Josef Meiller Slaughter House and Farm is not a “back to the land” operation run by former hippies or lawyers looking for a better way of life. Mike and Wayne Meiller are not trying to advance a theory about the renovation of American agriculture. They are local, family farmers producing possibly the finest beef in our region. Both the slaughterhouse and the farm are small, almost intimate. There is nothing industrial about either one. We don’t know of another farmer in the greater New York foodshed that operates a public abattoir or the reverse; the Meillers may be unique in this respect. Josef Meiller settled in Pine Plains, New York in 1969 after retiring as a cook on the ocean liner Queen Mary. His sons grew up learning the trades of both businesses.
The slaughterhouse is a serious place; there are no personal effects in evidence, no posters or postcards on the walls. Really large animals are killed here in a sober and correct way and then prepared to be sent to butchers and then cooks in kitchens. [Liz Clarke, Bubby’s butcher, reports that animals from Meiller never exhibit the toughness or discoloration that can result from the cellular chemical consequences of a stressful or prolonged death.] In one clean, concrete room with ample hooks, drains and water hoses, hogs and steers are stunned, killed, drained of blood, scalded (hogs) or skinned (steers), eviscerated, decapitated, and have their other organs removed. In short, they are transformed from livestock into meat. The refrigerated room where the processed animals hang is very crowded with nearly identical pale white Yorkshire pigs and the equally uniform bright red carcasses of Angus steers. This is where much of Bubby’s meat comes from, three hogs a week and one and a half steers.
A few minutes drive from the slaughterhouse on the main street of Pine Plains is the Meillers’ farm. It is set in a beautiful site, flanked by low, wooded mountains that show no signs of development. The Meillers get their calves, already castrated (the definition of a steer), at six months of age and keep them for about another year and a half. The steers are predominantly Black Angus with occasional markings that indicate crosses with other breeds. [Among the steers are several bulls (uncastrated) with entirely different color and appearance from the black steers. Their dryer and leaner meat is better suited for the making of bologna and other sausages.]
Everything the steers eat after they arrive at Meilllers’ is grown on their farm, a very remarkable fact. Mike and Wayne put enormous effort into designing and producing the feed that grows calves into animals weighing as much as1500 pounds and yielding beef with superior flavor, texture, appearance and consistency. This diet is a mixture of chopped fermented hay, chopped fermented corn silage, regular “wet” hay and cornmeal. Two imposing above-ground trenches, each filled to a height of eight to ten feet, are filled alternately with chopped hay (pasture grasses and legumes) and chopped whole corn plants, including stalks, leaves and ears. These are covered with plastic after their contents have been compressed under the weight of a large farm vehicle. The compression and covering are intended to restrict the supply of oxygen and enhance the action of fermentation performed by our old friends, the lactobacillus bacteria who give us sourdough and beer. Fermentation makes richer, dryer and more digestible feed than untreated “wet” hay or silage. Also mixed into the feed is a small amount of cornmeal, processed from the Meillers’ corn by a neighbor, and some of the regular baled hay just mentioned.
The Meillers’ visibly glossy, calm steers consume this feed with evident gusto. No antibiotics or hormones are added to it. Clearly, the acidosis caused by the predominantly grain diets of industrial feedlots that requires the daily application of antibiotics in those facilities is not a problem here. But the label and, for some, the moral imperative “grass fed” does not describe Meiller’s beef. For several years, Bubby’s used strictly grass fed beef supplied by Slope Farms of Meredith, New York. Most of it was lovely, clean-tasting meat. Some of the cuts, including parts of the chuck and the brisket, had a distinctive flavor (naturally, difficult to describe with words) that may have been caused by the particular chemistry of grass fed beef fat. Many prefer this characteristic flavor of grass fed beef but others, perhaps the majority, ourselves included, do not. Another problem with some of the grass fed beef was inconsistency that probably resulted from wide, random variations in the content of pasture grasses and hay, and the difficulty for the steers of extracting sufficient energy in winter from hay alone. In particular, the steaks from Slope Farms seemed quite variable in quality, some tougher or more watery than we normally expect from the rib or loins of a prime steer. Again, for some, these characteristics are improved by the seasoning of virtue that they are seen to represent.
For Bubby’s, Meiller Farm represents a model for progress in the sourcing and treatment of basic, fundamental foods. The beef, pork (raised for them by other nearby farmers), and lamb (raised at Meiller) they supply are a delight in our kitchen and on our tables. Their entire operation is transparent, peaceful and clean. Their slaughterhouse and farm enhance the community they are in, rather than blighting it as factory feedlots and industrial abattoirs do. If the reality of Meiller’s does not conform with a cherished image of an idealized farm, like the Edenic “good farm” celebrated by Michael Pollan in “The Omnivor’s Dilemma”, with its “intricate dance of symbiosis”, that kind of romanticism is one more obstacle to be overcome en route to better food for Americans. There are many roads that lead where we ought to go in this project, and Josef Meiller Slaughter House and Farm is on one of them.