Feasting is our column dedicated to cooking, grilling, eating and discovering what’s on the menu across America and the world.
Eating sustainably isn’t always easy. Sometimes restaurants and butchers will proudly display the names of their farmers and purveyors, but more often than not, you have to do your own research or just straight up ask. Things can get a little Portlandia. But people who are proud of where they source their meat will be glad to tell you the story behind the protein, and it’ll help you make better decisions in the long run. Happy Valley Meat Company is working to make this process simpler, both for the farmer and the chef.
Happy Valley’s mission is to create a direct connection between chefs and the farmers who raise their meat. Farmers lose money if they sell single cuts of meat, but restaurateurs might not be able to sell all of the meat from a whole animal, which wastes both food and money. Happy Valley buys whole animals from small, organic farms and breaks them down in their own slaughterhouse, Rising Spring Meats. This way, farmers can sell whole animals, and chefs can buy only what they need, ensuring nothing goes to waste. It’s a brilliant system that makes us wonder why more of the meat industry doesn’t operate in this way.
We’ve been fans of Happy Valley Meat and their mission for awhile now, so we were excited to speak with owner Dan Honig about how his company is changing the food industry for the better.
First things first, why beef? Is it simply because cows are the largest whole animal that restaurants have to purchase and break down, or did other factors go into the decision?
We work with multiple species—lamb, chickens, goats, pigs—but beef is our bread and butter. Out of all the species of meat animals, beef is the most unapproachable, and someone needed to make small farm beef workable.
Typically, if a chef wanted to work with small sustainable farms, she or he would go directly to that farm and buy a whole animal. This is the ideal way for a farmer to sell meat because it’s challenging for farmers to deal with inventory imbalances that come from selling cuts off of a whole animal. Many restaurants have adapted their menus to incorporate selling whole animals from chickens (4 lbs), lambs (50 lbs), goats (50 lbs) and even pigs (200 lbs). Beef (800 lbs!) is where the train comes to a screeching halt. Smaller animals have 3-7 cuts that a restaurant can manage, and even a 200-pound pig can be short work if a restaurant sells sausage. An 800-pound beef carcass is not so simple—the sheer size of the animal lends itself to upwards of 32 cuts, of which, 250 pounds will be ground beef. Selling 250 pounds of ground beef basically means you’re a hamburger or meatball restaurant.
The size impediment has prevented chefs from working with small beef farmers. We got into beef because we want chefs to be able to tell the small farm story without having to only sell ground beef or meatballs. Every piece of meat we sell has the name of the farm on it, so a diner can trace the animal’s origin directly to the farm where it was raised. We allow chefs to tell the small farm story with the convenience of the larger packing houses. You can’t make everyone change everything they’re doing all at once, but if you can speak the same language they’re already speaking, it’s easier to move chefs onto sustainable meat.
Many people associate sustainable eating with animal welfare and the environment, which are both extremely important in their own ways. But I find not many people think about the farmer when eating sustainably. How has Happy Valley Meat helped the small, local farmer?
Happy Valley’s first priority is farmer welfare. In 2016 alone, we’ve put back over $1.25 million into small farm economies. Commodity pricing took a massive dive in Fall 2015. Farmers were losing $500-$1000 per head of beef (it takes two years for beef cattle to reach maturity/market weight). We’ve held our pricing strong so that our farmers didn’t experience those losses, and we’ve found better markets for 493 beef animals in 2016. On two occasions, farmers voiced that they would have quit raising beef if it wasn’t for their dealings with Happy Valley Meat while a dozen other farms have increased their herd size in excitement to grow with us.
In previous interviews, you’ve talked about how butchering has become this increasingly popular, sexy trade, but operating a slaughterhouse is still seen as unappealing. Do you think the younger generation’s interest in sustainability and responsible sourcing will shift this mentality?
Unfortunately, I don’t think the younger generation will see slaughterhouse work as appealing, even as it’s necessary to supporting animal agriculture. It’s a hard and dangerous business with tight margins and little public interaction. Butchering is highly skilled labor that large packing houses have broken down into assembly line specialization. A worker in a small to medium slaughter shop must be able to do many, if not all, of these specialized tasks because the scale isn’t there to have interchangeable people in small shops. As this labor problem increases, I believe we should be looking to advancing technology for answers. Robotics will be able to fill this void of human labor and take some of the danger out of the job. There will always be a place in our hearts for artisanal butcher shops, but we need to figure out a way to make the less seen, higher volume small slaughter shops financially viable while also dealing with the fact that fewer and fewer people want the job. It’s a daunting task with much hope in technology.
It’s not always easy to make educated decisions when buying meat, especially if you don’t live near a butcher. Whether shopping at the store or ordering in a restaurant, how can we all make more sustainable, cruelty-free choices?
The truth of the matter is, when shopping or eating out, we should consider meat and animal products guilty until proven innocent. There is a lot of greenwashing out there and a plethora of terms that are too wide to act as a guide. For instance, the word “natural” only refers to processing, not how an animal was raised, and “cage free” eggs are good, except in instances where the birds fight because of overcrowding and poor environmental upkeep. Third party welfare certifiers like Certified Humane and Animal Welfare Approved are your best bet to eating happy animals. Ask for specific farm names and do research, actually call farms and ask questions; if you find a farm you like, ask where they sell their meat. Key questions to ask are: what percentage of an animal’s life is spent on pasture, what is the animal fed, are they given antibiotics or hormones for growth promotion, how far do they travel to get slaughtered, how big is the farm where they come from and who runs that farm? You’ll have to see how the answers feel against your conscience as everyone’s values are different. Finally, even though I sell meat for a living, I live a mostly vegetarian lifestyle, only eating meat when I know where it comes from, and I recommend the same lifestyle to everyone. If you can’t prove it’s a happy animal, assume it’s not.
You work with a lot of amazing restaurants and chefs who trust Happy Valley to deliver the best beef possible. Do you have any favorite dishes that your clients are currently serving at their establishments?
I’m no great connoisseur, but my favorite dishes are usually the ones with ground meats like meatballs and hamburgers. Not only do they have the fewest deaths per plate because they use the most meat off of the carcass, but they have great flavor and just the right amount of fat. Dig Inn’s Happy Valley Meatballs, Hank’s Juicy Beef’s Hot Beef Sandwich, Momofuku Nishi’s Raw Beef and the roast beef sandwich at Tørst all top my list. But most of our restaurants change their menus seasonally, so it’s hard to keep up with the never ending supply of tasty dishes.