This past spring, the Oneida Nation welcomed eight new butcher apprentices. A plumber, a physical therapist, and other tribal members of all ages and walks of life came together for this cumulative eight-day training ― both online and onsite ― to learn how to safely and respectfully process meat to feed the Oneida community.
“Learning to process the animal correctly ensures that the meat is wholesome and safe to eat,” explains Dr. Arquimides Reyes, a training instructor and assistant professor in animal and food science at the University of Wisconsin ─ River Falls. He says the state has encouraged universities and technical colleges to create workshops like this one to ensure that meat products sold in Wisconsin butcher shops are safe.
For the Oneida Nation, the training was essential. Currently, there is a shortage of fully certified butchers (only six) to support two beef-production operations on its commercial farm (Oneida Nation Farms) and an organic farm called Tsyunhéhkwa, which means “life sustenance,” where they grass-feed 35 heads of cattle.
It is a unique arrangement, says Reyes. “It’s very hard for a beef producer in Wisconsin to have both types of operations, as they require two different management infrastructures.” However, he says that having commercial and organic operations offers the best of both worlds. “The tribe can feed more people with commercial meat processing and take better care of the earth by raising cattle organically.” It’s also a bonus for consumers who are treated to two different flavors of beef from grain-fed and grass-fed cattle.
First Nations helped cover the associated costs of the butcher certification training, in addition to a $25,000 grant the Oneida Nation received in 2021 under First Nations’ “Forging Last-Mile Protein Supply Chains in Indian Country” project, part of the Nourishing Native Foods and Health Program. The project was created to strengthen the infrastructures of local meat supply chains and give consumers improved access to high-quality meat.
Online and in-person training
What made the Oneida Nation Butcher Certification Training so unique is that it blended an online curriculum with in-person, onsite training ─ from gate to plate.
The training began with Dr. Manny Encinias, a fifth-generation rancher from New Mexico, leading the nearly 72 hours of virtual instruction. He taught participants on Zoom about the various cuts of beef and new value-added beef cuts, where cuts are located on the carcass, and how to market beef to the consumer using direct and online sales strategies.
Encinias was asked to be an instructor due to his vast expertise in developing successful direct-to-consumer beef production and marketing business models, as well as his 20+ years of working with Native ranchers on managing resources and improving the genetics of cattle. He holds a doctorate degree in cattle nutrition and is also the founder and owner of Trilogy Beef Community, a food network of beef producers that provides USDA-inspected, locally raised beef to families in New Mexico.
The key to building a robust protein supply chain is having the resources to grow these animals to an optimum weight, and the Oneida Nation definitely has them, says Encinias. “Oneida is blessed with bountiful resources, like plentiful grass. Something we don’t have a lot of in New Mexico.” High-quality grass and forages that can be sustainably grown and harvested on a cattle farm are vital to developing an animal protein supply chain, he explains.
Other Native meat-processing operations would be well-advised to include both virtual and in-person components in butcher certification training, recommends Encinias. “The virtual curriculum gives students an opportunity to understand concepts ─ like the anatomy of a carcass and the terminology ─ before we jump into the hands-on, butchering aspect of training, which is very demanding, physically and mentally.”
Encinias believes Natives make the best students, and he certainly would know. The cattle expert is also the chair of the Department of Ag, Animal and Farrier Sciences at Mesalands Community College in Tucumcari, New Mexico.
“I have found that Native students always come to learn,” says the professor, but admits he’s the one who gets educated. “Indigenous people have a strong connection to Mother Earth and animals, and a great respect for the land. It is so rewarding and educational for me to work in this environment.”
An emphasis on safety and respect for animals
The second half of the butcher certification program took place onsite at Oneida Nation Farms using the tribe’s 30×8-foot-long mobile slaughtering unit. Participants learned how to select and harvest an animal in a safe and humane way; how to break down a side of beef and produce specific cuts; how to use safety equipment and tools; and how to price, store, and age meat properly.
Learning how to take a living animal, such as a cow or buffalo, from “farm to plate” is not an occupation for everyone. In his teaching role at the university, Reyes oftentimes witnesses the emotional and possibly ethical struggle students have with slaughtering an animal. “I see this all the time and that’s exactly why I think more training is needed for them.”
His students learn to respect animals and care for their well-being up to the last moment of their life. Not only is it a humane practice, but also, it’s the law.
On Aug. 27, 1958, Congress passed the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) requiring “the humane treatment and handling of food animals at the slaughter plant while also providing a quick and effective death.” The Act is enforced by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
“We make sure the animal is as calm and as comfortable as can be in its natural habitat from the moment of birth. We try to reduce the amount of stress of the animal not only because of our reverence for animals, but also, stress affects the quality of the meat,” Reyes touches on this sensitive subject.
Reyes taught Oneida training participants to use every part of the animal, if possible. It is yet another way to honor and respect the life of that living creature. “Even the guts and stomach of the animal can be composted and used to fertilize the ground where white corn is grown. If composted correctly, it makes some of the best fertilizer out there.”
The Oneida Nation will certainly be able to put all parts of the animal to good use on Tsyunhéhkwa , its 83-acre organic farm where they organically grow tomatoes, onions, and other traditional foods, such as the most popular crop, white corn, a staple of the tribe’s cultural diet.
The table is set for more practice and training
Participants in Oneida’s butcher training acquired enough knowledge to become apprentices at butcher shops. Students were given assessments along the way to gauge their proficiency, skills, and understanding.
But more training is necessary, says Reyes. “We call this an introduction certification. They know the basics, how to handle a knife and cut a piece of meat for retail and packaging. But they are not ready to run their own facility yet.”
The animal and food science professor says another two to three trainings and certifications are needed to guarantee food safety and help the apprentices become comfortable with the slaughtering process.
Encinias agrees that practice, practice, practice is what students must do to perfect the art of butchering, and he shares that discussions are underway to offer continued training in the future at Oneida Nation Farms. He videotaped the onsite training so participants can go online and brush up on what they learned in the meantime.
“The hardest part of training is mastering the artistry of meat cutting. To make a steak look perfect, you must understand the anatomy and be able to differentiate between muscles because they have different flavors.” Encinias shares that his favorite cut of beef is the flavorful pichana, popularized in Brazil, but not well-known in the United States. “Americans probably know it by the name of ‘top sirloin cap’ or the ‘rump cap.'”
Recognizing that some students are squeamish about killing animals for food, the instructors educated training participants on the importance of animal protein and that food insecurity has been a problem in Indian Country long before the pandemic.
“I tell students that I have to feed my family and I know these animals are there for that purpose. It is the cycle of life,” says Encinias. “Learning how to kill an animal for food is a responsibility for some tribal members to take on to give back to their people. And I really felt that in this training, participants were doing it not only for themselves, but for the entire Oneida community.”