June 16, 2021 332 PM
MARFA – For Marfa Meats owner Christy Miller, running a meat processing plant is a first. Miller –– who has a background in finance –– decided to open up Marfa Meats after wondering why she couldn’t get a local steak in town. As The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported, the first step she took in opening the plant was contacting late rancher Ellery Aufdengarten. “He was just such a huge champion of mine,” she said. “He was the catalyst for me making connections with so many people in the ranching community that I didn’t know before.”
Miller said that there were a lot of obstacles to opening her business out here in remote West Texas. “For example, we had some delays getting the power hooked up, and then once the power was hooked up we got hit by lightning, and the transformer blew and AEP had to come out,” she said. “I knew it would be hard. I didn’t think it was going to be a breeze, but it’s incredibly difficult.”
And the challenges have persisted. “It’s exponentially harder to do things here. First of all, it’s expensive because all of this speciality equipment has to be shipped from far away,” she said. “I end up paying almost as much for shipping some of these things as I do for the product itself.”
“We realized we were out of coolant and the closest place that has coolant is in Odessa. So then you’re spending a whole day sending someone to Odessa to pick it up and go back,” she said. “You just can’t rely on normal business operations to function effectively here.”
Yet Marfa Meats opened its doors just two weeks ago, and the company –– right off of Highway 90 just west of town –– is already doing a brisk business.
It’s been half a century since there has been a meat processing plant in town, and Miller said that some ranchers in the area have jumped at the chance to process their livestock. “It’s a drought so they’re paying to feed their animals, so all of sudden they have an opportunity to process them and not have them on the feed bill, so to speak. So we were really kind of slammed,” Miller said.
On Tuesday, operations were well under way. In the chop shop, Miller had a crew of four butchers who were busy slicing away at a beef carcass. One butcher, Nicole Tancik, said it takes the team about four hours to cut down a cow and package the meat for the customer.
“I’m from Colorado, so seeing meat that looks this good in the desert is kind of amazing to me,” said Tancik, who has been working in the industry since she was 16.
In the back of the butcher shop, about a dozen carcasses were attached to hooks hanging from the ceiling. There, the beef is dry aged for about two weeks before the team carves away at the animal. “When you first slaughter an animal, you’ve got to get rid of all the rigor mortis and everything else. It’s still quite tough actually,” said Guy Sealey, another butcher at Marfa Meats. “You dry age them to take the moisture out, because that gives them more flavor.”
In order to turn the dry-aged carcass into recognizable cuts of meat, the butchers first have to cut the carcass in half with a knife and then place the meat on a bandsaw to cut into finer pieces.
After whittling away all of the excess fat, skin and bone, the team packages the hanger steaks, brisket, skirt steaks, short ribs, T-bones and many other cuts for the customer. Sealey, who moved from Connecticut to work here, said that they can get over 500 pounds of meat from the animal.
Right now, Marfa Meats provides two distinct services. One side of the business lets ranchers – or anyone who is raising a cow or pig – process their livestock for personal use. The other side is about selling local meat directly to consumers. Miller had to get federal USDA certifications to do this. There also has to be a USDA inspector on site to monitor the butchering process.
“We are processing USDA meat for ourselves, which means we can sell to the public. We’re going to have a little retail shop here,” Miller said. She’s also going to sell her meat at a vending machine in front of the Cactus Liquors store and eventually ship her meat across the country.
“The cattle we are buying from Aufdengarten were raised in Pinto Canyon. They moved it over to this tiny little feedlot they have by the radio tower and then it comes here. All of that is within a 20-mile radius,” she said. “It’s just about keeping a really tight chain. To know exactly how the animal was raised and where it was raised, it’s an entirely different product.”
Gary Aufdengarten, the co-owner and operator of Aufdengarten Cattle Company, has been looking forward to Marfa Meats opening up. “The local butcher is going to do a lot of good for the community, and that’s how it used to be 40 or 50 years ago. Every town had one or two little butchers and they produced a better product,” he said. “You knew exactly where your product was coming from, where the animal was coming from and who was cutting it up and taking care of it.”
Miller also plans on supplying meat to local restaurants and grocery stores. “We’re having a meat tasting next Monday. We invited the local restaurant folks and grocery people, and we’re going to do a meet and greet with the producers,” she said. “Hopefully that will get us some wholesale accounts.”
Miller says she feels like she is providing a true service to the community. “It is rewarding when the local ranchers are just so happy that they don’t have to drive four hours to get their animals processed,” she said.
In the next month, Miller plans on getting a composter out there to turn all of the animal byproducts into a rich soil. “We’re going to work on a huge garden out here. That would be great, just to have local vegetables,” she said. “By using the byproducts of these animals, we’re actually creating something right here that enriches our soil and enriches our health.”