Butchering meat an art at Arbor Farms

Arbor Farms partners with Lamb Farms, which supplies them grass-fed lambs and beef. I focused on Lamb Farm's side of the handshake yesterday - Arbor Farms is today. Robert Cantelon has been part of the food business for nearly 40 years and though he traveled afar his journey begins and ends in Ann Arbor. Cantelon started as the baker in the Sun Bakery (the site of the current AnnArbor.com offices) in 1973 and is currently a partner at Arbor Farms. Over the years he has gained a lot of stories and a lot of respect for the world of food: “it is an intense business.”

In such an intense environment it is imperative a store stay nimble and competitive, Arbor Farms’ commitment to purchase and butcher all of the meat Lamb Farm produces is one of the ways they choose to distinguish themselves from the smorgasbord of grocery options in Ann Arbor.

“It is a commitment we made to him [John Smucker], with considerable investment on our part, because we wanted that supply chain.” Cantelon explains.

Arbor Farms has invested in a meat cutting room and an onsite butcher. As I discussed yesterday, Lamb Farm transports their organic pasture raised animals to one of the two organic meat-processing facilities in Michigan. Arbor Farms picks up the meat and processes them onsite.

“There are good things and there are limitations,” Jeremy Chavez, Arbor Farms’ butcher, says, “when people say, I want a pound of hamburger…100% Michigan hamburger, they don’t realize I have to cut all of this [he gestures to the cow on the table] before I can get to that. If you go to a grocery chain it is in a tube, all of the chunks from 100-500 different cows go in one stew, and they just grind it.”

Cantelon jumps in, “the processing facilities are getting into the business of boning it out and packaging it with the gas sucked out of it. They put the meat into packages with the gas sucked out for longer shelf life, up to 21 days. It is eliminating the need for butchers in the stores, the whole meat industry is going that way.”

On his recent visit to Ann Arbor, Michael Pollan spoke of this progression. “First there were butchers and you could actually see carcasses being cut up occasionally, and then [the meat was] always prepackaged, and then the bones disappeared.” Arbor Farms is helping all of us remember that the animal protein we eat belonged to a living breathing creature.

I know the job of carving animals is somewhere in my blood because my grandmother’s maiden name was Butcher, but watching Chavez work rendered me speechless. The precision required with the relentless hum of the saw and the sharpness of the long knives, the breaking down of a side that looked like my wet dog’s tendons, muscles, bones, and sinews, and the transformation of that wet dog into the identifiable plastic wrapped pieces one blithely reaches for in coolers was completely overwhelming. I was unable to tear my eyes away.

Not only is butchering a very physical and nimble use of one’s facilities - I believe there is a great deal of art to it. I say that because I have eaten venison reminiscent of gamey cardboard and I have eaten venison that melts in my mouth and renders me incoherent - both animals from the wild. I feel that difference is due to the skill of the butcher, just ask someone who loves sashimi.

Here are a few videos of the process so that you too can see this fundamental step on the animal’s progress towards lamb chop and steak.

There are two more items to share about Lamb Farm’s lamb and beef available at Arbor Farms. The 2009 lambs have all been harvested, which means there will be a few month break until the 2010 lambs are ready to be processed. When you cook the beef, it is tender. Tender to the point where it is very easy to overcook because you cannot rely on your sense of touch to tell you when the meat is ready.

Borden - Lamb Farm beef on top of salad

As for the flavor of Lamb Farm’s 100% grass fed, organically raised, beef - butchered and available at Arbor Farms, I ended up chewing on the bone like when I was 10.

It was sublime.

Here is a link to the article on annarbor.com.

Lamb Farm gambols in the sun

This is the first part in a discussion of Lamb Farm and their retail partner Arbor Farms - focusing on Lamb Farm’s side of the handshake, look for Arbor Farms’ side tomorrow! John Smucker gazes over the verdant pastures and smiles, his eyes crinkling, “The key to this whole thing is the soil. Because whatever the soil is, is going to wind up in the plant, is going to wind up in the animal, is going to wind up in you!”

Borden - Lamb Farm lambs with mama

The neatly kept buildings, glowing green fields and the 1910 extant barn on John and Suzanne Smucker’s Lamb Farm are mute testimony to such careful detail awareness in all aspects of the carefully maintained landscape.

John Smucker explains that he and his wife were, “always orientated to organic food, so we thought that would make sense.” Lamb Farm began in 2001 growing organic soybeans and rye, but soon the Smuckers realized the benefits of using their land as pasture. Today their 180 acres of carefully cultivated fields provide food for around 40 cattle, 60-plus ewes and more than 100 lambs.

Smucker continues, “we are certified organic and are a pasture-based system - the only exemption to that are the lactating ewes - we give them minimal amounts of grain to support their lactation. We go through the organic certification process because we want people to know that we adhere to the rules, this way we try to maintain an ethic to what we are up to.”

Based on Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm rotational grazing model expounded upon in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemna, Smucker cordons off his pastures into 5-acre plots and rotates the cows and the sheep every four to five days. “Our model is basically his model, we do interspecies grazing on a smaller scale.” Interspecies rotational grazing encourages a wide variety of different plants, plant diversity increases in pastures that have been allowed to rest between grazings, and often weeds like dandelions and quackgrass are removed by the ruminating masses - to their dietary benefit.

Borden - Lamb Farm steers

The rolling hills may look effortless and idyllic but a lot of hard work goes into maintaining fields for the herds of predominately Cordale Sheep and Hereford Cattle. Every two years a complete soil sample is taken of the fields and an individual plan is designed for each field depending on needs of the farm and the microclimate. Lamb Farm makes their own compost to spread back over the fields and they “mow back in a lot of the organic matter. The more you mow it the richer it becomes.”

Borden - Lamb Farm field

I was lucky enough to visit during lambing season. The process begins when the rams are introduced to the ewes (starting about a year and a half old) for a month, the gestation cycle is five months, and “in the first two weeks of birthing this year we birthed 110 lambs out of the 60-plus ewes.” Remembering James Herriot freezing on stone floors in Yorkshire helping to pull out lambs, I asked how much of that happens at Lamb Farm. “We have to help pull maybe three or four - for the most part these girls can birth on their own. Cordale tend to be very hardy pasture animals.”

The lambs are kept with their mothers in the lambing pens for two weeks until they are moved outside to the fields. A lamb only qualifies as such until age one, “things happen physiologically to the animal at that point, the hormones start and that changes the taste of the meat.” The lambs are processed at about 6-8 months old. Smucker spaces out the delivers to the processing facility so that there is only a short gap in availability during the year. Because the lambs are cared for by the Smuckers from day one, they are able to be certified organic.

The steers, on the other hand, are purchased from a breeder after they have been weaned and castrated, so they are not deemed organic, but they roam free from the day they arrive at Lamb Farm. Hereford cattle, according to Smucker, are “an older breed of cattle. In the 40s, 50s, and 60s they were all we had and then we went into a revolution into feedlot animals, which spurred the development of Angus. They don’t fill out and flesh out as nicely on grass as the Hereford. The Hereford breed tends to be docile and peaceful animals whereas a purebred Angus can be aggressive.”

Included in the masticating mammals were also some Angus/Hereford mixes and a few Belted Galloways (provided by a neighbor who breeds them). They had been just been introduced to eating fresh grass and were given continuing access to winter hay. Smucker explains, “You have to be careful when you take an animal off winter hay. They will get bloat from the fresh grass and that will kill them.”

Smucker also offers to the steers kelp and minerals in the form of salt licks. As we watch the cows skip down the hill Smucker pontificates: “you can see how much energy they have. According to the butcher the density of their bones and tissues is different from many animals. I think it is a function of the minerals we feed and how much moving and running around they have.” After 18-20 months of moving around, the cattle are harvested at about 1,100 pounds. This is a significant time investment compared to feedlot beef (harvested at 12 months) or “grass-fed” beef augmented with a diet of grain towards the end of their lives (harvested at 14-16).

Lamb Farm uses a processing facility that is USDA certified and organic. Smucker delves into the challenges of following such a regime. “There are only two organic processing facilities in the state. There is certainly a bottle-neck issue that has gained national attention. A lot of places have decided that the USDA stuff is too arduous, the paperwork is too much.” However, sticking with their promise “to maintain an ethic of what” they are up to, Smucker pays the extra fees for the USDA stamp.

That USDA stamp enables all of the meat to be legally sold at Arbor Farms, Smucker’s retail partner. “Just my wife and I are the full time employees,” Smucker explains, “we don’t have the capacity to do retail sales. We got too many things to do, selling is a whole different business.” Smuckers drops off the animals at the facility and Arbor farms picks up the carcasses.

Here is the link to the article on annarbor.com.