Black Earth Meats' owner still optimistic about the future

Bartlett Durand has been through a lot in the past year. In July, his slaughterhouse business, Black Earth Meats, was forced to close after the Village of Black Earth deemed it a “public nuisance” and the two sides were unable to reach an agreement. Later, a Kickstarter campaign that Durand hoped would allow him to buy back his equipment failed to reach its goal of $225,000. Still, the co-owner of Black Earth Meats remains optimistic.

What the Kickstarter campaign lacked in dollars it made up for in other ways, he noted. Nearly 1,000 people felt Black Earth Meats was worth supporting. “Enough people jumped over [as investors] that we have enough money to grease the wheel a bit,” he said.

“It’s about building the community — the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, and probably the blacksmith, too.” — Bartlett Durand

He’s refocusing his efforts on developing the company’s only remaining business, the Conscious Carnivore, a butcher shop and retail outlet on University Avenue in Madison that he says helps create that sense of local community once again. “It’s all about home cooking. Come get some good meat. We’ll help you cook it, share the meal, the stories, and the farm-to-table connection.”

Durand’s enthusiasm is fueled by Wisconsin’s new crowdfunding law, which allows individual funders to buy stock in a company. “I’m a huge proponent of that because I think that’s where we can really change the game,” he said. “It’s about building the community — the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, and probably the blacksmith, too — food, bread, meat, light. That’s where everyone had to come. That’s what made up your towns.”

The crowdfunding idea has given him new hope that community-owned Conscious Carnivores could be started in multiple locations. He just needs to find communities that are willing to pony up for their own local butcher shop.

He envisions a Conscious Carnivore model allowing Wisconsin residents to purchase stock in a particular store, likely in their own community. “We can find the butchers and do all the heavy lifting, we just need the capital,” he said. Being owned by a community of individuals would mean the store couldn’t “get bought up by someone else, because it’s in the community, for the community, and everyone has reduced risk because everyone’s invested in the success of it.” Think Green Bay Packers, but with skin in the game.

“That’s my burning passion now,” he stated. “It’s very exciting.”

End of a chapter

Black Earth Meats closed after efforts to relocate or split the operation fell apart, but a $5.3 million lawsuit Durand subsequently filed against the Village of Black Earth seeking damages for lost revenues and other expenses is just getting underway. That case has been moved to U.S. District Court and is scheduled to be heard by Judge Barbara Crabb in early 2016.

Meanwhile, all that remains on Mills Street in Black Earth is a gutted shell of a business that had been in operation since the 1950s. When Durand acquired it in 2007, it was struggling and “limping to the end game,” he said, with three part-time and three full-time employees. Slaughters were being conducted about once a week.

Under the new leadership, the operation beefed up to 47 employees and slaughtered four days a week, on average.

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Black Earth Meats was a certified-organic, USDA-inspected, and Animal Welfare Approved facility that purchased and processed animals from about 200 area farmers and supplied more than 100 restaurants, grocery stores, and farmers’ markets with healthier cuts of “humanely handled and hormone- and antibiotic-free meats.”

But as the slaughterhouse’s success grew, so did nuisance claims from neighbors, among other complaints. In 2013, Black Earth’s village board told the company to leave or face litigation, and that prompted the business’s creditors to pull their loans.

Meanwhile, Durand continues to sell the company’s equipment and remains “incredibly sad” for what once was — especially for the employees who lost their jobs. “We were a national model,” he said. “Now, this will cost everyone a lot of money.”

Turning a page

About two years ago, Conscious Carnivore opened in Madison as a retail establishment for Black Earth Meats’ products. Durand sold the business to his father-in-law, Gary Zimmer, and several other partners because, legally, he cannot own the store right now, but he is allowed to work in it, or on it. “I also have the right to buy in once the suit is over.”

Durand said he is “extremely confident” that Judge Crabb will rule in his favor. If he succeeds, he’ll use the money to build a new plant elsewhere and to support more community-owned butcher shops, perhaps even a community-owned Conscious Carnivore chain. “I had 18 people wanting to build the slaughterhouse, but it all takes money,” Durand said. “So when we owe money on the building and it’s still in litigation, we can’t get financing to open a new place.”

Recently, Dane County Circuit Judge William Hanrahan overturned an earlier municipal court decision that had found Black Earth Meats guilty on seven of 10 nuisance citations filed against it by the village. Hanrahan, citing Wisconsin’s Right to Farm Act, said there was no threat to public safety or health and awarded the company more than $46,000 to cover attorney fees and costs.

On a personal level, Durand admits he’s “in limbo” and juggling ideas ranging from being a meat processor to going back into law (he had a legal practice in Hawaii before moving to Wisconsin) to becoming a business consultant.

And he’s learned plenty along the way. “It is almost impossible to overcome the general apathy that has developed toward local politics [e.g., running for the village board]. People can be very upset by something and will complain, but it is extremely difficult to get anyone to do anything about it.

“That said, folks are very willing to contribute in support of a business or cause they believe in. Money is easier to share than time.”

The Village of Black Earth did not respond to our request for an interview.

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