A Kinder Kill: Double Brook Farm

At Double Brook Farm, animals are treated with compassion, even as they head to slaughter.

Jon and Robin McConaughy built a humane slaughter facility for the animals they raise.
Jon and Robin McConaughy built a humane slaughter facility for the animals they raise.
Photo by Jennifer Pottheiser

“Slaughter generates a lot of emotion,” acknowledges Jon McConaughy, a former Wall Street executive who, with his wife, Robin, runs the only farm in New Jersey certified to operate a USDA-inspected, on-premises slaughterhouse and processing facility.

When the McConaughys established Double Brook Farm in 2004 on 60 acres in a residential area of Hopewell Township in Mercer County, they intended to produce meat only for themselves and their two sons, now ages 12 and 15.

“There was nothing on the land then,” says Jon, 49. In 2011, he retired as managing director and head of exchange-traded funds for Credit Suisse (USA) to focus on farming. Robin, 46, a former headhunter who operated her own sports-media business, had been full-time at the farm since 2010. Married in 1998, both had grown up in the area, he in Ringoes, she in Kingston.

Starting with a single cow, they expanded to raise sheep, pigs, turkeys and chickens on a total of 800 owned or leased acres. Like many others who raise livestock for food, they were concerned about how their animals were put to death. They knew that even the best commercial slaughterhouses cause what is considered unavoidable fear and stress in the animals.

Then there were practical matters. “You have to keep your fingers crossed that you get your own animal back—the animal you took so much care to raise,” Robin says. “That doesn’t always happen.”

How could the McConaughys know a slaughterhouse had made a switch? “You could tell the breed was different,” John begins. “The size, the taste of the meat would be different.” He shakes his head and adds, “One time we knew we got different pigs back because we sent only five and got back seven!”

Another issue, Robin says, is that Double Brook raises their animals without antibiotics and hormones. “What if a customer buys a piece that comes back from the slaughterhouse and gets it tested and, yes, there are antibiotics or hormones? We hold the bag, not the slaughterhouse.” The couple knew that if they argued with the slaughterhouse, they would be told to take their animals elsewhere. “But there really was nowhere else,” she says.

The McConaughys admit they hesitated to build their own facility. “Even people who eat meat, they just don’t want to know about that part,” says Jon. “Our feeling is that that’s the part you have to control the most, and it’s the part we should all know about. If people are against eating meat, I respect that. But it’s a weird scenario where they eat meat, but they don’t want slaughter.”

The McConaughys first considered creating a mobile slaughterhouse, but that plan proved economically unfeasible.

Instead, they built a 3,000-square-foot facility on their property. After much paperwork, Double Brook received USDA certification in March; it is only the second on-premises facility to be USDA-certified. Now the McConaughys can slaughter and process their own animals, though not animals from other farms.

Before Double Brook had been certified, the McConaughys’ animals were sent in a trailer to slaughterhouses one to two hours away. They had to endure the ride and then wait, often with other animals, sometimes for days, before slaughter. “Now,” Jon says, “our animals are born, raised and harvested on the same piece of property, so the stress that goes along with getting on and off trailers and being handled by strangers is eliminated.”

The design and small scale of the Double Brook facility also contribute to reducing the stress of animals headed for slaughter. The design, explains Jon, incorporates some of the ideas of Temple Grandin, the animal scientist and advocate whose concepts have been widely adopted in the industry. For example, Double Brook has a curved corral leading from the outdoor holding pen, which keeps the entrance to the slaughterhouse out of the sight line of the animals. “Plus,” adds Robin, “because we do one at a time, the animal has no idea what’s going to happen. They don’t hear, see or smell anything, so there’s no fear. Pigs, especially, have very strong senses of smell.”

The reduction of stress is good news for consumers. Research shows that fright and stress affect the quality of the meat. Specifically, such emotions reduce the amount of lactic acid in the muscles, which results in meat that is darker, tougher and drier than desired. Additionally, some research suggests that elevated stress hormones in animals could be harmful to humans ingesting the meat.

Transporting animals for slaughter also has an economic downside. “That necessitates taking two farmers off the farm,” says Robin. “They’d spend time separating the animals the night before and loading them. Then, after driving them, they’d have to go pick them up the next day. So basically you’re using up a full day of farmer time when they could be on the farm caring for the animals.”

Still, the McConaughys say it’s difficult to determine the financial impact of their investment in the slaughterhouse, which cost about $475,000 to build. “Some things are hard to quantify,” says Jon, “like farmers’ time driving around, or the amount of time you spend trying to fix mistakes made elsewhere.” Double Brook’s meat and poultry prices, says Jon, have held steady since the advent of the on-farm processing facility.

Double Brook has the capability to do beef, but its cows are raised out of state and processed in Pennsylvania. Other New Jersey farms, such as Griggstown, are USDA-approved for slaughter, but only for poultry. Double Brook processes its own poultry, but it is under the amount that would require USDA inspection.

The McConaughy farm is also a calmer place to work. “What typically is going to be an eight-hour day for another slaughterhouse is a three-hour day for us,” Jon says. “It’s not rush, rush, rush because we’ve got to get this done.” In fact, the size and speed necessitated by major slaughterhouses continues to imperil animals and their human handlers alike, despite the increased enforcement since the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 2002. Bans on such practices as electric prods, physical abuse and slippery floors are increasingly enforced by the USDA, and it is mandatory under the act to stun the animals senseless quickly.

“But,” Jon says, “the problem comes with the numbers. In a large slaughterhouse, one pig comes through every 15 seconds. So how effective can an inspector really be?” Jon also cites the example of  chickens, which are placed in an electrically charged bath to stop their hearts. In a large facility a machine, not a human, inserts the birds into the bath. “So if a chicken raises its head and no one sees it…” he says, his voice trailing off.

Double Brook processes about 10 pigs and 10 lambs per week. Although they can handle more, the McConaughys don’t see that number rising, since it’s adequate to supply their other Hopewell enterprises: Brick Farm Market, their retail store, butcher shop and eatery, and Brick Farm Tavern, the restaurant they expect to open this fall. A handful of other Jersey markets and restaurants carry Double Brook meats; their cured meats are sold at the Forrestal Village Farmers Market in Princeton, which operates every Friday in season.

In addition to their livestock, nine of Double Brook’s acres are under cultivation for vegetables (using organic practices), with an aim of expanding to 20.

Animal processing is conducted by one of Double Brook’s farmers and their butcher, Cole Dougherty. “There’s nothing unfamiliar or unsettling for the animals,” Robin says. “They trust the people who feed them every day.” The slaughter facility is nestled well into the farm, away from the road and neighboring homes. “It’s out of sight and sound, and there are no smells associated with it,” Jon says. The design emerged from the considerable research on the part of another Hopewell farmer, Lucia Huebner of Beechtree Farm, whom the McConaughys had enlisted to research the feasibility of mobile units.

A USDA inspector must be present for every animal harvest, which occurs once a week at Double Brook. The inspector must be allotted his or her own office space and restroom within the facility.

Along with the inspector’s quarters, the Double Brook facility has separate spaces for poultry and livestock processing and rooms for hanging carcasses. Outside, the holding pen is supplied with a bed of fresh hay and water. After passing through the narrow corral—wide enough for only one animal—the animals enter a high-ceilinged room with spotless white walls, gleaming stainless steel equipment and a concrete floor—all easy to hose down and sanitize. Here, the animals are stunned, killed and hung to bleed, which takes “a matter of seconds,” according to Jon. The carcass goes into an adjoining room to hang and chill for up to 24 hours.

For Robin, the humane practices at Double Brook send an important message. “Before we opened Brick Farm Market, we had all our employees watch a video on slaughter. We said, ‘This is why we’re building a slaughter facility.’ Even some of our farmers broke down in tears because they didn’t want to know about the end part. But our message to them was that it’s the most important part. We can’t ever forget that.”

Pat Tanner is a frequent contributor. She blogs about food at dinewithpat.com.

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