Wisconsin vs. meat (part two): The end of Black Earth Meats



Bartlett Durand at Black Earth Meats

Yesterday's story was about a Wisconsin state agency's alleged unfair treatment of artisanal meat producer Bolzano Artisan Meats. The story of Black Earth Meats isn't about that kind of internecine agency warfare. It's about regular people and competing visions of the kind of town they want to live in. And whether Wisconsin agriculture can survive when people decide they don't want to live face to face with the reality behind the food they eat.

Bartlett Durand is the kind of guy who, when he talks about agriculture, often sounds like he's about to drift off into some Buddhist realm. (I made a movie about that and in the process gave him his nickname: the Zen Butcher.) Ask the former vegetarian why he wanted to own a butcher shop and he'll talk about "bringing reverence back to the table." But in the end his vision was as down to earth as a Main Street butcher shop and meat processing plant, which is to say, it's rooted in a muddy, bloody business that's as real as it gets.

Durand's vision is a whole ecosystem for small-scale local food production, centered around a regional meat processing plant and ringed by retail stores; he's already opened one, the Conscious Carnivore, in Madison. "You need a central processing plant which is scale-appropriate," he explains. "The size of Black Earth's could have supported ten of these retail stores, plus having a certain amount of wholesale business on the side." (He was already selling to Publican Quality Meats in Chicago, among others.) With meat as the central product of this system, it's then ready to provide a sales channel for other farm products—dairy, vegetables, and so on—creating an entire regional marketplace for local food production and consumption.

A sign on the exterior of Black Earth Meats

Durand bought a 60-year-old processing plant and butcher shop on the main street in Black Earth, Wisconsin, a small community about 20 miles west of Madison, to put the idea to the test in the real world. Initially his expansion plans for Black Earth Meats involved taking over an abandoned feed mill on the main drag, Mills Street. But objections from neighbors scuttled that plan, so he instead looked to how to expand capacity within the existing Black Earth Meats facility. "We just kept figuring out efficiencies in it," he says. "We got into more volume wholesale where you could cut it the same way, package it the same way, and move it through faster."

So having a meat processor on the main drag in town may not be the prettiest thing imaginable, but Black Earth Meats was a major employer. So those employees and their families might've been a good political constituency to keep it going.

But something happened to the demographics of Black Earth in the meantime. As Madison had expanded in its direction, it had become a bedroom community for Wisconsin's capitol.

"The village board is primarily made up of people who don't work in town," Durand says. "And the people who work in town, often don't live in town. So you have this weird clash where the businesses in the town aren't considered part of the town by the people on the board."

And without an economic stake of their own in the viability of the town, Durand says, people who worked in Madison and slept in Black Earth were less likely to be concerned about the 30 rural residents Black Earth employed. So when board members started hearing complaints from what Durand, at least, considers a very small number of Black Earth Meats' neighbors, they listened.

Durand recalls: "The neighbors got really motivated—and really, there are three primary people, and then they have a few relatives or friends who would jump on. They decided they would call everyone they could think of to call. The Department of Natural Resources got something like 30 calls in one day, that there's horrible stuff going on. So they came rushing down and they were like . . . 'Uh, there's no problem.' And they see that we're federally inspected and we're following the law, and we get a nice letter. And then there's another round of calls, and a state senator gets a round of calls, and they're calling the village board because [at the time] there was no administrator."

"So I think what was happening was that they hit this little echo chamber where all of them are receiving calls from the same people, but then they think there's this huge cacophony going on," Durand says. "I kept trying to come to board meetings and trying to say here's things I've done, here's things I've addressed, and then the neighbors would come and say the exact same things they'd said the year before, and not acknowledging that anything had changed. Because what they told me, and they told me this directly to my face and later in a board meeting, was that there was not one thing I could do that would mitigate what they saw as a fundamentally inappropriate business in their neighborhood. Meaning, slaughter could not exist in their village."

Inside Black Earth Meats in 2011

With a scoff Durand says, "They told me they didn't have any problem with the rest of the business—with retail. But slaughter is the business! They complained about trucks. But if we were just wholesale, there'd be more trucks coming through. They complained about people working early morning or late, that they should work in the day. Well, then there'd be more traffic coming through."

Durand says, "We played the game and I found a grant" to hire economic redevelopment consultants, who came up with four possible scenarios in which the town would help move the slaughter off the main street, including buying it out for a grocery, buying the homes of the complainers, and opening a new facility, including a butcher training center, closer to the highway. Village officials "just flatly rejected the whole thing. And when they rejected it the second time under the same grounds, they looked right at me and said, 'We're authorizing our attorneys to pursue all legal action against you.'"

A few days later, in June of this year, Durand received a letter from the village informing him that, as he paraphrases it, "Even though we know you're grandfathered in, we believe you've gotten to a size and scale that's incompatible with the town, and you have 120 days to come up with a plan to get out of town."

He didn't have 120 days. In fact, he was in the middle of negotiating a loan to open a second Conscious Carnivore location, and as soon as his bank heard that he would be forced out of operation within 120 days, they backed out of any further lending and extended him six months to settle his affairs and, presumably, liquidate the business. The Village of Black Earth had effectively put their 60-year-old slaughterhouse out of business with a letter.

They also bought themselves a lawsuit. "You can't say, You have the proper zoning, you're grandfathered in, but, eh, we don't like you any more," he said. "That's fundamentally illegal." They had, of course, not only made it impossible for Black Earth Meats to continue as a slaughterhouse, but as he says, "No one in their right mind would buy the property for anything when the same neighbors are there, ready to get grumpy about any business." But, even so, village officials were surprised when Durand turned around and sued the Village for everything he had put into the now marked property—$5.3 million. Which amounts to about $4,000 per man, woman, and child in the village.

Durand being who he is, he segues straight from talking about how he feels screwed over to the 30,000-foot topic of small town governance. "Now everybody's mad at the board, they're mad at the neighbors, but nobody wants to run for the board. They're all willing to vote those guys out, but no one will step up to run for the board. One of the fundamental problems, I'm a big believer in small-D democracy, but people need to be engaged, be informed and voting and running. There's no training for these guys, they don't have formal counsel sitting at the board meetings advising them as a municipal attorney, they went out and hired a private attorney. Well, who's actually telling you that what you can do is legal?" (Durand can't run; he's a resident of Middleton, an actual Madison suburb.)

Durand has been the only one talking about this whole business in the press for six months, and the only comment from the village was a message on their website (now removed), but let's try to see the other side for a moment anyway. In my video, Durand talks about how one time a steer jumped the fence at Black Earth Meats and went running down Mills Street until someone shot it with a pistol. I live near Paulina Meat Market, and if that happened there (unlikely in reality, given that their meat is quite dead) I'd be a little freaked out about it. Why should people living in quaint Black Earth, with its friendly cafe and bakery, and its charming orange train station, and one of the best shoe stores in the midwest, have to tolerate the dark and scary side of meat production like that? Or the truck that dropped entrails in the street or the squeals from the processing plant?

The answer is that Black Earth isn't a farmland amusement park with animatronic farmers in overalls. It's not a lifestyle anyone should be able to buy just because they want to live somewhere quainter than a new subdivision in Madison, or because they've retired and are just noticing a slaughterhouse that's been there for decades. It's the town part of a real, working rural community.

At the slaughter gate

Wisconsin recently passed a "right to farm" law, as many states have, and Durand believes it's mainly been for the benefit of Big Ag facing this kind of situation: "Someone would have the dairy, and then they'd put in the CAFO [confined animal feeding operation], and the neighbors would say, 'Hey, that's not Grandpa's farm, that's a big CAFO,' and they'd sue 'em for a nuisance." He was skeptical whether a small slaughter operation like his would actually get the benefit of the law, but in October Dane County circuit judge William Hanrahan ruled that Black Earth Meats had been protected by the act, throwing out his nuisance citations and caustically comparing the village's complaints to a militant atheist complaining about church bells.

Durand and some of his partners have found another place in another community, more industrial by nature, to begin the process of rebuilding Black Earth Meats. But he has to quickly raise a quarter of a million dollars to fund moving as much of Black Earth Meats' equipment as they can; he has a Kickstarter for that purpose. They may be able to re-create the Black Earth Meats vision, but there's still the problem of maintaining a rural economy in a state where an increasing number of people are unwilling to tolerate the hard facts of our food system.

"Every Main Street had a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick maker—your light, your food, and your meat," Durand says. "It was a fundamental part of life. And I hate it that we're trying to hide this out there."

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