Last Friday, the Value Added Products class was gathered around a half hog that was laid out, being assessed by the keen eye of master butcher Cole Ward. He poked at it. “There’s not enough fat on this hog,” he pronounced, “but we can make the most of it.”
Cole lectured as he sawed and cut and swung his cleaver through the air. His voice was moving as quickly as his hands, in a constant, almost meditative way. He named every cut as he made it. “Boston butt. Picnic shoulder. Spare ribs. Rib bacon. Belly bacon.” And so on.
One of the main questions of Cole’s book, The Gourmet Butcher’s Guide to Meat is this: why butcher your own hog when you could just go to the grocery store and buy a package of pork chops? There are so many reasons including taste, cost, morals/ethics, environmental impact, and fair conditions for workers. When you buy meat from a chain grocery store, what exactly are you buying? Has the animal been raised humanely? Has their growth been manipulated by hormones and antibiotics? Sustainably raised animals are treated with respect and are permitted to carry out natural behaviors such as rooting in the dirt. Farmers of these animals also only raise what the land is capable of supporting, which means no overcrowded and unhealthy conditions.
Factory farms also have a negative impact on the environment and the humans that work in these factories. Waste from pig factories is pumped into huge, open pits where it collects until it is dispersed over the land. Because the area over which this manure can be disposed is limited, concentrations of waste are dumped on the land in excess of the soil’s ability to assimilate it. Among the results are uncontrolled runoff and the contamination of surface and ground water. The environmental hazards inside the pig factories are among the worst to be found in any industry. The closed buildings of the industrialized pig farm contain a dangerous combination of noxious fumes, including ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, feed dust, and decomposing fecal matter.
The American Lung Association, in collaboration with the University of Iowa, provides these sobering facts: “Nearly 70% of swine confinement workers experience one or more symptoms of respiratory illness or irritation…The turnover rate of swine confinement workers is very high, and some owners have had to sell their operations because they could not work in their own units…”
Conversely, when you buy meat from a farmer in your community, not only are you supporting the health of the farm and your neighbor, but you know where your food is coming from and what kind of life it led. Sugar Mountain Farm is a great example of a healthy way to raise pigs. They are a family owned and operated farm that raise pigs on pasture here in Vermont. The hogs co-graze alongside sheep, chickens, ducks, and geese — all of these animals and plants mean a more diverse and sustainable permaculture operation that helps to enhance the soil quality. They have a state inspected on-farm butcher shop as well – they cut all of their pork and make sausage to sell and deliver to stores, restaurants, and individuals. The difference in pastured pork compared to conventional pork is huge in terms of impact, taste, and ethics.
Our class last Friday was a valuable, hands on experience that showed us how to properly break down a hog. We got to watch and help participate in something quite rare. Butchery is a dying art, but one that is so important and essential to the every day. During our lunch break, we fried up some of the fresh cuts. We had delicious, juicy, and tender pork chops, and fresh bacon fried to a crisp. It is a sobering thought to realize how few people today get to experience this level of involvement and freshness with their food.
What follows a traditional breaking down of the pig is sausage making. Sausage is a delicious by-product of butchering day, and a way to use all the scraps of meat and fat to create something delicious. It’s also an ancient tradition that has gone on as long as people have raised animals. After our lunch, we set about grinding the meat and fat. After letting it sit in the freezer for a few hours and soaking the casings in water, we set to work mixing spices and stuffing the casings. This is work that has been done for centuries. It felt great to participate in this workshop and learn skills that can be applied to life later on.