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My Butcher

Taylors Falls, Minn. — Tucked in the hills above a St. Croix River town, Cherry Hill Meat Processing can only be found with good directions. But the little butcher shop on Maple Street is hardly a well-kept secret. Cars arrive steadily on a Friday afternoon, leaving with trunks full of white-wrapped steaks, ground beef, chops and roasts.

Jeff Purch, who is buying the custom-processing plant from his uncle, hurriedly wraps a few more T-bones before leaving for a Wisconsin fishing trip. “This place is a little gold mine,” profitable enough to pay for a boat and a few other toys. “It’s easier when you have a good income coming in,” says Purch, 31, who has cut meat since he was 14.

Purch slaughters, cuts, wraps and freezes beef, pork, lamb and wild game. And the service comes with a broad grin and personal attention. “He does good work, never had a complaint,” says customer Mike Tubbs. “He always does what I tell him.”

Small advantage

Cherry Hill is one of Minnesota’s 380 meat-processing plants. “About 90 percent of them are small, with 10 or employees or less,” says Dennis Timmerman, AURI project director. “When I talk to these small meat processors, most are so busy that they’re scheduled from six weeks to two months out — because we have a lot of people who want to identify the source of their food.”

“Small processors bring something that large processors can’t — service and product identity,” Timmerman says. “They’re a growing sector.”

Why are small meat shops thriving in an era of franchises, mergers and big-box stores? “Buying bulk is cheaper,” Purch says of buying an animal direct from a farmer and having it processed. Compared to store cuts, “individual packages cost so much less.”

Cherry Hill is a state-inspected plant — equivalent to federally-inspected but it can’t ship outstate. It does not sell retail, although many small plants do.

Food safety concerns are increasing the popularity of local butchers, says Ed Lorentz, head of the Minnesota Association of Meat Processors. “You never hear of a local processor having a problem with e.coli — it’s always from a bigger plant.

“All but one or two of our (association’s) 140 members have 10 or fewer employees. … And I’d say the majority are happy with business.”

Beef verses pork

Beef processing is doing especially well, but “(exclusive) pork plants are on the decline,” Lorentz says. “Because of the big producers, there are not many small farmers anymore.” Lorentz explains that most hogs are now owned by large corporations but raised by farmers under contract.

“Farmer Jones who use to have a half-dozen or 10 sows … might be feeding and raising for somebody else. They don’t actually own the animals,” so they don’t have any pork to sell directly to customers, he says.

“There are more small farmers who might raise a few beef. Even if they raise a lot of beef, I’m not aware of any contract feeders like hogs.”

Purch, on the other hand, is seeing increased demand for both beef and pork because of a growth in hobby farms just outside the metro area’s periphery. “People from the cities moving out here all want a couple cows, some pigs to raise.”

The Cherry Hill climb

Purch’s uncle John Campbell bought Cherry Hill Meat Processing, named after the neighborhood, 27 years ago. “When they started, they struggled,” but slowly built a loyal customer base, says Purch. This fall, his fiancé will join him in a business he could carry to the next generation.

Cherry Hill has four regular employees and processes 12 to13 cattle per week and 10 to 30 hogs. In the fall, the plant brings in “Mom, uncles, brothers, sisters-in-law, nephews,” to help process 400 to 600 deer during hunting season. They also wrap elk, bear, buffalo, caribou, antelope, moose and, occasionally, ostrich.

Travel for organic

Meat shops close to the metro have an advantage. “But people are not afraid to travel,” Lorentz says. “They make a trip into the country an outing.”

“Organic is a big selling point,” Purch says. Many customers want animals raised on organic grains and grass without antibiotics or growth hormones. However, Purch says he doesn’t know any cattle farmers in the area who inject hormones.

“I use to laugh at organic beef — it’s a small niche market, but it amounts to quite a bit of business,” Lorentz says. His two sons run Lorentz Meats in Cannon Falls, which “is butchering close to 20 head of organic beef per week. They have big hopes on that.”

Custom pricing

Direct-buy consumers save money — as much as half what a store charges. But for the novice, pricing and cuts for all or part of a carcass can be confusing.

Farmers sell by hanging weight — a skinned but untrimmed carcass. Prices vary on how the animal was raised (organic and grass-fed will be more expensive). Some customers pick out their own animals; others ask the plant to contact the farmer. Cherry Hill’s slaughter fee is $50, divided between buyers who want halves or quarters.

Processing charges vary by customer preference; the more value-added processing, the higher the price.

Cherry Hill charges 34 cents per pound for processing most animals, and 50 cents for a split-side quarter beef (half front, half hind). Grinding adds another 18 cents. Customers choose the size and thickness of cuts.

Here’s a hypothetical on what a customer might expect to pay:

A typical quarter beef is 200 pounds hanging weight, so if a farmer charges $1.50 per pound, the customer pays $300. About 30 percent is trim, resulting in 140 pounds that cost 50 cents per pound to process (not including sausages, patties or other specialty processing) or $70. If 35 pounds (25 percent) is ground for burgers, that adds about $6. The total cost including slaughter would be $389 — or $2.78 per pound — for everything from ground beef to tenderloins.

Cherry Hill charges extra to make summer sausage, patties, ring bologna and pepper sticks. Smoked hams and bacon or other specialty products must be contracted out.

Sausage savvy

Some small shops like Lorentz Meats are giving more attention to value-added products. “Flavored sausage is a growth area,” Lorentz says. “It use to be you could buy fresh or smoked brats. Now there are all these different flavors — apple, cherry, even rutabaga.”

But plants with retail stores are facing a state sales tax on sausage snacks that applies only to the shop’s own products. “If you make jerky, beef sticks or anything that can be eaten in the car on the way home, you have to charge a sales tax on it. But if you sell a stick of Hormel, you don’t charge a tax.”

The tax was passed in 2002, but meat shops were given a three-year exemption so it will go into effect on January 1, 2006. The meat processors association has been lobbying for permanent exemption, which passed the Minnesota House this session; a Senate measure extends the exemption two years. As of press time, the difference had not been resolved in the omnibus tax bill, which is tied up in a special session.

Irreplaceable shops

Lorentz said he doesn’t see the little butcher shop meeting the same fate as so many other small businesses that have closed — like the local hardware store or shoe shop. “It use to be when a (meat shop) guy would retire or quit, he would just close the business. Now these places are selling.”

Nothing can replace the service, Lorentz says. “People call it ‘my butcher’ — it’s a personal thing.”