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 having 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 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.
Underly knows the guts of the meat industry. As the daughter of a butcher, her first job was cleaning the meat room during high school, working alongside men, and making $4 an hour. These days, she’s an educator, author of The Art of Beef Cutting (a James Beard Award-nominated book) and a mentor encouraging women to enter the business.
Five years ago, she was inspired to launch Range when she noticed a large number of women taking meatpacking jobs, and wondered how she could increase their wages. The answer? Teaching those women the art of cutting meat.
“I’ve always been attracted to education to help people elevate their skills,” Underly told HuffPost. And she saw a need to train people for mid-level jobs: “We’ve forgotten that in-between sector.”
Her business sense made her realize a brick-and-mortar endeavor would be too expensive, so in 2018 she created online courses that offer intensive video training for meat counter clerks and meat cutters.
Though she had more than a decade of experience, Underly ran into pushback from men who questioned, “What qualifications do you have to certify people?” This year the Illinois Board of Higher Education provided validation: It approved Range as an official private vocational trade school.
Despite her clout, Underly sees problems in recruiting students because “many of the bosses are still men who don’t see the need to pass on information about the course to their employees.”
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.
Spondike’s original training came at a vocational school in Ohio, but she has since showed her chops by winning state and national culinary arts competitions, which play a large role in building prestige in the business. (In 2020, the U.S. competitive butchery team will for the first time include a woman, Cindy Garcia, at the World Butchers’ Challenge, aka the Olympics of meat.)
Spondike’s WorldSkills coach introduced her to Underly, who helped train her for competition. “Butchery became a passion and a lot of it started with Kari’s mentorship,” Spondike said.
When competing at a Culinary Institute of America event, Spondike felt called by the role of butcher: “I was running the kitchen. It was eight guys and me. One of the guys asked me to switch stations to butcher during crunch time. It made me want to prove myself so much more. When my instructor told me I’d knocked it out of the park, I felt a huge sense of pride.”
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.
As Hashley planned her idyllic wedding to her fiancé Pete, with whom she owns the poultry farm Pete & Jen’s Backyard Birds, she wanted to feed guests only food the couple had raised themselves. But she hadn’t realized how much work that required, and ended up traveling to Boston’s Chinatown to find somewhere to process her chickens because no local slaughterhouse was available. That was more than a decade ago.
The experience motivated Hashley to create solutions for a new generation of small farmers: young people and retirees looking to regain a connection to land and community, and immigrants who want to raise culturally relevant food. Hashley obtained an innovation grant from Massachusetts to develop the country’s first mobile poultry processing unit at Tufts University. The mobile trailer is equipped to humanely slaughter chickens, allowing small farmers to process their birds quickly and safely on their own property. She brought together several regulatory agencies to advise her on training and licensing requirements.
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 attended Hashley’s trainings on the logistics of establishing a small, on-farm processing unit. Like Hashley, she felt the pains of not controlling the processing of her animals. The tipping point came one hellish Thanksgiving, when Stillman, recently divorced with a 1-year-old, delivered orders to customers until 2 a.m.
“We were at the mercy of an overbooked slaughterhouse,” she said. That experience, and Hashley’s training, prompted Stillman to create her own vertically integrated farm processing unit.
Stillman has transformed her vision into a reality that includes a highly successful poultry ranch, a humane on-site processing abattoir, a commercial kitchen creating smoked meats and sausages, and a retail butcher shop. This diversified revenue stream has secured her financial footing.
The road to success wasn’t smooth. When seeking a business loan, one banker asked if she wouldn’t be happier just baking cookies. But her father’s practical advice to look beyond one man’s opinion helped her move past infuriation. She told HuffPost that mentors were crucial to her success: “You need to hone a network — people who provide support, finances, technical skills and people who teach you to toughen up. My father taught me to ask for help. As women, we sometimes think it’s a weakness to ask questions.”
Stillman’s crew is 75% women, and her team takes pride in being part of the whole process from 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.”
Davis is a former writer and editor who created the nation’s first meat collective in Portland, Oregon. The space supports small farmers who sell whole animals to the collective, while chefs and butchers teach their hands-on craft to consumers, creating an awareness and demand for meat that is sustainable and humanely produced. Davis’ memoir, Killing It, details her journey.
When life-changing circumstances brought her to France, Davis took an apprenticeship on a family-run farm, where she learned about the stark differences between how most animals are slaughtered in the U.S. compared to how they are killed on a small French farm.
She felt compelled to make a change.
“The problem with the food system is that none of us are a part of it, so we make terrible choices,” Davis told HuffPost.
Upon returning to the U.S., she founded the Portland Meat Collective in 2009, the first of its kind in the nation. The collective offers hands-on experiences and a connection to food that most Americans do not have. Participants learn how to transform a whole animal into different cuts and make delicious food from local sources. She wants her work to create ”a growing community of informed omnivores who support responsible meat production and consumption.”
In 2014, Davis expanded her endeavor by creating the nonprofit Good Meat Project, which serves to spread the meat collective model to cities nationwide. This spring, the Good Meat Project also took over Grrls Meat Camp, an opportunity for women in the meat industry — or those aspiring to be — to network and share skills. The organization also hosts an online community where attendees can swap knowledge and advice.
“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.