beef, but in essence, the neighbors say “not here.” Yet in another city, in the same state, 600 people say “this is what we do, factory farms or not, and there is not enough supply, so we're closing.”

When asked, “What's your show, Wisconsin Foodie, about?” I say, “It's about where your food comes from.”

Do you remember the 1980’s Wendy’s ad, sticking it to it’s fast food competition with a little old lady opining “Where’s the beef?”

Well in Wisconsin, it's lost, somewhere in the middle, between what we claim to be important about our food system, and what we have taken for granted for far too long.

Lake Effect contributor Kyle Cherek is host of the public television show Wisconsin Foodie.

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