When we purchased a house with five bucolic acres on the rural west side of Sebastopol, there were three sheep grazing on the hillside and emus in the garden pen. When the sellers moved, the emus disappeared but the sheep remained. After a few weeks, I called to ask when the sheep would be picked up. "They come with the house," the seller reported. "There are two ewes and a ram. But don't worry. We castrated the Big Guy ourselves." I was taken aback, but agreed to keep them, reasoning that the animals would maintain the steep hillside pasture with minimal care. Bo Peep I am not, but how hard could shepherding be?
Early the following spring, I looked out the window and saw a gray blob that hadn't been on the hillside the day before. Where did that boulder come from? Upon closer inspection, I found a newborn lamb, thankfully alive. Once I approached, its mother rushed over protectively, and I watched all dewy-eyed as it eagerly began to nurse. And so began my education in Sheep 101. The botched home castration was explained away with a breezy "One must have slipped." And so Big Guy did his job, and the sheep multiplied.
We learned to catch a newborn lamb on day one, because by day two it could outrun us. I administered tetanus shots to bawling lambs, ignoring their mothers' threatening looks. We learned the fine art of tail-bobbing to prevent infections and flies from breeding in the poop that would stick to their tails if left too long. We enjoyed the soft texture of their wooly coats, which slowly turned from gray to white or sometimes were black from birth. And the sheep multiplied.
When twins from both ewes arrived, we did not have enough pasture to sustain the herd, nor the stomach or skill to harvest the animals ourselves. After consulting with the local butcher, the most humane answer was inevitable: call John Taylor, the mobile slaughterer.
JT's Custom Slaughtering certainly gets the job done. With the least amount of muss and fuss for the animal's owners, one can participate in the slaughter—or, as in our case, not. My husband penned up the animals; I packed up the kids. We left. Right or wrong, I didn't wish to witness what it takes to put meat on the table. Taylor acknowledges that although this is his business, there is a strong ethical aspect to his work. "There are two ways to go about it," he says. "Call me or load it in your van and take it to a slaughterhouse that traumatizes the animal. At the slaughterhouse, they can smell and sense what goes on there, and it stresses them out. Or I can come out to your house, pull the trigger, and they're gone.
"The animal is dead instantly," he continues. "Ethically, you want to do it as quickly and humanely as possible." Taylor explains that when an animal is killed with as little stress as possible, the quality of the meat is 10-fold. If the animal is stressed, the adrenaline rushes into the muscles and depletes the glycogen, which taints the flavor. The meat is termed "dark-cutter," and is associated with ill flavor, toughness and poor storage properties. "If the animal is stressed when I come out to your home, I'll come back later," Taylor says. "We'll just reschedule. I was taught to give good customer service. That's something that's sorely lacking these days."
After shooting the animal, Taylor completely skins, cleans, cuts and quarters it, before taking it to a butcher shop, ready for the cooler. A lamb takes him roughly half an hour; a steer, an hour. He prefers to do it onsite near his truck, because he uses his truck's boom to lift the weighty carcass. "I try to keep things as clean as possible and hose everything down," Taylor adds. "Just like if somebody came to my house to do a job, I'd like them to clean up after themselves."
Taylor began his career at age 12, when he started accompanying his uncle on his mobile slaughtering jobs. ("It was forced child labor," he jokes.) His grandfather owned Willowside Meats, where his father was a butcher and his mother and sister helped out. "That's the best thing about my job—it's something I always wanted to do. I grew up watching my family do it," he says earnestly. "I learned the mobile trade from my uncle, and when they sold the shop in the early '80's, I kept the truck. Now I'm the only guy left in Sonoma County who does this kind of work. I get calls from Vacaville and Sacramento. I serve Cloverdale and Ukiah. There are no other independent, full-time, mobile slaughterers. I'm old-school."
The work is seasonal, and Taylor says the long hours are the worst part. In spring, he harvests lambs; in summer, he works 80 to 90 hours a week, butchering approximately 70 beef per week. From January through March, he follows the Portuguese tradition of slaughtering pigs. He butchers goats, emus, ostriches, llamas and water buffalo. He and his wife also hunt deer and the occasional boar, but Taylor laughs, "With my job, I hunt every day."
Although the locavore and Slow Food movements have increased the demand for Taylor's services, there are very few, if any, others willing to do this job. Asked if he would mentor or apprentice someone, Taylor shakes his head. "Workers' comp is phenomenally expensive. I'd have to double what I charge. The amount of work isn't worth the money," he explains. "Young guys look at the hard labor involved, and they look at the books and figure it just isn't worth it. I've never known any women to do this. It's extremely physical work. Fuel prices have increased. Feed prices have doubled. It's hard to raise animals and make money doing it. The ag industry is being forced out of the county.
"Some of the extras we used to get from the job have gone by the wayside," he continues. "Tallow used to be bought to make soap, candles and cosmetics. Now I pay $600 per month to a tallow company to pick it up at a site in Petaluma. They make fertilizers from it. We used to get $30 a piece for tanned hides, but now I can't give them away. At the volume we do, 60 to 70 cows per week, there's just no demand. I'll give away the occasional goat skin for drums."
But that may change. Taylor recognizes that he works in an industry that's not greatly affected by the economy, because people still need or want this service done for them. "It's grown into kind of a novelty," he says with a wry smile. "The wealthier people are willing to pay a lot of money for a higher-end product. You have people who want to know where their food comes from, and then there are the people who just can't afford it. My joke with people is 'Where do you think the meat comes from, the bakery next to Safeway?'"
In California, the USDA has a "custom exempt" law, meaning that animals grown at home for meat can be processed by Taylor because it's not for a restaurant or consumption by the public. If the meat is going to be used for a restaurant, it must be legally processed through a USDA-approved slaughterhouse. The nearest USDA plants are in Occidental for lambs, Petaluma for beef and Modesto for pigs. Surprisingly, in such states as Montana, it is actually illegal to do custom slaughtering.
Taylor's job has brought him his 15 minutes of fame, as national magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, seek interviews. And what does he think of his instant celebrity? "It's nice to see people start to realize that this job is a good thing, that it is a humane way to obtain your meat," Taylor says. "We used to be the hidden business. People didn't want to know what we did. Now they realize that it's a helpful service. The PC term for what we do is now 'harvesting'—we harvest the animals. Hey, if it makes people more comfortable about what we do, I'm all for it!"
Quick dining snapshots by Bohemian staffers.
Winery news and reviews.
Food-related comings and goings, openings and closings, and other essays for those who love the kitchen and what it produces.
Recipes for food that you can actually make.