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Justine Fulton On Mindful Butchery Justine Fulton On Mindful Butchery

Justine Fulton On Mindful Butchery

Posted on 24/06/24

It feels appropriate that we manage to get hold of Justine Fulton on the phone right in the middle of her grappling with an essay on organic beef farmers. Alongside her day job as a butcher, she’s mid way through a masters degree in sustainable food systems at Leeds University, unsurprisingly with a focus on meat and food supply. “This one’s on creating healthy and sustainable diets in organic beef farming,” explains Justine with the distinct weariness that comes from reading endless academic essays. “Unfortunately lots of papers are now claiming that organic isn’t sustainable, but on the other hand research is still coming out that it is so I might be more confused about it than when I started.”

In a world where organic, regenerative and sustainable labels all jostle for position, trying to understand it, let alone translate it to customers, can be tricky. “Organic isn’t necessarily the be all and end all. You can farm organically without the certificate, in a lot of ways that’s all you’re paying for,” Justine explains, and it’s not a small amount. To be registered as organic means six years of soil testing, a long and expensive process that’s out of reach for many small farmers. “There’s a sense of farming in the right way, which I think is more important than labels.”

Over the last five years eating meat has become an increasingly fraught activity with the environmental impact of meat production increasingly in the spotlight. Increasing numbers of people are trying to curb their meat consumption with government data released last year showing that the UK is consuming meat at its lowest level since the mid ‘70s. It’s a position that Justine is sympathetic towards, although she also thinks it sometimes misses a wider point. “Farming in harmony with nature is something that livestock really comes into,” she explains. “They play a crucial role in improving soil, sequestering carbon and nurturing biodiversity”.

Fortunately for Justine and The Butcher’s Blade in Sandbach where she works, the customer seems more engaged than ever. People are starting to want to learn about the nuance of breeds as well as farming methods. “I feel like there’s a massive interest,” explains Justine. “Mainly due to celebrity chefs or watching Countryfile, people have become so invested in what sort of breed, or where it was farmed or what it was fed.” Much of it comes from people being more conscious about how much meat they’re consuming but wanting that smaller amount to count for more. “I’m glad people are taking an interest in that, taking an interest in where your food comes from or how it’s been raised.”

It helps to be in a community that’s managed to maintain some of it’s links to the countryside, whilst many market towns have struggled, Sandbach is “a proper market town and it’s thriving” Justine explains enthusiastically. “It’s got a big market every week and a maker’s market every month.” The shop’s location in the town hall indoor market also puts it at the centre of the community. “You see the same people all the time and build a nice relationship, it’s nice when they’re getting excited about new things coming in or a particular breed coming back into stock they’ve not seen for a while”.

Engaging with people has been something of a hallmark for Justine’s career. Going to university at 25, she studied social policy before taking a job similar to a support worker helping homeless men with benefits, healthcare and drug and alcohol abuse before ultimately finding the career overwhelming. “The whole thing got too stressful, I was too invested, and knew I couldn’t do it anymore.”

During COVID, her partner set up a meat delivery company delivering boxes to people’s doors in Manchester with a focus on introducing different cuts to the consumer and using farmers who weren’t supplying to restaurants anymore. Starting out just packing up boxes, Justine soon realised that her interest lay much more in what was happening in the fridges than the packing station.

Justine then found a job at a local farm shop, somewhere she could learn on the job as well as study for an apprenticeship. This gave Justine the time and space to start reading and studying more around butchery and developing a deeper interest in where the meat was coming from and the nuances between different animals and breeds. The greater knowledge wasn’t always reflected at the counter, as many of the most popular meat breeds have been bred specifically for maximum weight and maximum profit, often with a lesser focus on taste or texture. “We were getting in these huge cows like limousine crosses but they were often just hench, all muscle and not fat enough. You can really tell the difference when you’re butchering something, it’s so much easier when it has a bit of fat to it, you can tell the difference on the plate too. It makes a difference when something’s been bred and farmed properly.”

Moving on from the farm shop to The Butchers Blade has been a new opportunity to look across the region and find some farmers doing really great things. “Sometimes you wanted to go out and explore what other people were up to,” Justine says.

On her instagram page, Rack of Glam, Justine frequently demystifies parts of the job. These posts range from taking her audience through timelapse breakdowns of huge sections of beef or talking through the, much less disturbing than it’s made out to be, process of making sausages. The page has a freshness and relevance that is rare to find in an industry long associated with large surly men in boater hats. Justine feels representative of a new generation, wanting to share and learn about a traditional and artisan industry without really being concerned by the trappings of its past. By breaking stereotypes she’s hopefully leading to young, environmentally conscious and approachable butchers not being such a rare breed for long.