The morning at 3 Sisters Cattle Company on Washington’s Whidbey Island is blustery and blue. You can see the ridges of the Olympics behind the peaks of the barn roof. Jennifer Muzzall, the eldest of the three sisters, says orcas were in the cove out back earlier. She’s been up since dawn, separating six hogs and four cattle for today’s slaughter. At 7 a.m., a 33-foot-long semi truck with a slaughterhouse inside lumbers into the farmyard and backs up to the barn. Jim Wieringa, the head butcher, throws open the back door, rolls an American Spirit, and fills up his coffee. By 7:10, he’s in waterproof overalls and rubber boots coaxing the first cow of the morning down a chute with the kind of kissy-face noises someone might use to call a cat.
The slaughter is sudden — a bolt shot to the brain — and then it’s surgical and sort of beautiful. The other butcher, Will Coté, hitches a strap around the animal’s back legs. They cross daintily as he turns on a winch, which pulls the carcass out the barn door and up a ramp into the back of the truck. From there it is lifted into the air where it hangs, dripping.
The mobile-slaughter unit was born from a lack of options. In 2000, almost all of the small slaughterhouses in the area had closed, and Bruce Dunlop, a farmer on nearby Lopez Island, didn’t have enough business to interest big industrial plants. The closest small slaughterhouse was five hours and a ferry ride away, which made raising animals for meat logistically difficult and financially risky. So he made a slaughterhouse that could travel to the livestock instead of the other way around. His truck became the first USDA-inspected mobile slaughterhouse. In 2010, the USDA issued guidelines for mobile units, and now nine USDA-inspected trucks — many of which Dunlop built — service remote areas of the country, from reservations in New Mexico to hamlets in northern New York. The Island Grown Farmers Cooperative, Wieringa and Coté’s employer, took over operation of Dunlop’s truck, and it’s now on the road five days a week.
An 8-foot-wide slaughterhouse is like a puzzle. Every piece has to lock together with enough room for two butchers and a USDA inspector to move around without stabbing one another — which Wieringa says has happened only once. After he and Coté hang up the carcass, they cut off the head, then place it on a skull-size stainless-steel rack set into the side of the truck. It’s just above a sliding door, where they kick the guts and hooves and fat into the shovel of a tractor that Jennifer Muzzall has set up outside. While the butchers start skinning, the inspector, Jim Donaldson, takes a hook and a knife to the head, checking the eyes and the lymph nodes for cancer. To sell meat legally, it has to be slaughtered in a facility that has a USDA grant of inspection, so Donaldson travels with the truck. He’s the reason this all works.
The Muzzalls have been on the island since 1910. Most of those years they ran a dairy, but in 2006, as the milk market was tanking, they switched to raising animals for meat, largely because of the truck. “They gave us a link to market,” Scott, Jennifer’s father, says. “Otherwise, we would have been out of business.”
Coté cuts through the chest with an oscillating meat saw, exposing a xylophone of ribs. Brick-and-mortar slaughterhouses usually operate on an assembly line. Each butcher has one job: all the hooves or all the skinning. Coté and Wieringa do everything. They swipe out the organs and trim the skin with short, quick strokes. A foamy pool of runoff builds in the barnyard under the truck, but the carcass is relatively bloodless, just tiny red nicks in the striated web of muscle.
Coté, who is 21 years old, started working in the cooperative’s processing plant, where beef is turned into steaks and sausages, right out of high school. Wieringa, who is 47 years old and whose father was a butcher, pulled him into a semi-official apprenticeship. Wieringa has been running the truck since it started and says he’s trained people before who just don’t get it; they can’t feel the difference between fat and skin, or they’re not delicate enough with the knife. But Coté, who says he doesn’t know any other butchers his age, figured out the pressure and the angles. He works fast, switching knives out of the scabbard he wears hitched around his hips, sharpening the blades between cuts. He slices through the carcass behind the last rib, quartering it between the New Yorks and the rib-eyes. Then Donaldson gives his OK, and Coté slides the pieces onto the hanging scale. Each quarter weighs almost exactly the same.
After the weigh-in, the two spray the carcass with water and then with a vinegar solution to sterilize it and roll it into the cooler in the front of the truck. It takes about an hour to butcher a steer. When they switch to the Muzzalls’ hogs, they work in unison. Wieringa is left-handed and Coté is a righty, so they each concentrate on a half, then swap sides. Their hands are bare, and their sweatshirts are rolled up to their elbows. It’s slippery and humid in the truck because they’re constantly hosing down the floor, their knives, and themselves. They move quickly, humming to Rihanna on the radio, teasing Donaldson — who is in his 60s — about how his wife is a cougar.
After the last hog is cut and cleaned, they snap the freezer closed, hose down the truck, and drive back to the processing plant. Carcasses are hanging three deep in the walk-in freezer. Coté slides the sides of beef closer together, trying to find enough space. Wieringa says he and Coté are so busy, they are now turning down farmers. To meet demand, he says, a neighboring co-op will need to purchase its own truck.