Black Earth Meats is located on Mills Street, the main street of Black Earth; the site has been a butcher shop for 60-some years.
Mary Mickelson lives two houses away from Black Earth Meats, a butcher shop and slaughterhouse right in the center of the town that gives it its name. She's lived in her home for 40 years, during which time the building has always been a butcher shop and meat market.
But in the early days slaughter was one day a week, and the meat was all sold in the store in front, says Mickelson. "It was a mom-and-pop butcher shop."
"The problems started about three and a half years ago," Mickelson says, when Black Earth Meats' business started to take off. Volume increased, says Mickelson. Problems she cites include noise from animals waiting for long periods in trucks, before being led into the slaughterhouse; animal parts remaining after slaughter or being poured into trucks; remnant pieces falling in the street; blood dripping from trucks or bins; and odors, especially in warm weather.
Last May, Mickelson started a Facebook page, Black Earth Neighborhood Concerned Over Nuisances, to "tell our story. No one quite understood what we were seeing and hearing on a daily basis."
"Everybody thinks we should move out of the neighborhood," says Mickelson, but protests that "40 years ago this was a small butcher shop" and that the increase in the slaughtering operations has become inappropriate for its site.
Black Earth Meats owner Bartlett Durand asserts that “We are as clean as we can be.” In his eyes, he took over a business that in 2008 was about to close and created an economic engine for Black Earth, jobs for 37 to 40 full-time employees and a market for area farmers, many of whom raise grass-fed, organic beef. As he sees it, only a few neighbors are trying "to drive us out of town."
On Dec. 10, the Black Earth village board voted to have Black Earth Meats come up with a plan to move its slaughter operation outside of the village; it would have 120 days to deliver the plan.
Now Durand has initiated his own legal action against the Village of Black Earth, with a claim for damages amounting to $5.3 million, $1.3 million of which constitutes the value of the company's current facilities.
Durand says he doesn't have the financial resources to move the plant if the village makes it impossible to sell the current building as a slaughterhouse: "Everything I have is invested in that building."
Black Earth Meats sits on the main street in Black Earth. On one side, there's a post office and park; on the other, residential Remington Street, four blocks long. Loading docks are on Remington: a gate for animals and another dock where byproducts are loaded into bins for removal.
It's been a butcher shop for some 60 years; Durand took over in 2008 and emphasized antibiotic- and hormone-free organic and grass-fed meats. The facility is considered suitable to slaughter animals from Wisconsin's two farms certified by the Animal Welfare Approved program.
The area is currently zoned for grocery-retail, but the slaughtering operation has been allowed, as long as the physical footprint of the business does not grow.
Black Earth village board president Pat Troge protests that "the only action taken was to request a plan to remove the slaughterhouse," and adds that he objects to "media reporting that indicates we are 'shutting them down.' We asked for a plan to relocate the slaughterhouse only." Troge declined further comment.
Mickelson says, "I really am not against small business." She wishes Durand could have "taken the time in the beginning to meet [to discuss] what we can work out for all parties."
Durand is frustrated that the village has rejected a proposal that the matter be submitted to mediation.
Durand's attorney, Todd Pfeil, says they have responded aggressively "because of the threatening nature" of the village's demands. Pfeil says they are also considering the option of recalling members of the village board.
Durand's claim for damages states in part that "frequent...and unsupportable complaints" were made "with the stated intent of harassing BE Meats and impeding its business activities"; and that the village board directed deputies "to engage in selective and harassing enforcement actions with respect to any violation of Village Ordinances."
Dane County Sheriff's Office records show a series of responses to complaints throughout 2013 concerning street parking violations, noise and animal disturbances, and "neighbor trouble." These grew in frequency during October and November, with 12 calls over the course of those two months.
Not tied to neighbor complaints, though, are three incidents (in 2012, 2010 and 2009) when animals escaped from Black Earth Meats' loading area and had to be put down by sheriff's deputies.
The most recent incident took place in May 2012, when a gate and door were left open and a steer jumped over a five-foot pen. The nearby elementary school was notified, and the steer was tracked to a residential street near Highway 14. After being shot by a Black Earth Meats worker, the steer "continued over the railroad tracks" and away from buildings. The steer, which was "displaying aggressive behavior," was then shot 16 more times by sheriff's deputies and a Black Earth Meats employee.
In addition to a citation for allowing an animal to run at large, the Sheriff's Office issued a second citation for possession of a loaded uncased weapon within city limits "due to numerous citizen complaints regarding a Black Earth Meats worker running through the village with a loaded rifle," reads the incident report.
No incidents with escaped animals have occurred since.
"I understand that I could quadruple business with a bigger facility," Durand says. But he also speaks of keeping the meat operation "on a human scale" as part of returning consciousness to meat consumption.
"A human is doing the work," he says. Years ago, he notes, people had connections to butchering their own animals; now, that process usually takes place where no one can see it.
Mickelson says that she's "not an animal-rights activist," but that witnessing the day-to-day activities of a slaughterhouse has been "very disturbing."
Mickelson says the current situation has "pitted neighbor against neighbor" but tries to separate people from their views on the business: "I don't want to grow bitter against individuals."
The Black Earth village board will meet again Tuesday, Jan. 7, to consider entering into closed session to discuss Durand's claim.