The opening sequence of American Meat, a new documentary about the current state of meat production in the United States, asks why modern Americans are so removed from the process of raising and killing the centerpiece of their meals and diets. Millions in the United States who eat meat daily have never killed a cow or a chicken with their own hands or touched a pig or a sheep unless it was already conveniently sliced into bacon or lamb chops. Although this may be the story for most of the carnivores in our country, at the Flying R Ranch in Waialua, Hawaii, customers are intimately connected with the steaks and short ribs they buy from the ranch. Anyone who wants to eat the goats or cattle grazing on the 3,300 acre ranch have to pick and slaughter the animals themselves. The owner, Bob Cherry, laughs heavily and cracks a wide grin as he explains that on his ranch customers have to buy the animal live, then kill it and butcher it themselves. The practice comes both out of necessity and tradition.
Instead of building an expensive meat production facility that must meet strict USDA requirements and employing a full-time USDA on-site inspector, Bob built a mobile custom-exempt slaughterhouse in one of his horse trailers. Selling live animals and having people slaughter them in a converted and fully equipped horse trailer may be a hard business to realize in some places, but Bob has many eager customers. He boasts that he hardly has to advertise for his ranch. The large Filipino-American population on Oahu, many of whom originally came to the island to work on the sugar and pineapple plantations, have kept many elements of their rich agricultural and dietary customs alive. From harvesting Malunggay leaves off the trees in their yards to butchering whole goats and cows, many Filipino-Americans have preserved traditions brought from their own Pacific island chain.
As is often the case in Hawaii, Flying R Ranch is a case of East meets West. Bob has been in the ranching business since age nineteen and unlike most of his customers he was born on a Colorado alfalfa and bean farm in the heart of America. He made his way down to Arizona after high school and worked as a diesel mechanic in the copper mines for a while before heading further west to Hawaii to work on a friend’s cattle ranch. The ability of the ranch to cater to traditions brought from the Philippines and survive on the hard work and western grit brought from America’s western culture is a rare occurrence in today’s meat industry. If there is anything the film American Meat tells us, it is that places like Flying R Ranch are hard to find. Decades of tightened USDA regulations and fierce competition in the meat industry have driven out most small producers, but there is a growing interest around the country in meat from small farmers and ranchers. While some of that interest comes from groups like the Filipino-Americans in Hawaii looking for local meat sources for their traditional meals, there is also a revival of the butcher across the United States.
Modern-day butchers like Brandon and Lauren Sheard of Farmstead Meatsmith are leading the renaissance by offering mobile butchering services to small farms and online tutorials on how to slaughter and butcher different animals. In addition to the local butcheries popping up in cities and towns all over America, meat connoisseurs are becoming more selective when deciding to purchase from the array of free-range, grass-fed, or organic meat products. Of course, it is still hard to find anything quite like the Flying R Ranch where customers get to meet their meat before butchering it themselves and taking it home to eat. Bob only laughs when someone acts surprised that people not only can, but have to slaughter their own food at his ranch; that is the way it has been for over twenty years and he does not plan on changing anytime soon!
Mahalo Nui Loa!
Winter 2012 Hawaii Food Warrior
This post is from one of the interns in the Real Time Farms Food Warrior Internship Program. These interns are collecting data, pictures, and video on the growing practices of our nation’s farms, gathering food artisans’ stories, and documenting farmers markets. We all deserve to know where our food comes from!