Custom butchers fill a much-needed niche

  • Adam Stacy runs Beechwood Butchery in Antrim. Staff Photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • A side of beef hangs at Beechwood Butchery in Antrim. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • Cameron Holt of Holt Brothers Butcher Shop in Greenfield cuts pieces of lamb. April 27, 2021. Staff Photo by Abbe Hamilton—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 5/12/2021 2:22:35 PM

Locally raised meat is a hot commodity among the conscientious meat eater set, but for small-scale producers, particularly those who might only raise a couple animals at a time, it’s hard to schedule an appointment to slaughter and process the animals.

Those are the people that local custom butchers Adam Stacy and Cameron Holt are here to help. The two run shops in Antrim and Greenfield, respectively, and slaughter and process game and livestock animals for their customers.

“A hundred years ago, there was a corner shop like this every five, 10 miles,” Holt said. “Everyone raised their own animals.”

Currently, there are four USDA-inspected slaughterhouses in the state.

“My niche is ... making sure the local guy can get his animal processed,” Stacy said.

Custom butchers are key for the small-scale meat producer when some larger USDA-inspected slaughterhouses are booking two years out, he said. “How does anybody compete with that?” he asked, if they can’t plan that far in advance. Furthermore, there’s only so much time to process a game animal after it’s been shot, Stacy said, and there are many hunters who want good cuts of meat but don’t necessarily have the ability or desire to do it themselves. For as limited as the options are for slaughtering livestock locally, there are even fewer options for game processing, he said.

Custom butchers are regulated differently from USDA-certified meat processors. The important distinction is that meat processed by a custom butcher must be consumed by the person who owned the live animal (or the hunter, for game). The owner can eat the meat, share it with their family and non-paying guests, but they can’t resell it, Holt explained. By contrast, meat processed at USDA-inspected facilities may be resold at farmer’s markets or stores. Some of Holt’s customers will go in on a locally raised cow together and purchase it live from the farmer, then bring it to Holt for processing, he said.

At a custom butcher, only one or two people might be involved in converting a live animal to grill-ready cuts of meat, Holt said. “The meat never left town,” in some cases, he said. A custom butcher who can process, say, a whole side of beef is an increasingly rare skill, compared to assembly-line meat processing that proliferates in other parts of the country, Stacy and Holt said. “It’s a trade, and it’s a talent,” Stacy said, and it can be hard to find someone able and willing to teach it.

Both Stacy and Holt learned from Darrell Fisk, a custom butcher in Wilton who has since retired. Holt first learned about skinning and processing deer from Fisk at 12, when he shot his first deer with a bow. He’d go to Fisk’s shop after school to skin and clean animals through high school, eventually learning to cut meat and process different kinds of livestock. At 26, Holt has a decade of experience and has been operating his own shop, Holt Brothers Butcher Shop, for a year now. He processes deer, bear, beef, goat, sheep, and pig, and said he enjoys the hands-on work and the “instant gratification” that comes with handing over a finished product to a happy customer.

Stacy came to custom butchering after 10 years in a corporate job with Stop and Shop, where he specialized in retail meat sales. He started working with Fisk after the grocery chain left the state in 2013.

“Leaving Stop and Shop opened my eyes to more of a sustainable livelihood,” Stacy said. He now raises his own pigs, gardens, and harvests maple syrup. “It made me take a harder look at where my food came from,” he said. Stacy participated in 4H as a kid but never hunted, he said. There are benefits to raising your own animals to eat, and “there’s no more organic food than a deer that lived in the woods its whole life,” he said. “The biggest thing is knowing where your food is coming from,” Stacy said. “It’s nothing against big box stores ... but there is a whole other side to it that you never see.”

Stacy is now in his third year of running Beechwood Butchery from a garage-sized building next to his home in Antrim, where he processes deer, bear, moose, and livestock animals for home consumption, with help from his fiancée, Amy King. The shop houses equipment for meat cutting, as well as a smoker for hams and bacon, a dehydrator for jerky, a sausage stuffer, and a vacuum sealer. During a visit in April, a quartered cow hung in the cooler, aging before undergoing further processing. The yellow color of its fat indicated a grass-fed diet, Stacy said. Business is booming: he had to turn down multiple requests this year after he’d already reached capacity, something he didn’t think would happen after just a couple years in business.

Beechwood’s small size and flexibility allows Stacy to accommodate smaller operators, like a family that wants to fill their freezer with a single pig or cow, he said. He keeps spots open for unplanned appointments, like a cow that had to be euthanized after an accident, something that a larger operation could never accommodate, he said. Hunting season, September through January, remains his busiest time of year.

Stacy didn’t necessarily plan for his career to revolve around meat, but seems to keep coming back anyway. “I just like doing it,” he said. “It’s therapeutic to be cutting,” he said. “It’s almost an art form,” to cut steaks, varying the thickness, fat, or bone in versus bone out depending on customer preference, he said.

For Holt, his work is a tribute to the high level of care and love that his customers put into raising their animals. People raise their own animals and take them to a custom butcher because they want healthy, fresh meat, and want to know who fed, watered, and killed it, he said. “It’s about the animal’s whole life,” Holt said. Holt takes pride in providing a clean, calm, unhurried environment for his customers to part with their animals. His role, as he sees it, is to retain the same high quality care during the animal’s slaughter and processing. “You can ruin it by rushing the process,” he said.

Holt said he likes the idea that butchers like he and Stacy are contributing to a more sustainable food system. “One thing I’ve learned while doing this is to be less wasteful,” he said. “These are real animals, real food. It doesn’t grow in the store,” he said. Custom butchers are supportive of one another, Stacy said. The local butcher community shared tips on where to find medical gloves when there were shortages earlier in the pandemic, and refer business to one another if they’re over capacity, he said.

Flexibility is central to Stacy’s vision for the business. Currently, he can produce any cuts a customer might want, as well as sausage, jerky, bacon, and ham.

“Even though we’re butchering up deer now, maybe five years down the road we’re making strictly sausage,” he mused. “There’s no way to really tell where we’ll land.” In the future, Stacy said he’d like to have a USDA-certified facility, and maybe process on a larger scale, but he said that he’s content to run a small-scale shop for now, largely because it serves local families and small-scale producers. “It’s why I started in the first place,” he said.


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