Borderline Butchering: Meating butchering needs of the smaller producer

Livestock producers with an animal to process have participated in a practice of patience lately, as wait times went from weeks to months following the COVID-19 pandemic. Demand for the services of the local butcher shop grew, creating opportunities for people like Ron Heller, owner and operator of Borderline Butchering. Located a few miles east of Sioux Falls on the South Dakota and Iowa border, the butcher shop recently celebrated its first anniversary.

The ag industry is not new to Ron. He grew up on a small Northwest Iowa farm, and his parents were part owners in a butcher shop that processed their cattle and hogs. An avid hunter and fisherman, he used to butcher a lot of deer and other animals when he was younger, and he says, “I loved doing it.”

A few years ago, the 20-year Air Force veteran began to consider establishing a butcher shop close to Sioux Falls, knowing the business would fill the processing needs of many producers in the area. After securing the land for the business, he visited the locker in Gregory, SD and other butcher shops to learn how best to proceed before beginning work on what would become Borderline Butchering. Ron explains the services that the custom retail shop offers: “We can handle the entire butchering process from the live animal walking in, to boxes of meat going out.” In addition to Ron, two fulltime and one part-time staff members help keep the meat rolling out quickly, as the business currently processes 40 to 60 animals each month. “Luckily, we were able to hire and keep a few great employees, and we work hard to keep them because they are so valuable to the operation.”

Borderline Butchering is inspected once a month by the state of South Dakota. They stay busy with hogs and cattle and an occasional buffalo, yet still need to be set up to process small ruminants as there are requirements and limitations to sheep and goats butchering. In the first year of operation, Ron says that Borderline Butchering has had so many bookings that their wait time increased from weeks to months. Ron says, “We’ve been able to help a lot of the area farmers who have an animal with a broken leg and process it instead of letting it go to rendering. Our main customers have been small to medium beef and hog producers that bring in animals for their family and friends. We also see small to medium producers with a customer base for their meat.”

Customers of Borderline Butchering can have their animals processed to their specifications for cuts and quantities. They can also have meat smoked or dry-aged. Commercially labeled jerky, brats, and other meats and cheeses are available for sale at the front counter area of the business. Ron would like to delve into brewing beer in the future, as he has a few specialty selections he would like to offer to customers.

When asked about the recent popularity of small butcher shops, Ron says that a few factors are at play. Pandemic-related meat and food shortages led to the realization that many consumers were unprepared for disruptions in their ability to access the food they needed at any time. This prompted a trend in purchasing freezers for meat acquired on the hoof and processed. A consequence of this movement is that through this model, customers know better where their meat is from and what types of feed the animal consumed. Ron says, “We see customers who have returned to the same farmer for 25 years. They value that they know how their meat was raised and can’t find the same quality anywhere else.” The quality of the meat is one of the other factors that Ron says attract the great demand for butcher shops; as he explains, “I notice the difference in quality between the meat that the consumer finds at the grocery store versus the cuts processed here. Some really good meat comes through here, and we strive for quality because we know that people are looking for great meat.”

To achieve high-quality meat, Ron says that the genetics in the herd are essential, and the animals must be fed quality feed. He sees the movement toward organic and grass-fed livestock. “There are some fantastic grass-fed animals that come to us out of high-quality management programs that are very strict, which shows in the animals and the quality of the meat.”

Another factor in the popularity of the small butcher shop is the savings realized by processing an animal versus buying meat package by package from a grocer. Ron comments, “There is a good value in purchasing your meat by the quarter, half, or whole animal versus cut by cut at the grocery store.” While it can be difficult for those living paycheck to paycheck to afford the upfront costs, those who can save a little money to purchase all or part of an animal on the hoof and have it processed end up saving quite a bit in the long run, and typically enjoy higher quality meat as a bonus.

Grateful for the success of Borderline Butchering, Ron says that the best part of owning his butcher shop is interacting with his customers. It is fulfilling when they remark that the meat they received was among the best they have ever eaten. While he is quick to point out that the meat’s quality is a direct result of how the animal was raised, he still feels good about playing a part in such a positive experience for the consumers. Ron says, “Our customers are great people to work with. The people who come through our door are a highlight for us. They are very grateful, and I find it easy to relate to them.”