What does it mean for small butchers when meat is the ‘bad guy’?

The meat counter at Ver Brugge on College Avenue.
The meat counter at Ver Brugge Foods on College Avenue. The shop carries 50 kinds of fresh fish, in addition to USDA Prime beef and Mary’s free-range chickens. The chicken-whiskey-fennel sausage is a best-seller, Ver Brugge said. Photo: Kathryn Bowen

If Hollywood cycles through “bad guys,” or at least “villainous tropes,” so too does food: Meet meat. Right now, the protein portion of the food pyramid is receiving particular attention, with reports that demand for beef is driving deforestation and fires in the Amazon. Although recent research might be walking back negative portrayals of red meat, even self-identifying omnivores are eating fewer animals. It’s a market opportunity not lost on fast food titans, who are rolling out new plant-based products designed to mimic the look, taste and aroma of chicken and beef.

“This is basically a dying industry, and there’s nobody left, pretty simple.” — Jerry Ver Brugge, founder of Ver Brugge Foods

Which got me thinking: What’s to come of East Bay butchers who base their livelihoods on livestock? Especially amidst reports that local companies, like Memphis Meats in Emeryville, are attracting investment for cell-grown raw meat that avoids the need for animal slaughter and husbandry. I went to 42-year-old Ver Brugge Foods, an Oakland institution and butcher shop on College Avenue, for answers.

“This is basically a dying industry, and there’s nobody left, pretty simple,” the shop’s owner and founder Jerry Ver Brugge, told me. “Butchers, like these guys and me, are no more skilled. They aren’t being trained anymore.” Part of the reason is economic, Ver Brugge said — though it’s not directly tied to demand for meat alternatives.

Blue-collar jobs,⁠ from electricians to cement finishers, and yes, “carcass butchers,” are fast disappearing. The other issue is that whole-animal butchery is no easy feat; the work is strenuous and labor-intensive. “When you’re 40, it’s over. You can’t do it, physically, anymore.” It also takes dedication. “You have to be here every day, all day, to make it work.”


Outside Ver Brugge Foods, where hand-painted signs display the week's deals.
Outside Ver Brugge Foods, where hand-painted signs display the week’s deals. Photo: Kathryn Bowen

Then there’s the issue of technology, and changing industry preferences. “We’re prehistoric. When you come in and you order a turkey for Thanksgiving, we write it on a three-by-five notecard,” Ver Brugge said. “We don’t email. No computers.”

Ver Brugge wouldn’t have point-of-sale cash registers, either, if it weren’t for their capacity to scan and record prices. Ver Brugge avoids advertising, save for the 24 signs that he paints by hand, that are placed in the window every Wednesday morning.

I asked Ver Brugge, who completed his butchery apprenticeship in 1966, whether he’d observed an increase in demand for pasture-raised or organic meat. “We’ve seen some movement towards that,” he responded. “But this shop is old fashioned,” he continued, and “is staunchly involved in the Angus beef movement, that is something that a lot of places don’t have anymore.”

At Ver Brugge’s establishment, which Oakland Magazine deemed Best Butcher Shop in 2014, you’ll primarily find quality Angus beef “that’s corn-fed, that’s USDA Prime, full of fat.” Some even seek it out for these specific qualities. “We get people coming from all over the Bay Area because we’re the only ones that have it,” Ver Brugge said.

It sounded, then, like other butchers might be heading in a different direction. If so, that would comport with national trends. In August, Melissa Clark reported in The New York Times on a new set of “ethical” butchers: “a small but successful cadre” of high-profile former vegetarians and vegans who aren’t just reintroducing meat into their diets, but are butchering it themselves. Driven by a desire to reduce waste, improve animal treatment and protect the environment, these new storefronts are seeking whole animals that are pasture-raised and grass-fed. They also aim to transform the industry from within.

Across the East Bay, it seems that small butcher shops increasingly reflect this preference for sourcing whole animals that are raised on pasture, and primarily fed grass, not corn or soy. And moral taglines aside, these entities appear intent not just on delivering high-quality meat, but on reducing its carbon footprint, ecological impact and harm to animals and humans.

One key player in the pack is Marin Sun Farms, which operates a butcher shop in Rockridge’s Market Hall and owns the last slaughterhouse in the San Francisco Bay Area. The company, deemed one of the “pioneers in grass-fed beef,” has its butchers break down carcasses on location (not at its abattoir), and sells animals raised on pasture in California, without antibiotics or hormones.

Likewise, The Local Butcher Shop in North Berkeley, sources only “whole carcass” animals that are antibiotic and hormone-free, co-owner and founder Monica Rocchino told me. Rocchino and her business partner and husband, Aaron (a former Chez Panisse chef), maintain other exacting standards as well. All of the Shop’s animals must be reared “within 150 miles of Berkeley.” Its beef and lamb are raised on pasture, grass-fed and grass-finished. Though it seems counterintuitive, some “grass-fed” animals aren’t actually fed grass their entire lives, and are instead “finished” on grain in a feedlot.

Whole carcass animals hanging in Berkeley's Local Butcher Shop.
Whole carcass animals hanging in Berkeley’s Local Butcher Shop. Photo: The Local Butcher Shop

While poultry and pork receive some supplemental feed, which is a common practice even for pastured pigs, that too must come from within 150 miles of Berkeley. This feed is usually grown on-site at the Shop’s partner farms, or in collaboration with nearby breweries and cheesemakers, Rocchino added.

The Local Butcher Shop doesn’t trash less appealing cuts. “We use everything head to tail,” Rocchino told me. “What we don’t sell as raw meat, we use to make our sausages and soups and stews… we make soap out of beef fat, and chocolate chip cookies with lard.”

The Rocchinos also perform site visits to ensure that certain husbandry practices, like grass feeding and finishing, are actually observed. “We’ve been shown show farms,” she noted, “so it’s really important to go see, and make sure that what’s happening is really happening.”

The Rocchinos’ sourcing criteria made the Shop a surprising target for anti-meat protests that occurred roughly two years ago, led by animal-rights group Direct Action Everywhere. Rocchino told me that after the demonstrations, they received an outpouring of support, including from many vegans and vegetarians. One of the protestors “even converted to being a really great customer,” Rocchino said. To that end, she tells vegetarians, “if you do decide to eat meat, this is the meat you want to be eating.” The sourcing process is transparent and, as Rocchino put it, the animals “have great lives” before that one “bad day.”

For omnivores concerned about meat’s externalities, the answer is to buy fewer and purchase higher quality products.

For omnivores concerned about meat’s externalities, Rocchino said that the answer is to buy fewer and purchase higher quality products. That way, “you get more nutrient-dense, better-for-you meats,” that fill you up faster. And though you may pay more for locally pastured, grass-fed and grass-finished products, you are absorbing the meat’s “true cost” ⁠— not one that is discounted by subsidized feed, consisting primarily of genetically-modified corn and soy.

For some, including the Rocchinos, the conversation about meat’s future has moved beyond words like “sustainable,” which at best means “status quo,” and at worst means nothing at all, due to its lack of precision. “The new question,” Rocchino said, “is about regenerative agriculture.”

Though the underlying science is complex, regenerative farming is a movement that, in summary, seeks to “improve” the land, particularly by building soil health, which in turn enhances carbon sequestration. And while hotly contested, some believe that managed grazing of livestock can slow or even reverse climate change. Others aren’t so sure, particularly about the ability to scale carbon farming to satisfy current demand for beef. Vocal skeptics include the folks at Impossible Foods, who deemed the practice “the ‘clean coal’ of beef” in a 2019 Impact Report.

Stemple Creek Ranch cows, which are exclusively fed and finished on grass in pasture, and incorporated into a regenerative ranching system.
Stemple Creek Ranch cows, which are exclusively fed and finished on grass in pasture, and incorporated into a regenerative ranching system. Photo: Stemple Creek Ranch

Irrespective of your take on the debate, you may already have entered the fray by ordering beef in Berkeley at the Local Butcher Shop or Chez Panisse, or in Oakland at the Ramen Shop or Flora. These establishments partner with West Marin’s Stemple Creek Ranch, an early adopter of regenerative ranching. In 2013, Stemple Creek was one of just three demonstration sites selected by the Marin Carbon Project to participate in a 10-year case study examining the method.

“We were actually the first ranch in the country to have an active carbon farm plan,” Stemple Creek’s co-owner and founder, Lisa Poncia, told me. Poncia and her business partner and husband, Loren, a fourth-generation rancher, were “thrilled” to participate in the project, which entails adopting specific conservation practices, such as planting perennial grasses and producing natural compost, to enhance soil dynamism and better sequester carbon.

“It’s a really exciting thing to be a part of,” Poncia said, especially as other farms start working in the same direction. According to Poncia, critical mass is integral to carbon farming’s success. “If everybody does it, then it will make a difference in the climate and the health of our planet.”

“If everybody does it, then it will make a difference in the climate and the health of our planet.” — Lisa Poncia, founder of Stemple Creek Ranch, on carbon farming

Emissions aside, Poncia is grateful to the retailers who work with them. “It is not easy to buy directly from a rancher,” she said, “because we are dealing with whole animals,” as opposed to selling individual, in-demand cuts. These small retailers are putting “their money with their mouth is,” in part by “taking the product in a way that’s harder for them to run their businesses.”

Poncia also has advice for meat-eaters, including those who don’t identify as comfortable carnivores. “I really think it’s as simple as know who is producing your food.”

Ver Brugge Foods is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

Marin Sun Farms butcher shop in Market Hall is open from 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.

The Local Butcher Shop is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday through Monday.

Visit Stemple Creek Ranch online.