It’s one of the few aspects of agriculture that just might be recession proof.
“People got to eat,” said Jake Collins of Country Pride Meats in Clinton. “If the economy’s not doing good, people still eat it. It really doesn’t fluctuate much.”
In an industry fraught with low commodity prices and farm closures, meat processing mostly has been insulated from such hardships.
Large meat processors might struggle with changes in import and export markets.
But local butchers such as Country Pride are preparing meat according to customer specifications. The finished cuts are sold at retail counters or transported to nearby restaurants or grocers.
Those prices are less prone to volatility and, unlike crops and dairy products, aren’t dictated by faraway markets.
Where butchers do feel the pinch is competing with ubiquitous meat brands sold in national grocery chains.
“Competition is pretty hard with all that because you can’t compete (with) what they’re selling and what we have to have for our product,” said Andy Sorg of Sorg’s Quality Meats and Sausages outside Darien. “All we’re doing is looking for selling quality meat.”
So local butchers must focus carefully on the process of meat processing—how the sausage is made, if you will—as a way to distinguish themselves from other meat brands. The Gazette met with three area shops to learn more about how an animal becomes a steak.
Sorg’s, N4290 Highway 14, Darien, originally began as a dairy farm. The family had long milked cows but decided to switch to beef in the late 1950s.
The family also raised hogs and chickens, selling eggs at a roadside stand. When people stopped for eggs, they saw cattle in the background and wondered if the family would ever consider butchering its own beef, said Barb Sorg, Andy’s wife.
Barb, Andy and Andy’s brother Johnny are the oldest regular employees at the business. Barb estimates that 15 family members work full- or part-time, plus other friends who have connections to the family.
The Sorgs no longer raise their own beef, buying mature cattle from southern Wisconsin or 700-pound calves from the Upper Midwest. The calves are fattened to 1,100 pounds before being slaughtered, Johnny said.
The shop on Highway 14 has expanded multiple times since it opened about 60 years ago. The original storefront is now a packaging center, and the imprint of the first retail counter is still etched on the floor.
That room is tiny in comparison to the current retail area, which contains a well stocked display case and coolers that line the walls. Now the family produces about 60 varieties of bratwurst alone, Andy said.
Large butchering and storage areas are necessary to make dozens of different brats, not to mention the family’s steaks, pork chops and smoked hams.
After an animal is slaughtered and hung to bleed out, a machine pulls the hide off the carcass. Workers then remove the animal’s internal organs, clean the body and put it into the first of two coolers. This first cooler chills the animal quickly before it moves into another cooler, Barb said.
Depending on the animal, a carcass will spend about a week or two inside the cooler to age. Aging “settles” the meat and creates a better product, Andy said.
Then the animal is cut to order and crafted into whatever carnivorous offering it’s destined to become. Most revenue still comes from the retail storefront, which relies heavily on repeat customers.
“When we had the little store, we used to have a cheese slicer. The kids would stand there and we’d give them a little slice of cheese and sausage,” Barb said. “They’re coming in now, they’re married with kids, and they go, ‘I remember when you gave me a hot dog.’
“They kind of look at me and go, ‘You’re still here?’”
Johnstown Meat Co.
Sergio Rios was working in Chicago when a friend who knew the former owners of Johnstown Meat asked him to join the staff. Leaving one of the country’s biggest cities to work in an unincorporated hamlet required some adjustment, he said.
But in Johnstown, the pace is less hectic. Life is more laid back, and he never has to worry about making it to work on time from his home in Harvard, Illinois, he said.
And he can focus on the art of cutting meat.
For Rios, who has since taken over the small meat shop at 10249 E. County A, Janesville, butchering is as much art as the sketching classes he takes in Harvard.
“It is an art. Art is about different styles,” he said. “You take a painting. Nobody is going to paint the same thing. If you break down a beef, nobody’s going to cut a beef the same way.”
Rios takes pride in his work. Cutting beef is his favorite part of the job. Each steak must be carefully cut and trimmed before it’s ready for a customer, he said.
During his art classes, Rios focuses mostly on black-and-white drawing or colored pencil sketches. He is trying to learn oil painting now, and some friends have suggested he do tattoos.
He’s wary of working with permanent ink on a person’s body. He prefers an animal canvass instead.
“I’m not going to give a steak I just cut fresh off the saw. No. I got to trim it. I got to clean it for you,” Rios said. “That way, when they put it on their pan or the grill, they go, ‘Oh this looks nice.’ And if they know how to cook it, it even tastes better.”
Country Pride Meats
Country Pride, 109 Church St., Clinton, started its butcher shop about 10 years ago to supplement income from its beef farm, which continues to operate. The farm isn’t too big, so the store helped create enough business to support the family’s two sons, Jake and Jon, said their mother, Kathy Collins.
There was plenty of trial and error at the beginning, but the family received feedback from the state and other nearby butchers to help them learn the craft, she said.
Certain times of year dictate different focuses for the small business. As the weather gets warm, customers want grill-ready meat. In the fall, Country Pride gets busy with slaughtering animals that had recently been shown in county fairs, Kathy said.
When someone brings in an animal for slaughter, a team of butchers will do one order at a time. That way, customers will receive meat from their own animals, Jake said.
Customers can specify different cuts of meat when they submit an order at the front counter. Although the dairy and crop markets have dropped into a furrow, people’s meat buying habits don’t change much, he said.
If retail meat prices are high, people might choose burgers over steak. But they’re still eating meat, he said.
Country Pride sometimes relies on other farms to help provide all the meat it needs for its retail store. But its own animals take priority, giving the family an extra level of insurance as other farms struggle to make ends meet.
“That’s a nice thing about having our own farm,” Jake said. “We can guarantee a market for our animals.”