These 6 Women Are Breaking Barriers In The Meat Industry
Historically, butchery has been a brawny boys club, with the exception of the lowest-paying meatpacking jobs. But today, women are joining the industry in droves and have a real influence on its future.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10,000 women have entered the retail field of meat and seafood markets in the last decade. Their increased presence has come as the demand for local meat has risen: Consumers want to know where meat is coming from, how it was raised and butchered, and that it is healthy and safe.
These new preferences require more local producers and skilled butchers. In fact, in North Carolina alone, the number of farmers selling local, pasture-raised meat direct to consumers has increased from just a few in 2002 to over a thousand today.
Because the meat business has been heavily dominated by men for so long, one of the biggest changes for women entering the field is the ability to find female roles models for employment, training, and support.
These six women have taken it upon themselves to solve that problem, along with the myriad other issues that exist for small farm owners. They’ve had to endure comments like, “Wouldn’t you rather be baking cookies?” with vision and guts, intent on educating consumers, collaborating and supporting small farmers. Besides laying the best chops on the table, women who succeed in the business are cutting through stereotypes and are opening doors to a new, more sustainable industry.
Kari Underly, principal owner of Range in Chicago
Underly created Range Meat Academy, an innovative online meat-cutting certification that addresses the need for increased education in the field of butchery, which lacks adequate training, especially for women who have historically been excluded from higher-level positions.
But hope lies in unexpected places. In recent years, after a demonstration at the New England Meat Conference, a butcher approached Underly and told her he’d never seen a woman cut meat. The experience opened his eyes, enough so that he felt compelled to promote a woman to meat cutter and give her on-the-job training. “You cannot do what you do not see,” Underly said.
Julia Spondike, WorldSkills Team member representing Culinary Arts
Spondike, 20, faces an overwhelmingly male field when she competes for WorldSkills USA, an organization that trains young people through vocational education and competitions. Right now, Spondike is Team USA’s only culinary arts representative, and she credits Underly as a major inspiration.
What does Spondike think young women need to succeed in the meat business? Confidence. “Know you have the skill, step up to the plate, and show what you can do,” Spondike said.
Jennifer Hashley, director of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project at Tufts University and owner of Pete & Jen’s Backyard Birds
Hashley is a former Peace Corps member who piloted a project to create a new way for small poultry farmers to slaughter on their own property, thus giving them autonomy. Today she designs educational programs for farmers.
The unit is currently used as an educational device for Tufts’ New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, where Hashley serves as director, and which provides career training and economic opportunities to new farmers, and has inspired farmers to build their own humane, small, on-farm processing facilities.
“As a woman, you have to know what you’re talking about and speak with authority,” Hashley told HuffPost. “I’ve found people are hungry for information. I always show up knowledgeable and prepared.”
Kate Stillman, owner of Stillman Quality Meats in Massachusetts
Stillman developed a first-of-its-kind, vertically integrated farm processing system, seeing birds all the way from live poultry to chicken pot pie. Stillman serves as a role model for the growing community of women who want to make a viable living in farming and butchery.
Stillman’s crew is 75% women, and her team takes pride in being part of the whole process from the slaughterhouse to sales. Women are changing old stereotypes and currently “ruling the roost” in the meat business, she said.
“All my life, the tractor was the centerpiece of the farm. Nowadays, it’s the cell phone. Women are selling their farms’ stories and kicking butt at it.”
Camas Davis, founder of the Portland Meat Collective and executive director at Good Meat Project
Davis is a former writer and editor who created the nation’s first meat collective in Portland, Oregon. Space supports small farmers who sell whole animals to the collective, while chefs and butchers teach their hands-on craft to consumers, creating awareness and demand for meat that is sustainable and humanely produced. Davis’ memoir, Killing It, details her journey.
“Women in the industry are often relegated to menial tasks,” Davis said. “They are entering a competitive industry. We provide female mentors to foster collaborative relationships. With the help of an increasing community of women business owners in the industry, Grrls Meat Camp is creating an army of mentors.”
Julia Poplawsky, cofounder of Central Texas Meat Collective
Burned out by the restaurant business, Poplawsky tried vegetable farming, but leaving meat behind felt like “breaking up with a boyfriend.” Inspired by a love of animals, farming, and education, Poplawsky is creating a new meat culture in Austin with the Central Texas Meat Collective, inspired by Davis’ progress in Portland.
Julia Poplawsky is just 5’2” — but she doesn’t let her petite size define her. Her rival at culinary school was a man who stood 6’2” and “people expected his skill to exceed mine in the kitchen, but that just motivated me,” Poplawsky told HuffPost.
And then, she “fell in love with the physical task of meat cutting. It’s like solving a puzzle using muscle memory.”
She’s found that butchery also has gendered expectations: “The biggest stereotype I run into is that in the business a man still expects to talk to another man,” she said. But “it doesn’t bog me down too much.”
Inspired by a love of teaching, Poplawsky heard about Davis’ work in Portland and reached out to learn more about the meat collective. Thus began the Austin-based Central Texas Meat Collective — which Poplawsky developed with local farmer Leah Gibson — where classes educate consumers about real farm-to-fork practices using whole animals purchased from nearby farms. Farmers teach classes on humane butchering practices, and in Whole Hog (the most popular class), participants learn to break down meat into individual cuts — and then get to take 15 pounds of it home.
For Poplawsky the biggest impetus behind developing the collective was the prospect of working directly with the people who raise livestock. “Farmers keep it real with their grit and humility and their ability to create delicious food,” she said.