Good Meat Project at the Small Farms Conference

Raising livestock in accordance with nature, outside of conventional models, is an undeniably worthy endeavor. The decision to take greater responsibility for animal genetics, humane husbandry, and environmental stewardship is an important one, and a full time job at that. By paying close attention to these aspects, each farmer or rancher (known as “seeders” at the Good Meat Project) can develop unique flavors and textures in their product, which are their primary selling points to consumers (known as “feeders” at the Good Meat Project). Together, hopefully, they can feel good about the impact of their practices on our planet and the animals who feed us.

But raising animals outside of the industrial model comes with many challenges for the farmers, from customer resistance to paying the true cost of this kind of meat production to navigating unfamiliar cut sheets with local processors (which can sometimes feel like a daunting choose-your-own-adventure), and dealing with the enormous challenge of selling those unfamiliar cuts to wary consumers who may or may not know what to do with them in the kitchen.

These farmers not only have to figure out how to raise their animals responsibly, with unique flavors and textures as the end goal—no small feat—but they have to become interpreters of their product for consumers. Yet, once those animals leave the domain of the farm, there is rarely a proper feedback loop to help inform farmers about the meat products that come from their animals. How did the steaks look? Was the final carcass in good condition? Were the processor-produced sausages delicious to the consumer? Were the final portions to spec and well butchered?

Do their customers even notice the difference between this kind of meat and the kind of meat sold in most grocery stores? How can producers most effectively communicate the true value of their meat if they don’t have an in-depth understanding of how their animals get processed and what makes some meat delicious and other meat not?

At the Good Meat Project, a 501(c)3 nonprofit based in Portland, Oregon, our mission is to inspire responsible meat consumption and production through experiential education. We help to facilitate communication between the various silos of the meat industry—seeders (farmers and ranchers), feeders (processors, butchers, and food professionals) and eaters (consumers). Our goal is to empower all participants in our food system to better understand how each of our roles contributes to the quality of life initiated on the farm and, hopefully, carried through each stage until consumption.

Working with farmers during two sessions at the OSU Small Farms Conference offered a great opportunity for the Good Meat Project to open a dialogue about the definition of “good meat” and what that label might convey to consumers. In the morning, Bob Dickson (a seasoned retail meat specialist), Camas Davis (executive director of the Good Meat Project) and I (a butcher, instructor, and author of several how-to butchery and slaughter books) spoke about the development of flavor in live animals, detailing how ideal animal husbandry (proper and humane diet, exercise, and environment) results in better flavor, flavor which can create powerful food memories (as well as increased nutrition and more) for eaters.

In any of the Good Meat Project’s farmer-focused workshops, our goal is to work with farmers to develop a language and vocabulary with which to help potential customers understand how the living conditions of livestock directly relates to the good
or bad experience of the eater. In this vein, we first asked the audience to brainstorm the complex and myriad definitions of “good meat.” We then discussed the importance of fiber, fat, and fascia in relation to flavor and texture. We concluded by discussing pre- slaughter, slaughter, and post-slaughter conditions and their direction connection to an eater’s experience.

Following the discussion, we transitioned a
smaller group to the Clark Meat Science Center to demonstrate a pork carcass breakdown. Here we were able to get more specific. We discussed the anatomy of pork and other species, reviewing some of the most popular retail cuts as well as lesser known cuts. We concluded the demonstration with a blind tasting of unique individual muscle cuts, underscoring the day’s earlier discussions on flavor, texture, and the language of “good meat.”

Farmers rarely get to take part in the slaughter and processing of their animals. This gap in knowledge can be a great detriment to their business. The Good Meat Project attempted to fill a tiny part of that gap with this workshop. As such, the discussion was lively and informative.

As we butchered the side of pig, we were able to immediately respond to farmer inquiries about cuts, anatomy, flavor, and texture. Farmers could ask how to cook one cut so it wasn’t tough. We discussed different words and phrases farmers could use to talk about flavor and texture outside of the usual fallbacks (i.e. “gamey” and “tough”).

As an organization, the Good Meat Project was able to learn more about how farmers communicate their business priorities and the challenges they face. Experiential workshops like these, with healthy discourse, stimulate connections between invested factions of meat production. They help us all better understand how to aid one another as we rise to the challenge of making good meat accessible and appealing to all.

The Good Meat Project inspires responsible meat production and consumption through experiential education. The organization conceives and conducts hands-on, experiential education events and workshops, envisioned for consumers, farmers, butchers, and chefs.

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