Carcasses hang in the cooler anywhere from ten days to a month, depending on customer preference.
A Quiet Craft
Meat Processing is Reinvigorated in the New Local Food Economy State
By Lacey Thacker
As the popularity of locally produced food increases, so too does the demand for processing facilities to ready the food for consumers. But, between local food co-ops like Grass Roots and independent producers selling under their own label, meat processors have struggled to keep up with that increase in demand.
Forty years ago, there were dozens of independent meat processing facilities in Arkansas. The rise of large meat companies, which are able to afford the additional personnel required to monitor important procedures required by USDA-inspected facilities, meant many of the independents were soon out of business. Today, there are fewer than half a dozen facilities in Arkansas suitable for a small producer—the other, larger facilities are used by national companies such as Tyson.
Cypress Valley Meat Processing is one of those independent processors. Their first location, which opened in 2010 in Vilonia, does not offer inspected meat. Their second location, in Romance, burned down in early 2018. Their third location, in Pottsville, which does offer USDA-inspection, opened only a year ago. They are investigating several locations for rebuilding another USDA-inspected facility and hope to be operational by late summer of 2019.
Owner Andy Shaw, when asked what led him to start Cypress Valley Meat Processing, explains that he began working in a retail grocery store almost two decades ago. He noticed a real dissonance between consumers and their understanding of where their food came from. In 2000, he went to work at Goss & Son in Romance to better learn the art of butchering, which he says he “really enjoyed,” particularly working with farmers. Cypress Valley, also a co-owner of Natural State Processing in Van Buren County, opened in 2010.
Shaw says, “I saw us solving a real problem for the farming community. More and more customers are becoming aware of the social and health components [of their food]. It’s educating consumers that’s so important.”
Because of that education, more consumers are choosing local. Yet farmers must often schedule their animals to be processed months in advance. One of Cypress Valley’s primary goals upon opening the new facility is to reduce the backlog—sometimes between three and six months. And though it might seem like an obvious business opportunity for an industrious person, Shaw explains, “There’s so much overhead and regulation,” and because of that the margin between success and failure is extraordinarily slim.
When animals are brought to the facility, they’re held in a quiet, shaded pen with misters that are used to bring the surrounding air temperature down about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. When it’s time, the animal is brought inside, where they are killed in one of two ways. For larger animals like cattle, a bolt gun quickly plunges a metal bolt into their brain. For smaller animals, like pigs, an electric shock is used.
The animal is then bled out and the hide and viscera are removed before the meat is rinsed with hot water. If the meat will be USDA-inspected and thus available for sale to the public, it’s at this point the inspector verifies, through inspection of the viscera, that the animal was healthy and suitable for consumption.
After the hot water rinse and a visual inspection for any dirt or other debris, the meat is sprayed with vinegar-based anti-microbial spray. Finally, it goes in to a cooler to cure until it is butchered in two to three weeks, depending on customer specifications. The entire area, from the pens where the animals are held to the room where meat is cut and packaged, is clean and organized, despite the fact that workers are currently completing an order. During the tour, Shaw apologizes for the end-of-day disarray, but the guest can’t find any disarray to forgive.
If there’s one thing about which Shaw is particular, it’s the quality of work Cypress Valley can be relied upon for—and it’s not just about the quality of the cuts. Referring to local cattle farmers, Shaw explains that unlike in some commercial feedlots, “You don’t go over to his farm and find an animal knee-deep in feces. By and large, they’re a cleaner animal coming in to us. These farmers take a lot of pride in that.” And so, once Cypress Valley takes possession of the animal, Shaw ensures “that it goes as humanely and as smoothly as possible—and that we give a package back that exceeds expectations.”