ARUN RATH, HOST:
For generations, women in the meat industry have worked for low pay in slaughterhouses or in other support position. Now, a small but growing number of American women are taking charge in the meat business as owners. North Carolina Public Radio's Leoneda Inge reports.
LEONEDA INGE: Let's start with the hog.
KARI UNDERLY: Here's an elbow.
INGE: That's an elbow?
UNDERLY: There's an elbow right here. And so I can't get my knife around it. So I'm cutting through it with my saw. And then...
INGE: Kari Underly is slicing through half a hog as if it were an avocado, until she hits a bone.
UNDERLY: So what I'm doing now is I'm taking out the femur bone. And so that way - 'cause the ham is a little bit of a drag, if you will, 'cause we have to make money. And not everybody wants a big ham.
INGE: Underly is a fit 46-year-old master butcher from Chicago. Her father and grandmothers were butchers, and she put herself through college cutting meat. Now, she runs a meat training company called Range Incorporated. She was recently in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, demonstrating to about 30 women how to slice and dice the tastiest and most profitable parts of a hog.
UNDERLY: You just want to be careful. There's the scapula bone right here, and we want to make sure we don't wreck it.
TOOTIE JONES: She's a knife-wielding rock star in her own right.
INGE: Tootie Jones was one of the women leaning in as Underly sawed, hacked and sliced. Jones owns a cattle ranch in West Virginia.
JONES: And I think one thing Kari's done is inspired a lot of people to go out, pick up a knife, learn how to handle a knife and to go out and develop a business.
INGE: In addition to demonstrations like this, Underly organizes Grrl's Meat Camps. She says the meat industry is changing in a way that now allows room for women.
UNDERLY: Meat production has always been a male job, just because of the sheer size. And, you know, it's a physical job - you know, actually being able to lift these large animals. But as we're choosing to buy meat closer to home, we're looking for more craftsmen, if you will, to be the butcher, so we can get them on every corner.
SARAH BLACKLIN: And that has opened up this avenue for not just the raising of the meat, but the selling, the marketing, the distributions.
INGE: Sarah Blacklin is director of NC Choices, a nonprofit in North Carolina that's trying to build more local meat supply chains.
BLACKLIN: I think it's a natural avenue for women to move into.
INGE: In North Carolina, the number of people raising and selling their own meat has gone from a few dozen, a decade ago, to more than 800 today. It's unclear how many are women, but one of those businesspeople is Jennifer Curtis.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRICING GUN)
INGE: Here in this chilly walk-in storage cooler in Durham, Curtis is checking on the meat that's come in that day. She's watching as fresh beef is tagged for distribution. Then, she reaches down and picks up a thick chunk of dark red meat.
JENNIFER CURTIS: Oh my gosh, have you had this before? It's Osso Buco, or beef shank. It's right down there, close to the ankle. It's got a lot of bone in it, a lot of bone marrow. It's just fantastic for braising and stewing - beautiful flavor.
INGE: Curtis is the co-CEO of Firsthand Foods, along with another woman. She got into the meat wholesale business four years ago, after meeting too many farmers having trouble marketing their meat.
CURTIS: We were also meeting more and more chefs who wanted to get fresh local meat but couldn't get enough from an individual farmer. So I thought, I think there needs to be a business right here in the middle.
INGE: Curtis says 90 percent of the people that she works with are men - farmers, processors and chefs.
CURTIS: So we run into a lot of men. And it's taken some time for them to get used to the fact that we own this company and we're selling the meat. But it's been good.
INGE: She says it took a long time to build trust, especially among cattle ranchers in what she calls the old boy network. But Curtis says she proved to them she could get them top dollar for their product. And that's the bottom line. For NPR News, I'm Leoneda Inge in Durham, North Carolina.
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