I spotted a familiar face on the front page of Friday’s Wall Street Journal. Farmer Bruce Dunlop looked back at me while I read about the mobile abattoir, or “slaughterhouse on wheels,” he designed that six years ago became the first of its kind to gain USDA approval.
Last fall, my family and I followed the route Dunlop’s hogs take from farm to market. We started at Lopez Island Farm, 100 miles north of Seattle, where they’re raised and slaughtered, and visited the facility where the slaughter trailer pulls up with carcasses to be turned into cuts.
The trailer and the cut-and-wrap are both projects of the Island Grown Farmers Cooperative, of which Dunlop is a founding member.
On Dunlop’s farm, a sheep stuck his tongue out to blat at us and hogs rooted at our feet. The hogs are rotated over several acres of pasture and woodland. During our visit, they rooted under huge fir trees at the edge of a field, but it was easy to spot their last several enclosures. Though the fences were no longer standing, the pigs had created the pasture’s most lush green squares.
At the barn, a concrete slab the size of two parking spots provided a place for the hogs and sheep to be harvested. A few yards away, Dunlop’s compost piles held offal, which in a slaughterhouse would be waste but on the farm was in the process of becoming soil.
Leaving the island by way of ferry, we traveled from Dunlop’s farm to the co-op’s small processing plant along the aptly-named Farm to Market Road.
Inside the plant, called Northwest Homegrown, rancher Janet McRae staffed the small shop at the front of the building. Behind her metal desk a sign read, “Grown In Washington. Everything in this store was born in Washington, even the old lady behind the desk.”
Meats from co-op farms filled a chest freezer with a glass top and an upright with a glass front. Both reminded me of selecting ice cream at the corner store, but these were a different kind of frozen treat.
After we picked out several cuts, including our favorite, inch-thick, bone-in rib chops, I asked if we could take a look at the rest of the place, and McRae gladly offered a tour. Starting at the freezers filled with cuts, our walk through took us backwards through the process.
We stepped into the walk-in freezer behind the desk, where piles of crates and boxes, sorted by farm, awaited pick-up. While farmers sell some of their meat at Northwest Homegrown, the rest is bound for farmers markets, restaurants, or bulk customers. Thanks to the mobile slaughterhouse’s USDA inspection process, meat from the co-op isn’t restricted from retail sale or sale across state lines.
Back through the shop, another door took us into the cutting room. The view was stunning. A long wall of picture windows looked out over rolling hills and rich pastureland, some of which belongs to the family that also owns the Northwest Homegrown building. The co-op leases the building from the family, whose current generation decided to focus on ranching and closed the shop their grandfather operated.
As we walked, McRae said she didn’t understand major beef recalls. She told us that they don’t release meat from their facility until each carcass has been tested and the results received. They’ve never had a scare, but their labeling enables them to identify the farm and individual animal from which each cut comes. If a problem arose, they could trace it to a specific cow.
At the very back, we peered into the hanging room, where halves of hogs and quarters of beeves hung. There were no sides of beef — Dunlop designed the slaughter trailer to fit on a ferry, and sides are too big to fit in it.
Stepping out the back door, we took a look at the trailer itself, and McRae explained its three sections: processor, where the animals are dressed; mechanical and water, since the trailer is completely self-contained; and refrigerator, where the carcasses are stored on the way to Northwest Homegrown.
Before coming together to create their own infrastructure, these farmers traveled hundreds of miles and competed with large-scale industrial producers to access existing slaughterhouses. Now, animals are slaughtered on the farm where they’re raised and are further processed just 45 miles away. Theirs is small-scale processing for small-scale producers.