Local Butcher Uses Humane Approach for Farm-to-Table

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Damian Rivera

By Doug Marrin, STN Reporter

I eat meat, but I don’t like to think about what it takes to put it on my plate.

It’s a thought perhaps many of us don’t care to entertain. But one local butcher took time to push back against that stigma by explaining the humane approach he takes in plying his craft, a trade that supports the local farming community.

Meet Damian Rivera. Damian was introduced to animal processing as a young boy. He explains, “Growing up in Mexico, you raise and grow what you eat. When I was growing up, I didn’t like doing all the chores that needed to be done. But I was very blessed that I learned from my mother how to process our animals so we could eat.”

Damian first developed his skill as a young boy in Mexico under the watchful eye of his mother.

A few years later, as a young man, Damian moved to the U.S. in 1998 and took a job in manufacturing. He thought his boyhood chores of processing animals were behind him. But in 2013, a friend gave him a goat. Damian butchered the goat and shared it with friends. Their response to the quality of the meat was so enthusiastic that it sparked a vision in Damian and his wife, Rosemary Linares. Maybe he could use his skills to fill a need in meat processing.

Damian left his manufacturing job and pursued a career that would improve his butchering skills. He went to work for a USDA facility near Kalamazoo. The company paid Damian’s way to MSU to become HACCP certified (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points). Damian took advantage of the open door and developed a network of contacts at MSU that helped him further his skill.

When I asked if butchering can have that much effect on the quality of the meat, Damian explained it does, and it hinges on the humane treatment of the animal through the process. The key is keeping the animal calm to avoid an adrenaline surge that negatively affects the quality of the meat.

Damian has a profound respect for the life of any living thing which is his reason for making his profession as humane as possible. Pictured here, he and his son Joaquin enjoy a moment with newborn lambs at one of the farms he serves.

“In a ham, for example, you can sometimes see drops of blood around the bone,” says Damian. “That is because the muscles contract at the end and hold onto the fluids. The stress factor for the animal in its final moment affects the meat.”

I asked Damian what he meant by “butchering humanely.” It sounds like an oxymoron.

“People want to eat meat,” he explained. “That isn’t going to change. We don’t like to think about it, but an animal is going to have to die. So, the questions are really how is it going to give its life for us, and what can we do about it? Do we make the animal’s end as awful as possible? Or, can we respect the animal and appreciate its gift to us?”

Damian went on to explain his approach. “From the moment I arrive, the animals realize something new is here. Sometimes, I have apples or carrots to feed them until I feel that they are comfortable again. After that, I touch their head, so they get used to my touch. I give them the time they need to be calm.”

Calming the animal doesn’t only produce better cuts, it’s vital for Damian that the animal is treated humanely with deep appreciation.

“For me, humane processing is surrendering the animal as fast as possible with no stress,” continued Damian. “For me to feel good about myself, I cannot let the animal die alone. I need to stay with the animal until they stop moving. I thank the animal because I’m taking its life to provide for somebody. Yes, it makes for better meat, but more importantly I’ve provided the animal a better way for its next journey.”

The Dexter Mill supplies feed to some farmers who use Damian’s services. Owner Keri Bushaw is familiar with his work. “Damian takes the horrible stigma associated with the butchering process out of it. I am a bleeding heart who would never have anything killed near me. But if I were in the business of raising livestock, Damian would definitely be the one I call.”

Damian now works for himself. His customers are typically area farmers who have sold shares of an animal. There are several big advantages for the farmers. He goes to the farm and butchers on-site. With the nearest USDA slaughterhouse an hour-and-a-half away, it saves the farmers six hours of travel by the time they deliver the animals and return to pick up the meat. And, anyone who has ever loaded livestock will quickly appreciate the advantage of having the processing service come to you.

The Linares-Rivera family. L-R Damian, Son Damian Rivera, Son Joaquin Rivera-Linares, Rosemary.

Damian’s skill as a butcher not only provides higher quality meat but also supports the local economy by giving livestock producers a chance to move their animals when timeslots in the larger slaughterhouses are hard to get. He also helps area producers meet the growing demand for locally-sourced meats. Damian enjoys working with the different meats—beef, pork, poultry, lamb—and making his proprietary sausage recipes for his customers.

“I really enjoy doing what I do,” he says. “I try to get better every day. Without the support of my family, it would be impossible for me to move forward with what I’m doing and what I want to do in the future.”

For the next stage of their vision, Damian and Rosemary are working through the process of building their own slaughterhouse where Damian’s practices can be utilized on a grander scale. The couple have planned their venture in a way that maximized environmental and local economic sustainability.

If you are interested in learning more about their services, Damian and Rosemary can be reached via email at damianscraftmeats@gmail.com.

Photos courtesy of Rosemary Linares

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