Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Meat of the Matter: Transitioning a Family Business


This series looks at how one small processor, Marks Meats in Canby, is transitioning from the founding owner-operators to a new generation of ownership under the name Revel Meat Company. This post was developed in collaboration with Old Salt Marketplace, a supporter of Good Stuff NW.

Floyd Marks opened Marks Meats on South Mulino Road in Canby, Oregon, in 1963. His daughter, Kris, who was a very young child at the time, still remembers the opening party in the brand new slaughterhouse. The band was set up on a platform over the drain where the animals were hung to bleed out, with the dance floor in the middle of the room. Originally solely a slaughterhouse, Floyd designed the compact footprint of the facility to maximize efficiency and, as the business expanded, to accommodate an on-site processing facility to make sausages, bacon and smoked meats.

Floyd and Martha Marks (c. 1975).

In the mid-1970s, when their mother decided it was time to retire from the business, Kris and her sister Judy were asked to step in, Judy working with the animals on the kill floor and Kris managing the new processing side. By this time Kris had married her husband, Joe Akin, and they were the parents of two young children. As a teenager, Joe had applied for a job at the plant and, like Jimmy Serlin would many years later, he found his calling working there.

When their father was ready to retire, the business was turned over to Judy and Kris. When I expressed surprise that a slaughterhouse might be run by two young women, she reminded me that in many old farm families it was not unusual for the women to do the butchering.

* * *

Dealing with the animals that you raise
and the vegetables that you raise and
processing them all the way through,
it wasn't something foreign to us.

* * *

"If you grew up on a farm, you also did that as part of it," she said. "Dealing with the animals that you raise and the vegetables that you raise and processing them all the way through, it wasn't something that was foreign to us."

Judy eventually left the business, and Joe took over running the kill floor while Kris worked on the processing side and took care of the immense amount of record-keeping required for the facility's Federal Grant of Inspection from the USDA. The grant allowed the business to slaughter and butcher animals, and involved a difficult and costly approval process, one that guarantees that procedures are in place to ensure that the meat it sells is safe and inspected before, during and after slaughter.

Processing room at Marks Meats (c. 1975).

Around ten years ago it became difficult for Kris and Joe to find trained, competent help in the slaughterhouse, so Kris stepped onto the floor to work alongside her husband. While he did the stunning—essentially rendering the animals brain-dead—at the height of their production they managed a schedule that rotated through 30 beef in a day, and other days processed 24 to 30 pigs or 75 or 80 lambs, a crushing amount of output for a small facility.

Approaching retirement age, they both knew that this kind of heavy production schedule was unsustainable, so Kris began to put the word out that Marks was looking for a buyer. An attractive prospect, the business drew several inquiries because of its up-to-date plant and that all-important grant of inspection, not to mention its accessibility to both area farms and a Portland customer base. But none had quite the right combination of factors required for a transition of ownership that would take several years to complete.

Enter Jimmy and the young crew of food revolutionaries from Let Um Eat who had bought a farm down the road and, driving by one day, saw a sign outside advertising a sale on steaks.

The young people were just customers at first, but the sudden departure of an employee left Kris short-handed, so she asked if they knew of anyone who might be be interested in helping out.

"Then Jimmy showed up because he was interested in learning what we did," Kris said, though it was obvious from the get-go that he had no idea what an immensely physical job it was. "It’s like working out at the gym for eight to ten hours. He was on the kill floor, doing skinning and pushing and pulling and different movements that you don’t normally do."

For Jimmy’s part, he said, ”I didn’t realize how excited I was about it till I started.” When his own father passed away a few weeks into his stint at Marks, a particularly heartfelt conversation with Kris and Joe about her father and the beginnings of Marks cemented his decision. "It became clear that it was something I’d wanted to do for awhile [but] I never really thought about it," he said. "Being there, I think it keeps me in line with with what my old man did."

* * *

We’d been doing this for a long time and
physically we needed to have younger people do it
in order to keep the business running.

* * *

Kris remembers that fairly soon after he started, Jimmy said he was looking for something more permanent than simply being an employee.

"He wanted to know more about the business and possibly join us in some capacity," she said. "And we were wanting to get out. We’d been doing this for a long time and physically we needed to have younger people do it in order to keep the business running."

The key phrase Jimmy got from his conversation with Kris? "If you’re interested, let’s talk."

Marks Meats (c. 1975).

At that point, as far as he was concerned, the decision was made. "How can we can we all talk about Let Um Eat and the collective and not take the opportunity to take over one of the most crucial pieces to the small farm and sustainable food movement?" he remembers thinking.

The other members of the collective, however, were not on board with making that kind of long-term commitment. Or as Jimmy said, "They were like, haha, we have a thousand other things going on."

Knowing he couldn't do it alone, however, meant that he needed to find partners who could bring additional skill sets to the table. He approached Ben Meyer, who was already working with local ranchers and farmers on a whole animal program for his Portland restaurants Old Salt Marketplace and Grain & Gristle. Bringing butchery, merchandising, retailing and processing expertise, Meyer was the perfect fit. To complete the team, Meyer brought in cattle rancher Ryan Ramage of Ramage Farm in Oregon City.

Meyer had already identified that it was critical to keep Oregon's surviving small processors alive, as well as the need to add more. Crucial to this was figuring out the stumbling blocks faced by existing processors, which had been steadily closing since the '70s. "Every one we lose is another opportunity for a small rancher to process," he said. So when Jimmy presented him with the opportunity to buy Marks, he recalled, "I immediately said we need to at least talk about it."

* * *

[Handling the physical aspect of the work] is the
most important part, because if they can’t do that,
the rest of the business isn’t going to work.

* * *

Meyer began working alongside Jimmy on the kill floor soon after that, with Kris teaching them the arcane, detailed and exhausting work that goes into processing in a USDA facility. Also involved were endless conversations about how to transition to new owners from a second generation, family-owned and run business.

Marks Meats (c. 1975).

Kris said that the last eight to ten months have been spent seeing if Ben and Jimmy could learn how to handle the work.

"It’s the most important part, because if they can’t do that, the rest of the business isn’t going to work," she said, emphasizing that the learning curve is a steep one. "You need to get up from kindergarten to college really fast. If you’re going into this business from an apprenticeship level up to a journeyman, it can take up to ten years. So doing it in this [short] length of time, it’s difficult."

Other complicating factors are that Marks is a corporation, with a USDA grant of inspection involved. Being the shrewd businesswoman she is, the key to a successful transition, Kris said, is that "you’ve got to make it work for a business, because you can’t make it work for everybody if it doesn’t make business sense."

When I asked what the hardest part of the process has been for Kris personally, she paused. "Probably the letting go and letting somebody else do something for me," she said. In the past, she said, "If it didn’t get done, I had to do it and make sure it got done."

Read the first post in the series, Rejuvenating Local Processing. Check back soon for the last post in the series, focusing on the future of small processors with an interview with Revel Meat co-owner Ben Meyer.

Photos courtesy Kris Akin.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Rhubarb and Carrot Olive Oil Cake


Like contributor Jim Dixon of Real Good Food, I grew up eating stewed rhubarb in the spring, and was even known to gnaw on a raw stalk once in awhile. In adulthood, chewing on the raw product has gone by the wayside, but having as much as I can is still a priority at this time of the year.

Every year when I see the first rhubarb at the farmers market I'm reminded again that I didn't plant some in my own garden. The one year I did remember, I was too late; I planted the crown in the fall and never saw it again (early spring is the time…I could've looked it up). Rhubarb is my favorite pie filling, and I grew up eating bowls of it simply stewed with sugar. These days I mostly roast it with olive oil, usually with either honey or cane syrup.

But I'm occasionally inspired to do more. After making Nigella Lawson's Venetian carrot cake and liking the unusual, not-too-sweet and very Italian dessert, I thought it would be a good vehicle for eating more rhubarb.

Grate a medium-sized carrot and put the results on a paper towel to soak up some of the liquid. Cut 6 to 7 stalks of rhubarb into half inch pieces (about 2 cups or so). I mixed together a half cup each of cane syrup and extra virgin olive oil (sorry Nigella, but if you don't use extra virgin olive oil you might as well use plain vegetable oil), then added 3 eggs, a teaspoon of vanilla, a shot of bourbon, and the zest and juice from a smallish lemon.

I stirred in about 2 cups of almond flour and added the grated carrot and sliced rhubarb. Parchment paper got cut into a circle to fit a 7-inch cast iron skillet (a cake pan or pie tin would be fine), and I drizzled a little more extra virgin over it to grease the pan. I poured in the thick batter, added a generous sprinkle of blanched, slivered almonds to the top, and baked it at 350° F for about 45 minutes. Nigella calls for a topping of mascarpone with powdered sugar and rum (or bourbon, for my version), but I like a little whipped cream with cane syrup and whiskey.

Rhubarb is also awesome in other desserts, made into syrup or mixed in a cocktail…check out these other fantastic rhubarb recipes!

Monday, May 08, 2017

"Watch Anchovies Fly!"



"Looks so good and smells even better!"

This could have been uttered at many moments during my marriage, and this video, courtesy my friend Holly Heyser, of her mate, Hank Shaw, a prolific author, blogger, hunter, forager and cook, is a testament to the patience (and sense of humor) it takes to live with a cook. Thanks, Holly!

More Hanksperiments.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Meat of the Matter: Rejuvenating Local Processing


This series looks at how one small processor, Marks Meats in Canby, is transitioning from the founding owner-operators to a new generation of ownership under the name Revel Meat Company. This post was developed in collaboration with Old Salt Marketplace, a supporter of Good Stuff NW.

The first time in his life that Jimmy Serlin walked onto a kill floor was just about a year ago. It was lamb day at Mark’s Meats in Canby, and 60 sheep were scheduled for slaughter and processing. Intense, smelly, dangerous work, with trolleys weighing 15 pounds hanging 20 feet over his head, it could have been disastrous.

Instead, the words he used to describe it were more like those of someone falling in love.

“I was just instantly enamored,” he said, and remembered thinking, “This is what I want to do.”

Left to right: Ben Meyer, Ryan Ramage and Jimmy Serlin of Revel Meats.

That feeling didn’t diminish even though he recalls going home at the end of the week so tired and sore he walked in the house and flopped down on his bed. When his roommate came in and asked him how it had gone, he said, “I can’t lift my arms off the bed.”

It’s tempting to paint the picture as one of the prodigal son finding his calling, since his father had owned a wholesale meat packing business in Manhattan supplying area restaurants. Young Jimmy often skipped school to go to work with his dad, helping load the trucks for tips, but he found himself more drawn to the restaurants those trucks were heading to.

Revel Meat Co. USDA stamp.

So, starting as a dishwasher at 13, he began cooking on the line soon after, eventually ending up at culinary school where he became fascinated with butchery. Stints in far-flung restaurants in New York, Vermont, Colorado and California, many with his culinary school buddy Karl Holl, cemented those nascent skills. Working for well-known restaurateur Staffan Terje at Perbacco in San Francisco, a high-rolling customer named Frank offered the pair a chance to come to Oregon and work on a start-up producing naturally raised geese for foie gras.

That, of course, went the way of many high-concept start-ups, leaving Karl and Jimmy and a few friends they’d moved with to Oregon sitting on a farm they’d leased near Salem and needing to pay the rent. But being a flexible and talented group, they decided to start a pop-up restaurant and catering business called Let Um Eat, with the lofty goal of “uniting the seeders, feeders and eaters of the food revolution.”

A move to a permanent location, a farm on Milk Creek near Canby, proved to be pivotal in a way the group couldn’t have foreseen. They’d often stop down the road to buy steaks at a small meat processor, where Jimmy boasted to its owner, Kris Akin, about the Let Um Eat collective. “She, of course, looked us up on the internet and said, ‘What the hell is Let Um Eat? You guys sound like weirdos,’” he said.

Weirdos or not, Akin saw the value in the local network they had created, especially since she needed help finding qualified employees to process the animals into sausages and cuts of meat. And because she and her husband Joe were looking to turn the business over to new owners so they could retire.

The Processing Bottleneck

It’s probably a good point to “pivot,” as the au courant phrase has it, to discuss some of the history of meat processing in Oregon.

Tools of the trade.

According to Akin, in the mid-20th Century there were more than 1,000 small meat processors operating in Oregon, with one in almost every small town. They served as slaughterhouses and processing plants for local farmers and ranchers, and most were regulated by the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s (ODA) meat inspection program established in 1957. By 1967 the Wholesome Meat Act passed by Congress gave the USDA the responsibility of ensuring that animals were slaughtered humanely and that states maintained meat and poultry inspection programs at least equal to the federal program.

[Historical factoid: The Wholesome Meat Act, a reform pushed by consumer activist Ralph Nader in the 1960s, was known as “The Jungle, Part 2,” after Upton Sinclair’s book, “The Jungle,” about the deplorable conditions in meat processing plants in turn of the century Chicago, resulted in the passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act in 1906.]

Discussing cuts.

At that point Oregon turned over its meat inspection program to the USDA, which meant that small processors had to upgrade to meet federal standards—an extremely expensive proposition for marginally profitable businesses—or become “custom exempt,” meaning that they could only slaughter and process livestock for the exclusive use of the farmer and agree to inspection by both ODA and USDA once or twice a year.

Without access to funds to invest in updating equipment, hire skilled workers or do the marketing to find producers, not to mention consumers to buy their products, small facilities suffered. The implementation in 1996 of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system—establishing new requirements to improve food safety—and the simultaneous consolidation in the grocery industry were an “inflection point,” according to Lauren Gwin of Oregon State University’s Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network.

“People blame regulations, and that shift was really hard for small plants,” she said. “But there were larger changes in the meat industry at the same time that were putting pressure on those small plants. The consolidation in the industry, including the shift to boxed meat, really changed things for the smaller plants.”

This shift from small grocers to large supermarkets, which closed butcher departments and switched to boxes of pre-cut meat from large processors, caused many of the state’s small slaughterhouses to shutter. From 2000 to 2015, mobile and custom-exempt facilities in Oregon dropped more than 30 percent, from 93 to 63, and the number of USDA-inspected slaughterhouses fell 25 percent, from 16 to 12.

Another consequence of the loss of these small processors is that farmers and ranchers have been forced to transport their animals longer and longer distances to get them slaughtered and processed, a costly and environmentally questionable practice. An article in the Eugene Register-Guard, titled “A Meaty Bottleneck,” quotes a 2005 study by Ecotrust concluding that “42 percent [of growers] said they would consider raising more animals if they had improved access to meat-processing facilities.”

Because pasture-raised and grass-fed meat from small farms is in increasingly high demand from consumers who want to know where their food comes from, including how it was raised, slaughtered and processed, it’s critical to the health and vibrancy of Oregon’s food system that small processors survive to serve them.

Read the next post in the series, an interview with Kris Akin, owner of Mark’s Meats, about the challenges of passing on a family business. The third post will focus on the future of small processors with an interview with Ben Meyer.

All photos by Rich Crowder.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Good Farmers Have Happy Animals


It's always good for me to stop staring at the computer and head out into the real world, and for me the best place to go is to a farm, especially if it's that time of year when lambs and pigs and goats are popping out babies right and left. Michael and Linda Guebert of Terra Farma had been posting some adorable pictures of their latest litter of piglets on Instagram, and since I'd been talking with Mike about arranging a visit when the winter rains abated and their pastures dried out, I asked if they might have some time for a viewing.

Cinnamon and her piglets.

Yesterday was the appointed day for that long-awaited visit, and with the morning promising (mostly) blue skies and reasonable temperatures—woohoo!—I jumped in Chili and drove out to the farm. Even if you don't have a farm to visit, I can testify that the drive to Corbett via the Old Columbia River Highway is spectacular this time of year, lushly green from all the rains and with the Sandy River running thick with runoff from the many streams that feed into it.

Primarily a livestock-based operation, Linda and Mike raise pigs, chickens, turkeys, guinea fowl and rabbits for meat, and milk three cows and several goats twice a day. They also have laying hens, and sell raw milk and eggs out of a refrigerator on their porch to a regular clientele who come to the farm. Located on 10 acres of hilly terrain above Smith Creek, the couple run the farm on a rotational grazing system, moving the groups of animals to fresh pasture in a series of paddocks so that the health of the pastures is maintained and, hopefully, improved.

Scooter.

When I pulled up, Linda took me to the barn to meet their resident goat, Scooter, paralyzed as a kid when she got tangled in some of the electrified netting they use as movable fencing. Even though she can't stand or move her back legs much, she gets around the farm quite ably—it actually reminded me of Wyeth's "Christina's World"—though Linda mentioned they're looking for a set of wheels so she can be more comfortable and mobile. (If you know of anyone with a cart, give me a shout!)

Also in the barn was a set of several-week-old goat triplets staring down at us from their perch on bales of hay about eight feet off the ground. After a meet-and-greet, we went out to meet the new piglets and their mama, a sow named Cinnamon, who was busy showing them how to properly root in the grass.

Perching triplets.

The wonderful part about visiting farms and talking with farmers who care about their animals the way that Mike and Linda do, is seeing them pointing out the individual characteristics of each animal, laughing at their behaviors, telling stories and being genuinely engaged with them. It's heartening in a time when agriculture seems to be turning more and more toward an industrial model, when a living being—the animals and often the humans who work there—seem to be treated as no more important than a widget.

Thanks, Mike and Linda, for caring and for sharing your farm with me!