And so we have arrived. The last long weekend of summer is upon us, and with it the last great hurrah of official grilling season. The autumnal cookout is a different kind of pleasure, a homebound cousin to tailgating, involving sweaters and potentially whiskey. I think we are going to be doing a lot of it this year, along with snowshoeing and igloo-building and any other cold-weather outdoor activities we can dredge up from our imaginations. But for now it’s still time to flip burgers while drinking ice-cold lager and wearing shorts. Turn up the yacht rock and let’s make the most of it.
On Labor Day, as we enjoy our national cookout, let’s not forget the actual labor behind it. It feels especially important to recognize this year. A series of coronavirus outbreaks in meatpacking plants has contributed to our ongoing reevaluation of who is an essential worker in this country. Nurses and doctors? Of course. Teachers and grocery-store staff? Now on the front lines. The people who stand shoulder to shoulder on plant floors, cutting and packing meat? Turns out.
Americans consume 220-plus pounds of red meat and poultry per capita each year, and in order to produce it, corporations need workers. When Cargill, JBS, Smithfield, Tyson Foods, and others closed down facilities that became transmission hot spots, consumers were reminded of that labor — via news stories alleging exploitive working conditions, as well as the specter of meat shortages and higher prices as the food supply chain was strained.
For hard-working regional farmers, there has been at least one positive result of the pandemic: a surge of interest in buying local. “When COVID started to take hold, you had restaurants closed, institutions closed, people staying home and cooking more,” says Barry Gross, plant manager at Meatworks, a processing facility and retail store in Westport that began operations about two years ago. “Demand for meat started to grow. At the same time, large meatpacking plants that were affected by COVID shut down and slowed production. Off the bat, the first weeks in March, I remember coming in on a Saturday when the retail store was just opening and finding a line around the corner. Demand started to rise for local meat in a big way.”
And so this Labor Day more of us may be grilling steaks, burgers, and sausages from animals raised and processed close to home.
Since March, I’ve been getting meat from Lilac Hedge Farm, located on 350 acres in Holden. I had purchased meat and eggs from them at my local farmers’ market, but it wasn’t until I became a member of their CSA that I started to get a sense of their operations, via owner Ryan MacKay’s regular e-mail updates.
They were welcoming new animals: six calves, seven lambs, and a litter of piglets, with broiler chicks on their way in the mail. (They haven’t had any problem receiving them through the Postal Service, MacKay says.) It was lambing season, and some needed round-the-clock care and feeding. The business was growing and adapting; local farmers were banding together to meet additional demand. They added new freezers and a loading dock. All of the cows were moved out to pasture. MacKay explained the ins and outs of hay production, rotational grazing, silo repair, and meat storage. Would interest in local meat stay strong through Thanksgiving? They were banking on it, doubling turkey production for the year. (Prediction: 2020 is the year of the tiny turkey, as large family gatherings are curtailed.)
Lilac Hedge Farm has seen more than 300 percent growth since last year. “Through COVID, we’ve really seen the support of the local community and people wanting to buy local,” says MacKay. “Navigating through this, it was hectic times. It was a good three months of packing from 8 a.m. to 12 a.m., not knowing when the next day off would be.”
There are now about 25 people on payroll, including farm manager Jimmy Cooper. Everyone is a multitasker. “People out doing deliveries and at farmers’ markets know how to collect eggs or move herds with us,” MacKay says.
At the moment, Lilac Hedge has 150 hogs, 150 cows, and 100 sheep. Chickens come in batches of 400; they’re the easiest to raise, with the quickest turnaround time. Broiler chickens are ready in eight weeks, while hogs take six months and lambs seven to nine. Beef takes around two years.
Processing is the farm’s biggest challenge, MacKay says. There are only three federally inspected plants for red meat in Massachusetts, and no USDA poultry kill floors. Lilac Hedge can’t use state-certified facilities because they sell across state lines, so they have to drive four hours to Maine to get their birds processed.
This has long been an issue for local meat producers. It’s one of the reasons Meatworks was founded, a process that took seven or eight years, Gross says. “What we were looking for, for the local livestock producers, was to have a facility you could bring your animals to and have everything done under one roof: harvesting, aging, cutting and wrapping, grinding, smoked products like bacons and hams,” he says. They were entering their slow season when COVID struck and producers started ramping up. Now there is no slow season.
“It filled up within a couple of weeks. Fall is always the busy season. It was already relatively booked out. Bookings for 2020 are completely filled, and we’re booking into 2021. … Spring is full and fall is full, and the gap is filling in the middle.”
As we put those last steaks, burgers, and sausages on the grill, producers like MacKay are looking ahead to slower-cooking cuts. For consumers, the meat we want simply seems to appear when we want it. But behind that is unseen work, with even the most basic decisions — how much of the animal to grind for burgers or sausage, when to transition from cutting steaks to roasts and stew meat — reflecting hours of experimentation and adjustment.
“It’s taken me probably five years to figure out actually handling the seasonality of cuts people are looking for,” MacKay says. One thing’s for sure. “Labor Day is really the last time for grilling.”