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Choosing/Finding a Meat Processor

Farmer and author Forest Pritchard tells the tale of his first processor in his first book, Gaining Ground, which had me on my feet screaming, “I’m not the only one!” Like him, I suffered through processors who failed to return all the meat from my animals, who mis-labeled product, who didn’t package well and who made fun of what I had chosen to do with my livestock.

The first processor returned meat from what was at least four different identifiable animals so he was cut off after the first try. Similarly, the second processor barely made it past the unloading of my calves when the young man charged with unloading stock immediately went after my already confused and afraid calves with an electric cattle prod.

Grabbing the gadget from his hands and waving it in his direction I bellowed, “Don’t you ever use this on my animals or I guarantee I will use it on you!”  I then grabbed an empty 5 gallon bucket and rattled it enough to get the calves’ attention as they were still cowering in the front of the stock trailer.

“That bucket is empty,” said the young man who had been relieved of his hot stick.

“They’re just bull calves. They don’t know any better.” I replied as the pair followed me out of the trailer, up the ramp and on to the kill floor holding pen as we were the first to arrive that morning.

Given how the day started, I should have taken it as a sign and left them on the trailer, returning home to find another processor. The calves were slated to be sold by the half to three different customers and I was keeping the fourth half so I could cook my way through a calf to better understand the cuts and enjoy the fruits of my own labor.  In making arrangements with the processor, they assured me that each piece would be labeled.

“Would you like to have your meat vacuum-sealed?”

“Yes, please.”

The only problem was he failed to tell me that when meat was vacuum-sealed, it could not be stamped with the ink stamp names identifying each cut. Worse, both calves were randomly packed in liquor boxes leaving me no idea what a quarter of each animal was.

“Well, you can just divide all the packages up by four,” the man replied when I asked how I was going to identify all the little frozen pink blobs.

“What was their hanging weights?”

“Oh, they weighed about 150, maybe 160 pounds each…somewhere in there.”

“I’m charging by the pound, like beef, and I needed to know the hanging weights. I had it written on the directions and told that to the man who helped me unload.” Maybe I shouldn’t have threatened him with the hot stick.

“Oh well, next time we’ll get the weights.”

There wouldn’t be a next time for him.

Finally, I asked a local dairy farmer who sold veal at farmers markets along with their farmstead cheese where they got their calves processed and was turned on to a processor who was like a dream come true–reliable, professional, clean and could follow directions almost too well.  

Little did I realize until reading his book, that Forest was responsible for urging the Mennonite family who has run their USDA plant for over 50 years to do the market cuts and packaging that I, as well as many mid-Atlantic livestock producers, now rely upon.

040708eUSDA-Approved Inspection Facilities

You MUST process under a USDA-approved inspection facility if you:

  • Sell at farmers markets
  • Cross state lines
  • Sell individual retail cuts from your farm store
  • Sell to a restaurant, grocery store or butcher shop
  • Create any value-added product such as sausage

I’ve come across a lot of people with the rise of the local foods movement who cut corners processing at custom facilities or doing it themselves. For private sales of whole animals, farmer to consumer, this is fine, but it is imperative to understand the state and federal regulations if you want to sell animals under any of the above conditions.

Find the Right Processor for You

The first step in choosing a processor is to find one that is able and willing to process your particular animals. Forget the phone book, ignore the Internet. Use word-of-mouth and first-hand recommendations from other farmers. This is the most reliable way of engaging the services of a processor.

Then next step is to visit the processor. Make an appointment to speak with them at a convenient time. Don’t just show up and expect their time and attention, especially on receiving and kill days when their attentions are demanded elsewhere.

Questions to ask:

  • What day are the animals dispatched?
  • Do you require stock to be delivered the day prior?
  • Do you have a minimum/maximum number of animals?
  • Do you provide labels or must the producer?
  • If the producer must provide labels, what are the specifications?
  • Do you vacuum-seal?
  • What is your lead time? (meaning, if I call you today, how long before I can get an appointment)
  • Do you offer value-added products? (patties, sausage, etc.)
  • Are your value-added or ground meat products made in communal batches or with only my meats?
  • Do you flash freeze on shallow carts or just pack meat into boxes and place in freezer?
  • Ask for a services list with the prices of each service.

In addition to the services and price list, it’s good to ask for a cut sheet as well. For example, when processing my veal calves, I chose only from my first processor’s cut sheet, so I did not get the highly coveted osso buco cuts which are lovely cross-sections of the shanks and the first items to sell out at market. Similarly, the scallopine was labeled as cutlets and rolled into an unidentifiable ball.

For value-added products such as patties and sausages, ask if they are made in communal batches. By this I mean that everyone’s meats are mixed together and then made into one large batch and split up based upon how much meat your animals contributed to the batch.  For producers who go the extra mile to raise grass-fed, organic, non-GMO fed livestock, having their meat mixed in with someone who does not ascribe to similar practices would most likely be completely unacceptable.

Be A Good Customer

When you find a processor who can meet your needs, then it is time for you to be a good customer.

  • Don’t show up with more or fewer animals unless it is completely unavoidable or you have called ahead.
  • Arrive during the posted delivery hours.
  • Be certain your trailer/truck is properly seated with the loading dock so the chances of animals escaping during unloading is avoided.
  • Do not take sick or injured animals that will not pass inspection.
  • Give them a written cuts list for every order.
  • Pick your meat up when it is ready.
  • Pay your bill for services rendered.

Do you have a good processor?  Let’s share information in the comments below so that we can all do better together!

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Sandra Kay Miller
Sandra Kay Millerhttp://www.sandrakaymiller.com/Farming.html
Sandra Kay Miller is a female farmer, damn good cook and witty writer slicing her finger open on the cutting edge of sustainable agriculture. Visiting her Painted Hand Farm is like living a crash course on all that's right with food and farming today - taught by one of the most delightful people ever to rebuild an antique Babson Surge Milker (and use it!) or raise a goat from birth to curry pot. Sandra has served on the boards of many organizations and has been instrumental in developing farmers markets. She's a prolific writer and speaker sharing her knowledge and experience with others.


  1. Morgan’s Meat Processing in Madisonville, Tennessee! He is a custom butcher, not USDA so only whole/half/quarter animals. Charles is the best and does all sorts of special things for me. Is he perfect? No. But he ALWAYS has the hanging weight, ALWAYS gives me my OWN animals and is very careful about not mixing them, and is kind & generous to boot! When I start asking for something special or different, he invites me in to show he & his staff what I want as he’s cutting them up!

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