Near Cheviot, North Canterbury, New Zealand

The first set of kill sheets are presented to me by Graeme, one of two MAF (Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries) -appointed butchers who come to Harris Meats each week to stun and slaughter dozens of pigs, cattle beasts, sheep and lambs. The kill sheet is damp from the chill of the killing room floor and spattered with blood and small bits of flesh. I wipe away the gore carefully without smearing the thick red pencil used to record flesh weights.

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About sixty miles north of Christchurch on Highway 1 you will come upon the old Domett Railway Station.  It’s been transformed recently into the charming Mainline Station Café- I recommend stopping in for a bowl of Kumara and Roasted Red Capsicum soup, served with homemade wheat toast and local Karikaas cheddar. Just across the highway from the café is the Hurunui Mouth Road. Follow it, taking care to look for stray sheep that may have wandered from their paddock.

About a mile up on the Hurunui Road, look for a low, gray, pre-fab structure on your right. The gravel lot in front is enormous, to accommodate the livestock semis that rumble in and out from dawn to dusk.  Although they are largely hidden from view by the cement walls of the meat processing plant, the holding pens and slaughterhouse stretch behind the office. You can certainly hear the animals- the deep bellows of cattle, the eerie shrieks of swine, the nervous blatters of sheep.

If you continue along the Hurunui Road for about 5 miles, you will tumble into Manuka Bay and the Pacific Ocean. It is an achingly beautiful, peaceful site that is surrounded by the majesty of the Southern Alps to the west and vast blue of the Pacific to the east. North Canterbury is pastoral and largely undeveloped, its arable land given over to vines and olive groves and pastures for sheep, cattle and deer farming. It is a most lovely region in this most beautiful of lands.

It was the peace, the beauty, the simple life, and the strong sense of community that drew Brendan and me to Cheviot and the Hurunui District from where we were living and working in Christchurch.  Cheviot, a hamlet of 400 souls, is a service town right on Highway 1. North of Cheviot, along a stomach-turning and jaw-dropping series of switchbacks, Highway 1 leads to the coastal gem of Kaikoura, a whale watcher’s Mecca. The two-lane road, which is the principal north-south route of New Zealand’s South Island,  then hugs the coast to the wine country of Marlborough, the utilitarian city of Blenheim, and declares its terminus in the port village of Picton, where fingers of land stretch across Cook Strait to the North Island.

Cheviot

But wee Cheviot is a blink along the way: a petrol station, a chip shop, a hardware store,three pubs, two churches, a couple of gift shops. There is also a K-12 school of 150 students that services the communities of Cheviot, Parnassus, Gore Bay, and Motunau where Brendan substitute taught until he landed a regular vineyard gig. It is also home to Harris Meats, a butcher, abattoir and specialty meats processor, which has been the valley’s primary employer since the 1950’s. It’s in its second and third generation of Harris’s, as the founder’s son Bryan is training his sons to run the family business.

I accepted the position of Accounts Manager at Harris Meats the week we made an offer on our Cheviot home. I had to look deep to determine if I could work at an abattoir. I knew, as a meat-eater, that I could not turn a blind eye and pretend the tidy packages of pink and red flesh that appeared on the gleaming surfaces of my grocer’s meat case were not at the expense of a life. I also believed, as someone who loves to cook and cares about the quality of the food I eat, that I had a responsibility to know the full circle of a market animal’s  life. It wasn’t an opportunity I would have sought out, but once it was in my lap, I accepted its value.

The kill sheets landed daily in my In-Box. My task was to record their data into spreadsheets that I sent to MAF headquarters in Wellington.  There were dozens of weights to tally and cross-check, averages to calculate, notes to make if the beast had tested positive for disease prior to slaughter, minutiae regarding its weight class, muscle mass, age. If the animal was for commercial processing, the butchery, packaging and destination were verified with a standard MAF worksheet. If the animal was privately owned,  the butchery was cross-referenced with the pink file cards we maintained for each beast that indicated how many chops, steaks, flanks, T-bones, sausages etc., the owners wanted and who would pick up which portions of the meat; most large beasts were co-owned by families or neighbors and the processed meat was apportioned judiciously.

I came to dread Wednesdays. Wednesday was pig day. When I pulled into the parking lot in the morning, the air was already heavy with the putrid fug of terrified swine. All day I could hear the hogs screaming and jostling in the holding pens; I have no doubt they knew they were living out their final moments.

Swine slaughter began early in the morning and lasted through the evening.  I was obligated to stay until the end of the slaughter, to count and recount each kill sheet and to call Mike, my contact at MAF, to report the statistics of that day’s kill and to verify that the appropriate reports had been received by various MAF offices. I never determined why swine tallies were treated differently, but New Zealand is fanatical about biosecurity and protecting their fragile ecosystem, so I surmise it had to do with the prevalence of viral infections in swine.

Managing the kill sheets was one aspect of my job that I eventually was able to knock out in first and last hour of my work day (except for those horrible Wednesdays). I spent most of my time tracking money coming in and going out of a small business that employed 40 and maintained 1000 accounts. But it was the aspect that had a lasting effect; those surreal moments when I was handed sheets of paper spattered with blood and gore are unforgettable.

An unexpected joy of the job at Harris Meats was the interaction I had with farmers and small business owners throughout the South Island. I delighted in the pregnant pause that followed when I answered the phone or spoke with a customer for the first time- I could just see the puzzled thoughts like a cartoon balloon over the caller’s head “A YANK? What’s a Yank doing at Harris Meats?” No one could quite believe how or why an American ended up in this back-of-beyond corner of the world. And I had a hell of a time understanding the rural Kiwi accent- the drawl was worlds apart from the crisp but bland voices of city dwellers.

I worked at the abbatoir for only a few months. When an opportunity appeared for Brendan and me to work together in vineyards throughout Canterbury, it was too good to pass by. It meant leaving the comfort of an office for the unpredictable weather of the Waipara Valley and the hard physical labor of maintaining a vineyard; it meant giving up a steady paycheck for the vagaries of contract work. But I must admit that it was a welcome relief to work with  my hands to produce life and growth, not to record its end.

I did not become a vegetarian as a result of my time at Harris Meats, but it changed forever my buying habits.  I ate only meat for which I knew the source, i.e., the conditions under which the animal was reared. I stopped eating pork  for the rest of our time in New Zealand. I am now fortunate to work for and shop at a natural foods retailer that offers only meat and poultry which are verified pasture-grazed, free-range, antibiotic and hormone-free and humanely-raised. I’m not as concerned with organics- it’s the animal husbandry that decides what I will buy and consume- but the two are often hand-in-hand.

Growing up in rural Clark County, Brendan and his dad raised the family’s beef cattle. The beeves were halter-broke, would eat out of Brendan’s hand, had names and were treated with compassion and tenderness. And yes, they eventually ended up on the Johnson’s dinner plates. I don’t know if I could lead to slaughter an animal I had raised with such intimacy. But I respect the care and respect they and other small-herd farmers show the animals in their care. And I am grateful for the nourishment those precious beasts provide.