"This plant is absolutely full," Bartlett Durand, manager of Black Earth Meats, says. "I'm not sure what we're going to do."
That's an interesting quandary to be in considering that when Durand and his fellow owners of the little meat market in small town Black Earth, just west of Madison on Highway 14, took over the business some five years ago, it was definitely not thriving.
The small building was located in a residential area of the small town and had been around for decades. It was a typical family-run meat processor that did some custom slaughtering and cutting for local customers and did much of its business during deer hunting season.
Enter Gary Zimmer, president of the renowned Midwestern Bio-Ag, the well-known biological farming company based in Blue Mounds, and Bartlett Durand, city raised in Memphis, lawyer trained, natural food advocate and marketer, who bought the failing meat market in 2007.
At the time, there were three full-time and three part-time employees, Durand remembers. Now there are 37 full-time employees working in a facility not made for such a big workforce.
Black Earth Meats has a long history as a traditional country meat market.
Jim Strang, Black Earth, said he remodeled the facility in 1961 when he bought the business and guesses the meat market dates to about 1951 when the original owner had started the business in an already old building.
Strang sold the business in 2001 to local hog raiser Mike Danz, who sold the business to the current owners in 2007, who embarked on an ambitious remodeling and repositioning program.
The business moved to processing organic pasture-based meat from animals purchased locally from farmers (many who are Amish) who raise their animals with the high standards for humane treatment and overall quality.
Black Earth Meats supplies fresh meat products to retail markets and restaurants locally and in Milwaukee and Chicago, and to individual consumers on a year-round basis. (Note: A list of some 50 Madison-area restaurant customers is available to walk-in customers at the cash register.)
In addition, Black Earth Meats is growing its sales to hospitals, corporate cafeterias and schools, and provides meat products to their Community Service Agriculture (CSA) buyers club on a monthly basis.
Manager Bartlett Durand, who is married to Leilani Zimmer, daughter of Gary Zimmer, left his legal practice in Hawaii to begin a new career in Wisconsin to become farm administrator and head up marketing of value added products for Otter Creek Organic Farm at Avoca, owned by Nick Zimmer (Gary Zimmer's son).
Durand is also the president of Local Choice Marketing, a distribution company focused on a cooperative arrangement, with artisan producers in the Spring Green area to get their products to market efficiently and cost-effectively.
He is also a partner in Red Meat Markets, a Chicago-based website selling meat packages via the internet.
Black Earth Meats is the central hub of his marketing efforts. The facility offers on-site slaughter for beef, pork, sheep and goats and basic cut-wrap-freeze processing.
It is a USDA-inspected facility with organic certification from the Iowa Department of Agriculture, and is Animal Welfare Approved.
Durand says that the advent of the "buy local" movement and the expansion of "grass fed" and "organic" has offered many opportunities to expand business. But first he had to educate his growing staff of employees and potential buyers on how to sell and buy meat from Black Earth Meats.
This included moving restaurants from buying small cuts of meat to purchasing bigger prime cuts and fashioning them into what their customer really wanted.
"This is a return to what restaurants and grocery stores did years ago," Durand says. "The chefs are becoming butchers, partially because the butchers disappeared as the meat processing industry consolidated."
A personal note: My mother often told about her five or six brothers who owned what they called "meat markets" in Madison. The stores on Madison's east side were really small grocery stores with big meat departments. My uncles proudly called themselves "butchers." All went out of business when the super markets came into town and price and uniformity became the watchwords.
Although Black Earth Meats continues to add employees, Durand has no plans to turn it into what he calls a "factory" operation.
"I would see a maximum of 200 animals going through here in a day," he says. "We would have an apprentice program that created "tradesmen" with humans controlling and doing the process from start to finish."
"We would not grow and get bigger on one site, rather would say "stop" and create another facility. A lot of people want good meat prepared by people receiving a living wage who care about what they are doing," he summarizes.
Black Earth Meats offers this business credo as stated by owner Bartlett Durand:
"We honor these animals, for by their death we gain life. We believe that the lost art of butchery is a skill we can keep alive, but it must be done with reverence and pride. Our entire system is built around humans - not machines, not assembly lines, not automation. Each animal is handled one at a time, and our butchers are trained in the entire system. We support three 'levels' of animal agriculture to suit a variety of farmers and customers."
These three levels are:
• Grandpa's Way: Local animals from southern Wisconsin small lot farmers raising a few animals for extra money in support of their families - the type of farming our grandparents knew.
• Grass Fed: Animals that are fed a forage diet - no corn or distillers grains, from farmers who pledge that the animals are antibiotic free, GMO-free and that no hormones were added during production.
• Organic: A USDA approved claim that is the flagship line in organic, pasture-based agriculture. Our organic cattle are allowed free range on fertile pastures rich with naturally growing legumes and grasses. They are raised using a strict quality assurance program without antibiotics, synthetic hormones, chemical fertilizer, or GMOs, and are strictly monitored by a third party.
So far the philosophy and meat products from Black Earth Meats seems to be on a success track, so much so that the company has outgrown its facility and perhaps the welcome by some of the Black Earth residents as the flow of trucks and trailers increases as does nearby parking shortages (it's next to the post office).
Durand is exploring new sites, seeking investors and hopes eventually to move to grow.
"Moving is an inevitability," he says. "I can't grow where I am." (Communities or individuals can call him at 608-333-1251.)
There are several hundred meat processors in Wisconsin that range from multi-national to the artisan; each has its own business model determined by a board of directors or an individual. Some prosper for decades, some don't.
Without doubt, Black Earth Meats follows a different processing and marketing track than most and it is apparently working.
Will the future meet its ambitions? Time will tell.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or email him at jfodairy@