Oroville’s Wagon Wheel fills need for butchering on a small scale
Pat Butler has been in the meat business most of his life. Before he could even drive, he and a friend were a two-teen crew manning a slaughter truck—his friend responsible for driving, Butler in charge of the livestock once they’d reached the farm or ranch.
“People used to get a little bit nervous when we’d pull up,” he said. “I was 4’11 1/2, a little teeny kid, and they’d think, ‘Where’s the truckload of adults that’s going to help?’
“We just did the job.”
He worked a few hours during the school day and more after school for his parents, Dick and Dona, at Wagon Wheel Market in Oroville. They’d moved up from Whittier to join Dick’s brother and his partner at what was first called Tom’s Market. Pat, now 49, and brother Tom, 46, took the reins in 2012.
“Mom and Dad were tired—I don’t know how many of the 80-hour work weeks they put in, but having one of these [businesses] requires a different type of human being,” Butler said. “Everybody looks at the outside in and thinks, ‘Oh, they’re making a lot of money, this is great,’ but the hours that it takes to make one of these go are more than most people realize.”
Along with operating a butcher shop that sells an assortment of food products, the Butler brothers offer meat processing services to local farmers, ranchers and hunters.
On a recent afternoon, the locker held the carcasses of a skinned deer and two-dozen pigs awaiting saw- and knifework. Much of that would be performed by Joe Harness—a meat-cutter with 55 years of experience who’s spent around 45 of them in this same place. Butler, meanwhile, had a 25-pound batch of smoked pork and apple sausage to make for a customer.
Business is booming, but demand would be even higher if not for a regulatory hurdle. Licensing requirements for commercial sale—federal, versus the state certification the Butlers’ shop and most every other area butcher holds—means Wagon Wheel can handle only private individuals and groups such as co-ops and CSAs.
“Nothing we process gets sold at a farmers’ market,” he explained. Moreover, he added, “everything that we sell [in the market] has to be slaughtered under federal inspection. We have locally produced stuff at times, when we go to the fairs to buy animals, because those go to federal plants … but unless you get your animal [slaughtered] at a federal facility, you can’t sell it anywhere else.”
Inspectors check documentation at the shop to assure compliance. Wagon Wheel takes that seriously.
“People see the slaughter van back up here and they think we’re going to take that [local] beef and cut it up and sell it in the meat case—and that’s not the case,” Butler said. “If you yourself raise that beef, it’s got your name on it, it keeps your name on it through that entire process here and you come pick it up when it’s done.
“We provide that service for the customers … we can’t legally sell that through the meat case.”
Nor can any other retailer. So, unlike produce that can go directly from farm to table, local meat takes detours—often distant. Processing regulations limit North State livestock production.
Even with the constraints, Wagon Wheel still takes in around five animals for butchering each day—more when communities hold fairs.
“It just keeps coming through,” Butler said. “We keep busy with it year-round.”