It’s Friday afternoon as I walk into Western Daughters, a small butcher shop in the LoHi neighborhood of Denver, Colorado. The space isn’t very big, but it’s packed with customers buying steaks, sausages, and other tasty treats for a weekend of grilling for grilling’s sake, or to tailgate for various sporting events. I’m here to see Kate Kavanaugh, head butcher and founder of the shop, and she’s behind the counter serving customers right alongside her small team.
Kate is part of a small but thriving group. For the better part of the past 5 years, she’s co-owned Western Daughters, Denver’s first whole animal butcher. Founded on the belief that whole animal butchery is better for the land, the animals, and the farmers and ranchers, Western Daughters only sources animals that come from within 150 miles of their Denver shop. Their beef and lamb are 100% grass-fed and their pork and chicken are pasture-raised and eat an omnivorous diet of forage and non-GMO feed. As co-founder and butcher, Kate is part of an elite club: female butchers leading the charge in a traditionally male-dominated industry.
The presence of high-end, “new school” butcher shops has seen a rise in the last few years. Once a slowly-dying industry, butcher shops have seen a resurgence as consumers look to deepen their relationship with the food they eat and the people that produce it, as well as increase their access to a better, healthier product. With the increase in butcher shops, consumers can now learn about the farm that raises cattle for the shop or ask questions about what’s best to cook and how. Western Daughters has been part of that resurgence, but they’re also part of a small but steadily growing group of grass-fed and/or pasture-raised only butcher shops.
The US beef industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, and while grass-fed beef is an extremely small component of the industry, it’s seen substantial growth in the last half-decade. According to a 2017 study, “Retail sales of labeled fresh grass-fed beef reached $272 million in 2016...and the U.S. market for grass-fed beef has grown at 100 percent per year for the past four years.” Grass-fed beef comes from cattle that were allowed to forage and graze for their own fresh food, they can be given close grass substitutes in winter¹. Pasture-raised cows receive a significant portion of their nutrition from organically-managed pasture and may receive supplemental organic grains². Both of these differ from traditional practices in that the emphasis is on providing the closest thing to a natural diet as possible. The cost is high for these types of products, and not all butcher shops stock them. But as the industry develops, there’s an opportunity for a streamlined supply chain and decreased costs to consumers.
A former vegetarian, Kate speaks about sustainable animal practices and sustainable butchery with passion and conviction. “This butcher shop came into conception in a roundabout way,” she tells me, “I was interested in holistic grazing methods, grasslands restoration, and soil biology, and I decided the best way to support those systems was to look at the role of ruminants (cattle,sheep, etc) on grasslands and the positive impact they can have.” She started eating responsibly raised meat as a way to support those systems, and continues that mindset in the shop.
Though the National Women’s Law Center estimates that only about 25% of individuals working full-time as butchers or meat-cutters are women³, Kate is in good company. Some of the nation’s most notable butcher shops are owned or helmed by women. White Gold Butchers on New York City’s Upper West Side is co-owned by famed chef April Bloomfield and butchers Erika Nakamura and Jocelyn Guest. Fleisher’s Grass Fed & Organic Meats — where many butchers (including Kate) have done internships — has a female CEO (who is also a trained butcher). Most notable is Anya Fernald’s Belcampo Meats, in northern California, a venture capital-backed “integrated premium beef enterprise that now has 300 employees, 2,500 head of cattle on 23,000 acres, an abattoir [slaughterhouse], and seven Belcampo butcher shops and restaurants” that is by far, the biggest player in this space. In 2016 Belcampo’s profits were $15 million, and they hope to be above $50 by 2023⁴.
But Kate doesn’t necessarily notice that lack of women in the industry, but instead describes Belcampo and Fleisher’s as trailblazers; companies that are changing the conversation around grass-fed beef and making the industry more competitive in a cramped beef market. Whether it’s butcher shop owners or consumers, forcing positive change in the industry is about “putting your money where you can push up against big corporations,” Kate says. While the grass-fed cattle industry is currently a very small portion of the total beef industry, Kate sees a future where it can be competitive. “In order to rival big companies, you have to form partnerships that make it beneficial for each person every step of the way,” she says. “People aren’t really looking at economies of scale and sitting down with ranchers and farmers to discuss how we can build a grass-fed system like the current industrial system.”
The 2017 industry study agrees with Kate, finding that “the price of grass-fed beef could come down significantly if the industry were to establish well-managed grass-finishing operations that take advantage of economies of scale in processing, distribution, and marketing.” The number of producers finishing grass-fed cattle in the US has risen 3900% since 1998, yet they still only produce less than 1% of the overall cattle for slaughter each year⁵.
Kate acknowledges that shops like hers cater to a higher-end clientele. But she argues that the grass-fed beef industry must “work within traditional business models” to make buying feasible for consumers with less spending power. She’s active with local and state governments to help enact laws that can make the grass-fed beef industry competitive. “We have to be working with state legislatures and national policymakers to make this a more viable option. Let’s come up with a food system that works on local and state levels that’s efficient and makes money for everyone involved.”
As we wind down our conversation, Kate shows me behind the counter where the butchering occurs, and as it so happens, most of the staff working that day were young women. In 2017, Kate was named to Forbes 30 under 30, a distinction she hopes will encourage more women to get into the butchering and farming industries. The grass-fed beef industry is changing and consumers are demanding better, more local products, and butcher shops like Western Daughters — and others lead by women — are at the forefront of a major shift in the industry.
Change is coming, especially when there are women leading the way.
Brianna is the Founder & Editor-in-Chief at Hook & Blade. She is based out of New York City where she enjoys exploring the city, trying new foods, and people watching. She works as the Global Email Marketing Manager at Global Citizen, and tries to travel as much as she can.