Agriculture and the notion of harvesting food are all about us as we drive through the southwestern part of Virginia. We drive three and a half hours to Eco-Friendly. We drive past pastures of grazing Cows. We drive past large signs that invite us to pick our own blackberries. The anxious anticipation of not knowing how I will react to watching an animal be killed bouncing off the knowledge of harvesting food. I want to experience, as best as possible, the in between spaces of where food comes from. As Bev says, “from the farm gate to the plate”…I have no idea what to expect…
Our friend and outstanding photographer, Abby Greenawalt drove up the night before to get accustomed to the facilities, meet the animals and have dinner with Bev in his environment. Abby’s portraits are amazing. Her ability to capture an instant of another human being while bringing out their personality is acute. She always seems open, with out an ounce of cynicism–obviously the key to her portraits. I don’t think she–or us, are prepared for what we are about to witness.
We enter the plant while Abby and Bev are closing a 30-foot tall sliding door behind them. We get a glimpse of two large white and red carcasses stripped naked and hanging from the ceiling. Bev greets us with hugs. There is a serene, earnest feeling–very sincere from both of them. They do not take lightly, what they have just witnessed.
Bev is adamant about the need for transparency and what drives him as much as anything is a ‘clean food movement’? In fact, the movement hinges on getting the word out. What Bev has created is an independently owned, marketed, non-subsidized, multi-species processing plant that services a consortium of farmers within a four or five-hour drive. Bev services Washington DC as well as New York City. Chefs and restaurateurs like Dan Barber and Danny Meyers all deal with Bev. We know the product is good! What most don’t know is, Bev was a vegetarian before he decided to venture into farming as well as producing meat and poultry.
We are standing in the future retail space of the Eco Friendly operation as Bev explains that he wants to walk us backward through the process. That is to say from the vacuum packed meat to the live animal in the yard. There is kitchen equipment around, a six burner Vulcan, a double stack Blodgett convection oven, a couple of steam kettles…The kitchen is unfinished, as is the retail space, however the familiarity of equipment we know and have used sets us at ease. Bev feels us out, as I said before he takes none of this lightly–there is an ultimate respect for life and in that he has no use for shock or gratuitous gestures of provocation. We feel we are in good hands, in the hands of a professor–a teacher who is about to share a truth–a fact with us that we already know but have never really experienced.
We walk into a cold room the size of the first floor of an average home. Here we meet Adam, a bearded twenty–something intern from Louisiana, who works at a nearby chicken farm. He is here to experience the other side of farming–the processing. Adam along with at least six other workers is vigilantly boning chickens and vacuum sealing them. Everyone including us is wearing white lab coats and hairnets. The coats have an Eco-Friendly patch on them and everyone is required to wear one along with a hairnet. There is a full time USDA inspector on premise and NO regulation is taken flippantly.
Davide stands no more than five foot tall; he pokes his head through the large doors where we first caught a glimpse of the naked carcasses. He motions to Bev and shouts a few words in Spanish. Bev motions to us and we are moving through what seems to be the chicken processing room into what we are assuming is the harvesting room.
One of the reasons Bev is a pioneer in his field is his ability to process multi-species. He runs a small operation where pipes, tables, meat hooks are all portable, changeable and easy to sanitize. His staff is beyond reproach, as they are able to move from cleaning chicken in the morning while cows are being killed to butchering pork in the afternoon. No large processing plant can be this versatile. The factories that turn over large quantities are highly mechanized and leave behind Bev’s greatest maxim: plain old’ sense will out perform standard conventional thinking almost all the time.
We enter the harvesting room and immediately feel a temperature change, from cold to warm. My camera lens fogs over as we huddle in a far corner. Davide points a stun gun down into a chute. We hear no sound. We barely made it in to the room to see the animal standing and now he is laying on the floor convulsing. Bev checks his eyes. If his eyes do not react, the animal is out. As calm as the animal stood in the pen is as wild as his body kicks without consciousness.
Bev’s story is one of a vegetarian who thought there had to be a way to kill with dignity, a way of allowing animals into the food chain with the same dignity and respect that goes into the preparing of meals. Bev operates similar to a chef that does everything by hand. It is in this way that the killing is done, is done with care for the life given. His respect for the animal begins in his own farmyard and carries all the through to the final product.
The animal is hung through the Achilles heels, on meat hooks that are on a rolling pulley like system. Blood pours out of the neck. The gorgeous brown fur of the cow glistens in the fluorescent lighting of a room with ceilings high enough to hang a two thousand pound animal. Davide and his partner meticulously begin to skin the carcass. Brown turns to bright red and white as the skin comes off in what seems like the ease of peeling an orange. I see the muscles still twitching. The head comes off and the inspector checks the lymph nodes. The inspector declares the animal healthy and it is at this point that I realize that at no time during this process have I thought about death or illness.
‘Clean Food’ is a political issue for Bev as much as anything. Our food supply is at stake. It is an issue of Health Care, National Security, Energy, Environment , Economy… all of which have been deeply impacted by not respecting life cycles and not allowing the natural ebbs and flows that contribute, strengthen us both figuratively and literally…
We strip off the lab coats to go outside. We wait as Bev heads into the yard to retrieve a cow. We watch as Bev holds his hands up to the animal and does reiki on the cow. Bev puts the animal at ease, it is important to Bev. The animal walks up the chute seemingly anxiousless, without excitement…
Bev is at the Dupont Farmers Market every Sunday.