Sustainability From Barn to Block

Savenor'sThe Savenor's team. Photo by Sasha Pedro.

I’m not sure what left a stronger impression: the sight of all the red-aproned butchers gathered around their block, or the stark hush of the place. 

It’s quiet. Like a morgue, which feels fitting. There’s only the hum of the refrigerator and steady scraping sounds—careful hands wielding plastic tools, brushing bone dust from the surface of a crimson mass that I will later learn is 300 pounds of fresh cow hindquarter.

To work at Savenor’s Butcher & Market is to dedicate oneself to breaking down animals from snout to tail, and to have the confidence to do it on this very public butcher block, like a doctor in an old-timey operating theater. Savenor’s proudly declares itself a “whole-animal butcher,” but it’s impossible to understand what exactly this moniker promises until you drop in on a Friday afternoon to see teams of two carrying a menagerie of lambs and pigs from the refrigerator to the block.

It’s work that requires physical fortitude—300 pounds of beef, remember—and a strong stomach to boot. 

“But the passion’s what really keeps you going,” Savenor’s lead butcher Christopher Walker says. “And I have the passion to make sure that whatever walks through that door is utilized.”

Americans still love meat. While we live in an era where vegetarian and vegan ingredients are widely available in grocery stores, plant-based meat substitutes like the Impossible burger are appearing on menus, and fast-casual salad chains are multiplying, the number of non-meat eaters in the United States has basically stayed the same for the past 10 years. In fact, a poll conducted by Gallup last year revealed that only five percent of Americans consider themselves vegetarian, and three percent identify as vegan. Plus, those who are eating meat are actually ramping up their consumption—it was projected last January that Americans would consume 222 pounds of meat and poultry per person over the course of the year, more than ever before.

It’s no secret that the meat industry has a serious dark side, however. Over 95 percent of farm animals in this country are raised through factory farming, or large-scale livestock production, a practice that often prioritizes profit and efficiency over animal wellbeing, according to the ASPCA. There are plentiful gasp-worthy stories out there—chickens bred to be so large that their legs give out, female pigs trapped in gestation crates nearly their whole lives—that highlight the abuse animals can suffer at these crowded industrial complexes.

Factory farms can also produce devastating amounts of pollution. Confined farm animals, according to the Humane Society, produce almost 500 million tons of manure annually, three times more than humans in the United States generate. This manure waste can contaminate lakes and streams, and it also emits gases and ammonia that are irritating when inhaled. 

“Factory farming is shrouded in mythology,” Compassion in World Farming Chief Executive Philip Lymbery told the Guardian in an October 2017 article. “One of the myths is that it’s an efficient way of producing food when actually it is highly inefficient and wasteful.”

Even outside of the factory farm context, animals are environmentally taxing. Livestock are actually responsible for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Association. Yes, you read that right—cows are actually contributing to climate change with the sheer amount of gas they pass (30 to 50 gallons a day, reportedly).

“A book will never convey what it takes to have a sustainable farm, what it takes to be sustainable as a butcher shop.”

So, if we are unwilling to give up meat entirely, how can we work to mitigate the impact our diets have on the environment?

Supporting meat produced by small, family-owned farms, where animals are allowed to roam, given natural, nutritious food to eat, and slaughtered humanely, certainly solves part of the problem. But to further help justify the impact that livestock has on the environment by simply existing, it’s necessary to make sure as much of that animal as possible is consumed. 

This is where whole-animal butcheries like Savenor’s come in. The team at Savenor’s works on both of these levels: They seek out and build relationships with small, ethical farms, and they purchase entire animals from them, making as much of the animal available for purchase as possible. 

The challenge of minimal waste requires butchers to be creative. For Walker, this is second nature. 

“I’d use all the skin to make chicharrones,” says Walker, thinking through all the pieces of a pig. “I’d [use] the fat to make sausages. I’d make pâtés, I’d make terrines, I’d make salamis, I’d make pork broth out of the bones. So, by the time I was done, there was nothing left.” 

To Walker, using every piece of an animal like this is the way to show it the utmost respect, to honor the animal that gave its life for your barbecue. This philosophy aligns neatly with Savenor’s mission. The practice of whole-animal butchery, the shop’s website says, is about more than cutting up meat; it’s about “learning about how the animals are raised, slaughtered, and broken down.”

This isn’t just pretty marketing talk. Just ask, and Walker will tell you all about the first day he spent helping out on a livestock farm: “I slept for two days afterward.”

Or when he and his team tried their hands at herding lambs: “That dog we had helping us,” he snorts. “I was like, ‘Could you please get up and help?’”

Or when he watched pigs get stunned in a slaughterhouse: “It’s a quick POP,” he says, snapping his fingers for emphasis, “and then they’re unconscious … it is the most impressive thing you’ll ever see.”

Every employee of Savenor’s takes about six trips to cow, pig, lamb, or poultry farms each year, leaving before the sun comes up and spending the day taking photos and videos, talking to the farmer hosting them, and, as Walker described, working hands-on with the animals. Everyone who works at the shop—from the cashiers to the butchers—is an ambassador for Savenor’s partner farms, Walker says, and that means it is critical for every member of the team to understand each farmer’s philosophy.

Walker could tell you the story behind every steak, shank, and drumstick in the shop. The Berkshire pork, he says, grew up precisely four hours and 27 minutes from here in Bridport, Vt. The pigs drank whey from local cheesemakers, and never consumed feed that contained GMOs. Their home was called Heritage Grazers, and they were raised by a farmer named Alethea Bahnck. She cared for them, took them to the slaughterhouse, and drove them to Savenor’s, and Walker firmly believes she should make at least a million dollars a year. 

“I’ve seen a lot of pork,” he says. “She does not mess around.”

When Walker talks about farmers, he’s often shaking his head in disbelief. Even after so many farm visits, he is in awe of the amount of work it takes to raise livestock, and of the passion and vitality of the farmers he works with. To him, Walker says, farmers always seem to glow. “There’s something magical about them,” he says.

So it’s crucial to Walker that his staff communicate to customers the hours of labor and care that go into every hamburger and pork chop they purchase. It feels appropriate, therefore, that Savenor’s butcher block is at center stage in the shop. You can’t help but watch as an apprentice leans in to make a precise cut with a sharp knife, or when a butcher scrapes the surface of a beef quarter as gently as if she were brushing a child’s hair. 

Seeing this nearly reverent breakdown in action makes it impossible to ignore that the cuts of meat that fill the store’s refrigerators once built an animal—that one cow’s sacrifice yielded brisket, flank steak, tenderloin, top roast, beef stock, and soap. 

Some might find that unsettling. It’s easier, perhaps, to think of meat as meat, and cows as cows. But Walker’s mission is to ensure that everyone who walks into Savenor’s learns to care about the farm life, the slaughtering, and the butchering that connect the two. 

“A book will never convey what it takes to have a sustainable farm, what it takes to be sustainable as a butcher shop,” Walker says. “It can’t explain the magnitude of what it takes to raise an animal.”

Savenor’s is located at 92 Kirkland St. For more information, visit savenorsmarket.com or call (617) 576-6328.

This story originally appeared in the Environmental Issue issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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