Ben Buchanan is on a mission to revive his trade while making locally sourced and processed meat available to all.
The Mt. Lebanon resident has dedicated his career to educating a new generation of butchers while supporting farmers who adhere to sustainable practices.
“There’s a big skills gap between the demand for local meat and the ability for small processors to fill that demand,” said Buchanan, founder of Unified Fields, which offers training and consulting for those looking to launch or expand a meat processing business. “Because of all the big corporate consolidation, the skill of doing everything from beginning to end has become lost.”
Buchanan works to reverse that through a partnership with Community Kitchen Pittsburgh, a Hazelwood-based nonprofit offering free training programs and job placement services in culinary or adjacent industries.
“If we can get more skilled knife hands out there and more small processors up and running, that’ll support the local farmers,” said Buchanan. “It’s like a positive feedback loop if we can keep everything local.”
Buchanan began studying butchery after high school and went on to work at several spots around the area.
“It was hard work, but I learned pretty quickly how much of an art and a craft there was to it,” he said.
He also learned it was a dying trade and has since devoted his career to revolutionizing practices and teaching skills to others. Over the last few years, Buchanan built his own mobile meat processing rig that allows him to go straight to closed-system farms and process on-site, eliminating animal transport stress and supporting sustainability.
When the pandemic caused meat prices to soar, Buchanan saw farmers going bankrupt in an industry dominated by a handful of companies. He knew independent family farms needed a way to cut out the middlemen or risk losing their land to corporate feedlots. It inspired him to do all he could to help farmers get their produce to market and consumers get access to local wholesome meat.
Since then, he’s shared his knowledge about his craft and the industry by offering hands-on training and consulting for farmers and ranchers all over the country. The heart of what he does, however, is through the partnership with Community Kitchen Pittsburgh.
As part of its workforce development program, Buchanan offers a 16-hour butchery course where students, who are paid during training, learn to break down whole animals in an in-house commercial meat processing room, equipped in part thanks to a grant from the USDA.
“We can cut, grind, stuff and smoke—anything you could think of,” said Buchanan.
Jennifer Flanagan, Community Kitchen Pittsburgh executive director, says the program has been eye-opening for students who might not have previously considered where their meat products originated.
“The more you learn about it, you definitely end up wanting to support farmers that are sustainably raising their animals and treating them well,” she said. “I have heard from students who are fascinated by that part. For them, up until now, their meat came in a package in the grocery store, and they just didn’t really think about it. A lot of us don’t. So, they’ve been excited to learn about the whole process.”
Flanagan says in addition to learning the different cuts of meat, students also hone their knife skills, a valuable asset to any chef that can translate into higher wages students can command once in the workforce.
“Even if they don’t go into butchery, they’re learning a lot and that’s going to help them in any job that they get,” she says.
As interest grows, the program is expanding its offerings to the public. In addition to being used in meals the kitchen supplies to local shelters and low-income families, Community Kitchen Pittsburgh’s Bloom Café sells beef and pork products in its butcher shop.
Community Kitchen offers bi-weekly delivery service by phone and is working on a full online ordering system which will include prepackaged meals.
They’ve also begun hosting events, including several barbecues throughout the summer and a beer and bratwurst event in September where attendees could make their own sausage. More events are in the works.
All of this adds up to more visibility for the organization and contributions to its revenue, 65 percent of which is earned, Flanagan says.
“Every time we have an event that opens the doors to the public, people come in and learn about our mission,” she said. “We’re seeing people come in who haven’t ever been here before. Bringing somebody in as a customer, then keeping them as a donor, it’s huge. Ben has definitely helped us with that.”