Thursday, January 24, 2013

Rural reindeer herders learn commercial meat techniques at UAF

Greg Finstad trims the fat off a reindeer carcass as George Aguiar observes.

Reindeer herders and producers from rural Alaska visited UAF this week to learn about commercial meat preparation.

Led by SNRAS Associate Professor Greg Finstad, the three-day workshop attracted producers from Stebbins and St. Michael in western Alaska. “We wanted to give them exposure to producing commercially inspected products,” Finstad said. “They already know how to field slaughter. They wanted to learn how to produce inspected meat.” The skills will help prepare the producers to sell meat to retail markets and restaurants.

The students traveled to Delta Junction to observe a reindeer slaughter at Delta Meat and Sausage. They also toured a private reindeer farm in the Goldstream Valley owned by George Aguiar. Aguiar, a research professional with the Reindeer Research Program, gave a lecture at UAF on reindeer meat production, microbiology, safe handling, meat quality and slaughtering. He addressed industry slaughterhouse procedures.

At Wednesday’s workshop, Finstad and Aguiar demonstrated how to cut the carcass into saleable pieces of meat. Herders are accustomed to traditional methods of meat-cutting, with the carcass on the ground and the people cutting the meat into chunks or slabs for soup.

Cutting from a hanging steer carcass, Finstad demonstrated how to prepare the prime cuts. Holding up some tenderloin, he said, “This will get you $30 a pound.” He cautioned that people tend to overcook the meat and that it should only be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees.

First though there was the trimming of the fat. The Natives asked for the fat to take home to make Eskimo ice cream. On a reindeer the fat accumulates on top of the muscles and is easily separated from the meat (unlike beef where the fat is marbled into the meat).

The students learned how to handle a carcass so it has the proper pH level, how to keep meat from spoiling and the correct aging techniques (not much is needed for reindeer).

For 20-year-old Daphne Katcheak of Stebbins, the workshop was an eye-opener. “Everything is so new,” she said. “It’s so different from where I come from where we do things traditionally.” She said she will go home with knowledge of management techniques.

“It takes a lot to really make it work,” Katcheak said. She hopes that one day Stebbins and St. Michael will have their own meat processing plants. “That would be so awesome to pass out food and sell it,” she said.

Her family’s diet includes a lot of reindeer meat. “It’s really delicious, better than beef,” she said.

Another student, Kathleen Herzner of the Davis family in Nome, said she learned what it takes to make operations as efficient as possible. “We will need the proper equipment and transportation,” she said. “We’ll be bugging out all the mistakes before we start.”

Herzner’s goal is to help build a reindeer empire on the Seward Peninsula.

“Now we know what the good cuts are,” said John Lockwood of St. Michael.

Ted Katcheak of Stebbins has been herding reindeer since he was a young child. “This has been a review of what I know and I have learned other information that is new,” Katcheak said.

One-third owner of Stebbins’ herd, Katcheak hopes his village can set up a meat operation similar to Indian Valley Meats, producing meat and byproducts. “We want to educate young Alaska Natives to become interested in agriculture and meat production.”

And he wants to see his village providing meat to stores and restaurants and even to export it to other countries. “Finland, Norway and Sweden do it,” Katcheak said. “We can do it too.”

The Reindeer Research Program is part of SNRAS's high latitude agriculture department.

Greg Finstad at left watches John Lockwood, Kathleen Herzner and Theresa Jack check the pH level of reindeer meat.

The meat was cut and wrapped by the end of the day.

Finstad shows how to cut up ribs.

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