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Raising meat, living well: Young couple carves out a new business
Last week, in a pasture behind the Roseballen housing project in Vashon Town, Andrew Plotsky and Brandon Sheard slaughtered a brown nubian goat — part of their effort to revive a lost agrarian art.
The act took place quickly, quietly and even with some reverence. Andrew Plotsky, who held down the goat’s rear as it took its last breath, looked down and said, almost inaudibly, “Thank you, goat.”
Later, as the animal’s carcass hung from a nearby tree, Sheard noted that he has slaughtered goats, pigs, sheep and even cows for several years now. Even so, he said, taking an animal’s life hasn’t gotten easier.
“Sometimes, it still is hard,” he said. “I have to swallow it, just move forward and do it.”
It’s a procedure that is taken seriously — almost religiously — by Sheard, who started Farmstead Meatsmith, a mobile butcher and slaughter business, almost a year ago with his wife Lauren Sheard. The two, both 27, moved to Vashon about three years ago, fresh out of graduate school in California with degrees in theology (Lauren) and English literature (Brandon). Disillusioned by academia and looking to gain more concrete skills, Brandon Sheard said he turned to George Page, the owner of Vashon’s Sea Breeze Farm.
“I bugged him until he gave me a job on the farm,” Sheard said.
With little experience in farming but a love for the locavore movement and a willingness to learn, Sheard moved up from working as a farmhand to running the butcher shop at the farm’s restaurant in town, La Boucherie. Sheard, who earned a following at La Boucherie for his customized butchering, said he decided last year to go into business on his own, largely so he could spend more time with his wife and two young sons.
The Sheards now operate one of just a handful of mobile slaughter and butchery businesses in the state. But unlike other such businesses, the couple provides custom butchering as well as hands-on education to livestock owners both on Vashon and across the Northwest — part of their effort to revive one of the lost arts of an agrarian lifestyle.
As Sheard and Plotsky, an apprentice at Farmstead, meticulously skinned the goat and the air began to fill with the stringent smell of raw meat, Lauren Sheard arrived with the couple’s two sons — a toddler and a 5-month-old who gurgled happily in a carrier on her chest.
“That’s a really pretty hide,” Lauren Sheard commented, her eyes lighting up upon seeing the freshly slaughtered goat.
Farmstead aims to use the entire animal and encourages others to do the same, partly out of respect for the animal’s life and partly because it makes sense financially, Lauren said. She said she hoped to begin tanning and selling hides, one of the only parts of the animal they currently dispose of.
“I want to start using the whole animal, otherwise this hide will just end up in the ground,” she said.
“We can’t take on another project,” Brandon Sheard replied, laughing as if the couple had already had the dispute.
Brandon Sheard and Plotsky cut open the skinned goat and began to empty its body cavity. They carefully rinsed and set aside the heart, liver, stomachs and kidneys, occasionally commenting on how the items would taste or should be cooked.
Plotsky, who says he is staunchly opposed to the methods of the commercial meat processing industry, travelled the country documenting the practices of what he calls innovative farmers before settling down to work with the Sheards. Pausing from helping Brandon Sheard with the goat, he held up one of the animal’s stomachs, which was soft and stretchy after being emptied of its contents.
The stomach, he explained, looks unpleasant and smells the same, but it actually tastes good.
“This stomach is like a metaphor for what we do,” Plotsky said. Most commercial meat-processing businesses butcher hundreds of animals a day and thus don’t have time to save some of the best parts, like the stomach, he said.
“It costs too much in resources that the industry doesn’t have to spare,” he said. “But we go for excellence.”
Brandon Sheard added that as food lovers, they’ve learned that when they take their time to butcher an animal, they reap the rewards at the dinner table.
“We’re really culinary focused. All of this is so delicious,” he said, gesturing to the goat and its organs, which by then were laying out on a table set up by the tree. “I love helping people realize that.”
Even the head was saved and set aside on a tray.
“It makes great stock,” Lauren Sheard said as Plotsky peeled the skin off the goat’s head like a mask. “A lot of people don’t know that, but it’s really flavorful.”
Their comments were a taste of the advice that the Sheards give freely to those they do business with. They not only save the often unused parts of the animals they kill, but they teach their customers how to use them.
“A pig’s foot would get thrown away, tossed, at a production place,” Lauren Sheard said. “We not only save that foot, but walk someone through how to cook it. We tell them how to make that pig’s foot delicious.”
The interaction harkens back to a type of society the Sheards and others like them would love to see reborn in the United States — where people live in community and every village has “a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker,” Lauren said, half jokingly
“It used to be that people had relationships with the people who provided their food. We’re trying to revive that,” she said.
The Sheards’ customized butchering, humane slaughter practices and desire to relate to their customers have brought them business from all over the Northwest and even farther away. They recently booked a job in Florida, where the owners of a small farm want to learn how to process their own meat. They’re also in talks with a new farm owner in Hawaii who wants to learn the same.
Karen Biondo, owner of LaBiondo Farm & Kitchen on Vashon, said she began to use Farmstead Meatsmith as soon as they went into business, pleased to finally have an on-Island option for slaughtering her chickens and pigs. She used to transport her animals off the Island for processing, she said.
Animals benefit the most from this process, she said. “They don’t experience as much stress. There are a lot of people who are happy to eat meat, but they don’t want an animal to suffer in the process.”
Biondo was also impressed with Brandon Sheard’s personable attitude and willingness to explain his process, she added.
“I have learned a great deal from him. Mostly I have learned that he should do it for me all the time,” she said with a laugh.
Providing education, the Sheards said, is almost more important to them than providing a service. In addition to working with the farmers they do business with, Farmstead offers slaughter and butcher classes where students get hands-on experiences with the meat and then enjoy a meal with meat prepared using the processes they learned.
Lauren Sheard said the day-long classes, held at locations around the Island, attract those who wish to begin processing their own meat, as well as those who just want the experience.
“We get city folk and bloggers, people who work for Microsoft and farmers from Lopez Island who are barely scraping by,” she said. “People tell me, ‘This is the most authentic experience I’ve ever had. Thank you.’”
Hilary Augustine-Vandenbos, a Queen Anne resident who knows the Sheards’ family and helped Brandon and Lauren start their business, said she was impressed with Farmstead’s classes. The Sheards were not only skilled and knowledgeable, she said, but explained the ethics behind their practices and the benefits of eating locally produced food. Since taking the class, she said, she and her husband pay closer attention to where their meat comes from.
“I will wait another half-hour to get home to the food in my fridge instead of getting fast food,” she said. “I’ll drive across town to a grocery store that I know has meat that I want to eat.”
Brandon Sheard said he’s seen other students make similar realizations.
“Our mission or goal is to help people enjoy their food again by understanding or being a part of the process,” he said.
The Sheards are now working to make it easier for those around the country to learn about the practices they embrace. As trailblazers of what they call the Agrarian Renaissance — the revitalization of traditional agricultural practices — they hope to spread largely forgotten knowledge, ideas and recipes through a series of online video classes.
“We don’t have grandmas anymore to teach us how to make pork rinds,” Lauren Sheard said.
Each Farmstead “webisode” will teach a slaughter or butcher process or the preparation of a dish, and will include a history lesson. The Sheards are currently looking to raise $10,000 by next week to purchase equipment and cover production costs. As of Thuesday, they had raised more than $9,000 through Kickstarter.com, where donors can pledge support and in return receive gifts such as bacon or free classes.
The Sheards hope to raise the remaining funds through an all-day event this Sunday. Billed as “The Butcher’s Benefit,” the event will take place at Island Meadow Farm and will include butchery demonstrations, the pit roasting of two animals, music and a meal prepared by the Seattle restaurant Skillet.
“It will be a fun day of meeting other like-minded people,” Lauren Sheard said. “And the feasting itself is going to be delicious.”
Once the goat was completely gutted and rinsed out, the men buried the few unused parts of the animal in a nearby field. Lauren Sheard, who had been tending to her youngest son, suddenly realized they had finished up.
“Where did the hide go?” she asked, searching around the tree. “Did he take the hide?”
For more information or reservations for The Butcher’s Benefit ($75 suggested donation per plate), contact firstname.lastname@example.org.