From hot dogs to haute cuisine, the bounty of food throughout New York City is easy to take for granted. While consensus holds that food produced locally and on a smaller scale is better ethically and environmentally, the logistics of moving upstate New York’s yield south and through the streets of the city is a daunting and complex endeavor — one which can be prohibitively expensive for small farmers, when supermarket-slashed prices remain the norm and industrial competitors boast size advantage and hoard government support. Scaling up for an urban consumer base — and bridging the gap with money, time, machinery, land, and labor — is doubly difficult when it comes to meat. City and state policymakers have envisioned a new regional “food hub” infrastructure to connect mid-sized upstate farms with logistical support and urban consumers, but such structures have been slow to materialize, and tend to overlook the smallest businesses. So some farmers, processors, distributors, and vendors are coming together into scrappy networks that traverse the Hudson Valley, bringing non-industrial meat to select city dinner plates. Here, Nina Sparling introduces the spaces and people that power one such pipeline, tracing the system that makes our better burgers possible.
People enter Eagle Bridge Custom Meats and Smokehouse through the office. Animals file into the low, barn-red building through a pen at the far end, one by one.
A metal shoot with a headlock keeps the livestock still while a stunner – captive bolt for cattle, electric for hogs – immobilizes the animal prior to slaughter. Then, one of the workers hoists the carcass up, eviscerates it and drains the blood. He sets aside usable organs like the liver and the heart. Hoses coil up on the walls; thick rubber aprons dry out from the morning’s work. Meat is a messy business.
The carcass moves down the line to be skinned and quartered, after which the workers attach each piece of beef to a rail system that resembles what dry cleaners use to organize laundry for pick up. The quarters remain on the rail system until they either move for further processing or exit the facility in a refrigerated truck.
About 70 pigs and 25 steer transition from pasture to plate each week via Eagle Bridge, a Hudson Valley slaughterhouse opened in 2005. This kill floor, a small space not much larger than an average classroom, is the lynchpin in a developing regional meat economy that rejects the ethical and environmental compromises of 99-cent hamburgers.
Debbie and Steve Ball, siblings and co-owners of Eagle Bridge, opened up shop in 2005 to provide a service to nearby farmers raising livestock in upstate counties like Dutchess and Columbia. The walk-in coolers at Eagle Bridge are the point of transfer between farmers who raise small herds of livestock and distributors headed for New York City, where a growing customer base from Brooklyn to Harlem is willing and able to pay more for meat that comes from a farm, not a feedlot.
But despite the steady downstate demand, New York’s regional meat economy struggles to grow. Outspent and outpaced by the meatpackers that flood the market with cheap product, farmers, processors, distributors, and small business owners have turned inwards to build an independent infrastructure of distribution and processing – a geography that trades 18-wheelers for box trucks, and ferries meat from New Lebanon, New York, not Dubuque, Iowa.
In good traffic, it takes three and a half hours to get from Eagle Bridge to New York City.
Despite the proximity, the physical transport of product from farm to plate remains a consistent challenge. “We’re up here in God’s country but it’s all got to get to New York,” Debbie says. “It wasn’t like there was someone sitting out here going ‘yeah, no problem, we’ll take it down there.”
Plenty of trucks do deliver meat to New York City every day. But whether funneled through mom-and-pop distributors to an Upper West Side diner or through multi-million dollar distribution corporations that fill the fryer at McDonald’s, most of the meat that New Yorkers eat comes from the small cohort of sprawling companies that control the bulk of livestock production and processing in the United States.
From processing plants in places like Austin, Minnesota or Fremont, Nebraska, semi-trucks hit the road weighed down with cases of boxed beef, broiler chickens and center-cut pork chops, en route to the circuit of refrigerated warehouses that surrounds New York City. Facilities with thousands of square feet of storage space housing hundreds of thousands of pounds of meat pepper the urban periphery, from a Sysco warehouse in Jersey City, to a facility in Montgomery, New York owned by United Natural Foods, Incorporated (which supplies many of Whole Foods’ products).
Roughly a third of the meat sold in New York moves through the Hunts Point Distribution Center in the South Bronx, home base for many mid-sized, regional distributors. Neighborhood restaurants, bodegas, and markets in New York City tend to rely on these local logistics companies, rather than the national distributors that supply chains and big-box retail. But these independent businesses still tend to sell and serve meat from the industrial supply chain — not nearby farmers. Despite the apparent diversity of food in New York, much of the meat comes from a few sprawling corporations, underpinned by friendly federal policy.
Eagle Bridge grew in conjunction with an ongoing shift in public awareness about the human and environmental costs of mechanized, intensive agriculture. Books like Fast Food Nation highlighted the ruthless reality of meatpackers like Smithfield, Tyson, and Perdue, which have developed exacting formulas to minimize costs of production and maximize profit. Such meatpacking companies have come to dominate the industry since the 1980s. Factories have accelerated their rates of production, enabled by new equipment that mechanizes slaughter and processes more meat, faster. As companies have cracked down on unions, workers’ wages have fallen, alongside workplace protections.
These companies either contract farms to raise the animals they process, or purchase livestock directly from them. On many farms, regular doses of antibiotics punctuate the life cycles of animals. Hundreds of thousands of cows, pigs, chickens in feedlots – they all eat corn; some estimates suggest that large-scale livestock producers saved millions in feed costs thanks to subsidies for the grain. Lagoons of shit accumulate. Environmental hazards permeate nearby landscapes and communities, who have won lawsuits against major processors and fought fiercely against new arrivals, well aware of the consequences of proximity. The handful of conglomerates that control each element of the supply chain strip the meat of nutrition, flavor, and texture, and the farmer of revenue, at every step in the process.
Confronted with the inequalities, inequities, and risks of corporate agriculture highlighted by an outpouring of documentaries, books, and magazine articles, many people have embraced local food as a means to divert dollars away from the industrial system — as Michael Pollan put it, to “vote with your fork.”
This shift in awareness has coincided with a restructuring of New York’s urban fabric. Wealthier people flock to the city. Eating local and organic food acquires distinction. People with the means to support a good food habit build cultural capital through weekend trips to the farmers market and seasonal subscriptions to community supported agriculture programs (CSAs).
Meat is no exception. Business owners in New York City see an opportunity: the demand for traceable, local, better meat has been growing but places to buy it have been few and far between. In the early 2000s, the city saw a sharp increase in independent food manufacturing companies and a new wave of both boutique independent businesses and trendy restaurants to service this growing customer base. Whole animal butchery was one of many “forgotten” crafts that young, financially solvent New Yorkers would embrace. Many customers have come to enjoy encountering a split steer on the butcher block, knives separating muscle from tendon from bone.
When it started in 2005, Eagle Bridge didn’t have the resources or reputation of their industrial counterparts, but as the demand for local meat from businesses in New York grew, Debbie and Steve expanded their operation, transforming it from a state-inspected facility processing farmer-slaughtered carcasses into a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse.
Funding the transition wasn’t easy: inspection is both burdensome and expensive. Banks were reluctant to lend to a business operating on such a small scale, and though small grants through animal welfare organizations helped, they found no major funding opportunities. Farmers upstate and small business owners in the city face the same problem — state support is designed to serve a much larger scale of industry. Though the market for an alternative is growing, getting the product from farm to table is far more complicated than a simple matter of supply and demand.
Of the roughly 100 animals that Eagle Bridge processes each week, 60 percent, or about 15,000 pounds, goes on to further processing. Meat cutters reduce sides of beef into steaks and hamburgers. They smoke hams and hot dogs, and mix fat, spices, and ground pork into custom blends of sausages. The remaining 40 percent goes “out the back door,” as Debbie says, to whole animal butchers. Balance between the two sales routes is imperative – Eagle Bridge depends on a majority of incoming livestock heading for further processing, where the margins are better, to maintain its bottom line.
Even with Eagle Bridge taking care of processing, small farmers needed somebody else who could manage the transport of their goods to a growing customer base. Like artisanal butchery downstate, the upstate infrastructure required to operate a local food economy had been gutted by several decades of industrial consolidation. Slowly, this has begun to change, through companies like Farm to Table Logistics, one of the early refrigerated trucking companies that developed to service small butcher shops and restaurants in New York City.
At the end of each week, a driver from Farm to Table Logistics arrives at the slaughterhouse to collect orders, packaged in sterilized, re-usable, collapsible plastic containers. A tractor hoists the containers, which usually weigh about 1,000 pounds, onto the truck. The driver uses a pallet-jack to maneuver the bins into position for transport, first to a refrigerated facility that houses the haul over the weekend. Come Monday morning, the driver hits the road for New York.
Maintaining the pipeline from farm to table requires extensive time and resources: trucks break down; parking tickets accumulate. Time spent delivering product is time spent away from the farm. “If there is something else that I can pay someone to do well that I don’t have to do, I can grow more food,” says Schuyler Gail who with her husband, Colby, owns Climbing Tree Farm in New Lebanon, New York and supplies high-end restaurants and butchers in the city. But Gail, like most small farmers, is responsible for finding her own customers — itself a time-consuming task that she must manage between rotating pigs from one corner of pasture to the next.
Though not by design, Eagle Bridge has come to function as something of a food hub – a place where product belonging to multiple different farmers collects in walk-in refrigerators, awaiting combined delivery downstate. The plant remains a processing facility first, but Debbie often finds herself wearing the hat of a logistics coordinator or sales and marketing firm – jobs that within a large meatpacking company would fall to teams of their own. But she knows there isn’t anyone else to do the work; neither the farmers nor the distributors can afford to hire their own. She connects farmers to distributors when they ask; she accommodates breakdowns, delays and last-minute requests. One farmer often stashes a crate of eggs in a pallet headed downstate. Meanwhile, Debbie plans the Eagle Bridge slaughter calendar a year in advance, weighing just how much she can increase capacity without stretching the company to its limits.
Major meatpackers deploy teams of copywriters, account executives, and sales representatives to reach customers. Hormel Foods, the company that makes SPAM ® — and was the subject of a broiling labor dispute for several months in 1985 — spent $872 million on sales, marketing, and general administrative needs in 2016 alone.
But most in the business of local food must direct their resources towards absolutely necessary functions, like feeding their animals and their families. “A farmer being a marketer is kind of an oxymoron,” says Marty Broccoli, an agricultural extension agent with Cornell University who specializes in agricultural economic development.
Moreover, maintaining relationships with large-scale grocery stores requires numbers of livestock incompatible with the environmental and ethical objectives of small scale farming, as well as a lot of legwork on the part of farmers. The chain supermarkets, from Stop n’ Shop to Whole Foods, that control the majority of grocery sales in the United States set prices fixed to the cost cutting measures of industrial agriculture, with which small farmers cannot compete. And the distributors that large retailers contract with only stock products in quantity.
Companies like Hormel cart thousands of live animals to slaughter each day, then funnel the packaged parts into a refrigerated supply chain. They operate immense warehouses and contract with national trucking companies designed to move several tons of meat each day — not a single quartered cow. Such contracts are more or less automatically out of reach for small-scale operations like Climbing Tree.
Schuyler and Colby raise mostly red wattle pigs at Climbing Tree. The pigs graze in pasture and drink dairy milk; three highland cows help with pasture management. The farmers raise chickens for friends and family, but their immediate community isn’t a captive market for pasture-raised, milk-fed pork. The extra dollars per pound dissuade many people, and running stands at farmers’ markets requires additional labor and time away from the farm.
For most small farms like Climbing Tree, the USDA provides limited financial support. But unlike many other livestock operations that have materialized in response to the growing demand for non-industrial meat, Gail doesn’t have any outside investment. Climbing Tree hasn’t grown on savings and equity from previous careers in finance or marketing. “Our business has never been able to not pull its weight,” Gail said. “We’re not rich people. We can’t afford to not have a business that’s run as a business.”
Over 50 percent of Gail’s business comes through sales to New York — the market is crucial to the survival of their 20-acre farm that slopes down a hillside. She doesn’t sell to that many companies — with a herd of about 100 animals, she doesn’t need to. Most of her customers are upscale restaurants in Brooklyn with whole-animal butchery programs. She relies on other new businesses, themselves dependent on enthusiastic customers who can afford the premium. None of this comes cheap, and everyone involved in building and maintaining this burgeoning economy fights an uphill battle to survive. No one knows just what the future holds.
In their busiest time of year — late spring and summer — Climbing Tree sends pigs for processing as often as once a week. Most of the pigs destined for New York City head to Eagle Bridge, then share a truck with animals from other nearby farms, destined for the kitchens of Brooklyn.
At Ends Meat, a whole animal salumeria at Industry City in Sunset Park served by Eagle Bridge and Farm to Table Logistics, butcher John Ratliff sells pork chops for $13 per pound. He struggles with limitations of selling an expensive product to a small customer base electing to spend several times the norm on meat. To strike a balance, he relies on prepared foods, a small pre-paid CSA program, and special events. These programs keep customers coming in the door regularly, and help Ratliff distinguish his business from the scores of other similar enterprises in New York City.
Ratliff insists, though, on the political underpinnings of the market: The industrial system doesn’t just depend on economies of scale, but substantial subsidies and support systems allocated through the Farm Bill, the omnibus legislation that determines how the government spends its money on food and farming. Ratliff called it “bullshit.”
“If there was some sort of way to give assistance to a regional responsible agricultural system,” Ratliff said, “that would be a far more reasonable way to approach it than to expect a consumer base to reprioritize all of their expenditures.” Public support, he suggested, could serve to make better meat more accessible — and perhaps address the vulnerability of an ecosystem dependent on a niche set of customers able to spend big on meat.
Ratliff isn’t sure how to get consumers to shift from purchasing two-dollar pork chops to nine-dollar pork chops. Nor is he necessarily comfortable telling people they should. Living in New York is expensive, and people have more pressing priorities and expenditures. In Sunset Park, more than a third of tenants — in some corners as many as half — spend 50 percent or more of their income on rent. Disposable income for nine-dollar pork chops does not abound, especially when cheaper options predominate.
The sticker price at Ends Meat reflects the true costs of the system. Land, labor, and inputs add up: It is simply more expensive to raise, slaughter, move and process meat in small quantities in an ecologically responsible manner. The nine-dollar pork chops come from a hog that was one of a herd of a hundred, raised on a diet of pasture grasses, milk, and local corn an hour away from Eagle Bridge. And like Ratliff’s business, the slaughterhouse depends on skilled labor, not extensive machinery. New York state has plenty of acreage — and enough people — to support a thriving regional meat economy. But without sufficient institutional support, it struggles to expand beyond the niche market, and cheap meat fills the cold cases at grocery stories from Parkchester to Bay Ridge.
Still, some consumers, able and eager to shop their values – to “vote with their forks” – have partially underwritten the development of an alternative supply chain. Unlike at the industrial scale, the multiple pieces of this chain are owned and operated by individual, independent businesses operating on narrow margins. Colby of Climbing Tree makes the hour-long drive north to Eagle Bridge early in the week; come Friday, Farm to Table Logistics collects the split carcasses and begins the transport to Brooklyn, under Debbie’s watchful eye. The network succeeds precisely where industry falls short: transparency, humane treatment of workers and animals, and a tastier steak. But its virtues cost.
Despite fertile ground for the market, expensive land and limited funding stymie farmers, processors, and small business owners – a failure anywhere in the supply chain could endanger its entire livelihood. Without the sort of support that industry receives, this project, blazing a path from rolling pasture upstate to eager chefs in the city, teeters on the edge of stability.