Cutting meat: a dying art
After raising beef and lamb in a high school National FFA Organization program, Michael Rockholt developed an interest in meat.
"I just enjoyed raising the animals," the 50-year-old said. "It did give me the education to know how to raise the animal -- and my future career, as it turns out."
At age 16, he landed a job cleaning the meat room at Safeway.
"And I noticed that the highest paid guy was the meat cutter," he quipped.
So, after graduating from high school in Northern California, he went to meat cutting school in Toledo, Ohio, where he learned how to butcher an animal carcass from top to bottom. Laid off by a California grocer, he came to the Yakima Valley to visit family and decided to stay, and eventually opened his own meat cutting shop.
He's among only a handful of butchers left in the Yakima Valley who possess such skills.
When he first opened his business, CJ's Custom Meats on Jones Road west of Wapato in 1994, there were 10 custom meat cutting operations in the Yakima Valley. Now there are five, he said.
He named the business after his four grown sons -- Christopher, Christian, James and Jon -- whose names all start with the letter C or J.
The beef industry has grown and become more mechanized, and the need for a single cutter to break an animal carcass into all the various cuts such as T-bones, sirloins and roasts is fading.
"It's a dying art -- it really is," he said.
He employs roughly a dozen workers during winter when business peaks to butcher, cut and wrap meat. During the summer, when business slows, the number of workers drops to six.
Cattle are often left to graze pastures in the summer, so there isn't much butchering going on, he said.
The front of his business is outfitted with a small retail area, where pepper sticks, jerky, sausages and seasoned bacon are kept in coolers.
Behind is another room, where two large smokers rest along one wall. Farther back is another room where two men cut beef into various steaks. Between are several walk-in coolers where carcasses, cut meat and ground meat are kept separately.
One walk-in is devoted to wild game.
"In the fall, this room is full of deer and elk," he said as he popped his head into the huge cooler.
Hunters from as far north as Kittitas County and as far south as Klickitat County, including tribal hunters, bring deer and elk into his shop on the Yakama reservation.
Eventually, the meat is wrapped and put into wire baskets for customers to pick up.
"And in the wintertime when we're busy, we don't have enough baskets," he said.
When that happens, meat that isn't picked up right away is put into cardboard boxes and moved to a neighboring cooler.
For Rockholt and the few other meat cutters in the Valley, small farmers and hunters bring the business.
Beef accounts for most of that business; hunters account for roughly 15 percent.
"It's just your local farmer," he said. "He might be raising (beef) just for his family or he may be raising six or eight (head of cattle) for customers he has lined up."
Rockholt said he plans to start picking up animals from customers to bring back to his shop, where they will be broken into whatever cuts the customer wants.
"Our main business is cutting and wrapping your animal," he said. "We'll come get your animal, butcher it and give it back to you."
He even provides customers with a form that allows them to choose how they want their animal cut.
"A lot of people are picky," he said. "They like their meat cut a certain way and that's what we'll do for them."
But rising feed and fuel costs are reducing the number of animals that some small farmers are raising, he said.
This year, for example, one customer planned to bring in 10 cows to be butchered but scaled his order back to five, he said.
"That's half on one customer," he said. "I hope that's not the trend. If it is, a place like this could be in trouble."
In Sunnyside, Jerry's Valley Meats owner Jerry Deaton said he's seeing similar drops in the local market.
"What's going on right now is people are broke," he said. "The fuel costs are making a big impact on business. People are putting fuel in their tanks instead."
Jim Cullen, who owns and operates Cullen's Custom Meats, also in Sunnyside, said he hasn't seen a dip in business yet, but said "that could happen very easily. What I most find is that people bring in the meat and can't afford to pick it up right away."
But these custom meat cutters find ways to stay in business.
Some shops, like Ahtanum Custom Meats in Yakima, close during the summer when business slows. And Deaton mostly works alone in the summer.
"What I do is just try to adjust things here a little bit," he said. "I work by myself more than I'd like to just because I can't afford to bring on other workers."
But business is hopping from August to February, Rockholt said.
During that time, overtime is inevitable and 14-hours days are typical, he said.
"It's the self-employment that makes it all worthwhile -- you can work as hard as you want with no limitations," he said. "It's just something that I'm good at. "I kind of fell into it and had a knack for it."
* Phil Ferolito can be reached at 509-577-7749 or firstname.lastname@example.org.