Behind the Scenes at Sunnyside Meats, Colorado's Humane Slaughterhouse

A bison herd at Zapata Ranch in Mosca, CO. Niki Achitoff-Gray

Warning: Slideshow contains potentially disturbing images of slaughtered and skinned livestock.

When you spend your life in cities or suburbs, concepts like "local" and "sustainable" tend materialize in starts and stops: a marked-up aisle at the grocery store, a weekend farmer's market, a restaurant menu, or that farm field trip you took as a kid. If you've only seen farmland through a car window or on a television screen, it can be a challenge to connect terms like "hormone-free" or "humanely slaughtered" to the sizzling steak on your table.

What actually sets one cut of meat above another depends on at least two industries, and often many, many more, from livestock producers to feedlots, transportation companies, packing plants, buyers, distributors, markets, and all the way to home kitchens and restaurant tables. On a recent trip to Colorado, I had the opportunity to follow the trail from ranch to market and see what the chain of production looks like to one local community in the mountains of Southwestern Colorado.

A bison herd at Zapata Ranch in Mosca, CO. Niki Achitoff-Gray

It was a startlingly bright, sunny day when I pulled up to Sunnyside Meats. The scent of hay and fertilizer was heavy in the air around what I initially took for a barn—a far cry from the towering, stench-ridden industrial plant I'd imagined. Like most people, I'd never visited a slaughterhouse; the closest I'd come was peering through the shrinking crack between my fingers while watching horrifying PETA videos.

I'd already accepted the likelihood that my visit would signify an end to my meat eating days, and gorged myself on a last supper accordingly. So imagine my surprise when, a mere hour after my tour of Sunnyside, I found myself seated on a picnic bench at a neighboring ranch, heartily enjoying a burger that had passed through those same slaughterhouse doors (and not self-identifying as a psychopath, to boot).

A burger from the James Ranch Harvest Grill.

Is humane slaughter truly possible? Things weren't up and running on the day of my visit, so I didn't witness the process firsthand. But for better or worse (I'll opt for the former), Sunnyside is as good as it gets. That's largely because on an average day, Sunnyside Meats only slaughters eight cows. On a sheep day, that number will jump to 30; hog capacity clocks in at 20. If those numbers don't mean much to you, consider this: large-scale plants will process more livestock in a single day than Sunnyside will in an entire year. And yet Sunnyside has about 15 employees on site for a given shift, in addition to a full-time USDA inspector. No over-crowding, no rush, no cattle prods or forklifts.

The facility and its standards operate on a Temple Grandin model. If you're unfamiliar with Dr. Grandin's work, it's worth taking a minute to look her up (or watch this movie about her life); in short, she is an autistic activist and animal rights advocate whose unique insights and remarkable tenacity singlehandedly transformed the practices of slaughterhouses across the country. To get more specifics, take a look through the slideshow.

Sunnyside isn't just one of the country's smallest USDA-inspected meat processing facilities; by industry standards, it's also relatively young. When Jerry and Karen Zink opened the facility in 2002, it was unclear whether it was a lifeboat or a pipe dream. The only local USDA-inspected packing plant had shut down in 1998, and for smaller-scale livestock producers, there were few viable alternatives in sight.

Until Zink, himself a third generation Colorado farmer and entrepreneur, stepped up, ranchers in the area were sending their livestock on long and strenuous trips to the high-volume facility in Monticello, Utah or to processing plants halfway across the state. For those wanting to direct-market their meat to the surrounding area, it was a costly proposition, one that placed undue stress on the livestock and presented any number of health and safety hazards.

"Not only that, but they weren't doing a very good job," explains local rancher Dan James. James, like many of the livestock producers that work with Sunnyside, keeps a modest herd, sending about 125 two-year-old steer to slaughter each year. The vast majority of American beef is finished, or fattened for slaughter, in concentrated animal feeding operations—feedlots where they are placed on a heavy grain-based diet. Between an unnatural diet and adjusted living conditions, those cattle become more prone to disease and more likely to require antibiotics. But James's livestock feed on Colorado's high altitude grasses year-round; steers being fattened do so on specially cultivated "lush, biodiverse grasses," allowing them to healthily gain upwards of two pounds a day without doing damage to their immune system.

A case of meat at James Ranch.

For James Ranch, Sunnyside offers a rare opportunity for complete transparency, a guarantee that the livestock they've gone to such lengths to raise will be humanely handled and slaughtered, thoroughly inspected, custom-aged, exactingly butchered, packaged to regulation standards, and, ultimately, returned to the ranch for sale at its on-site market.

It's a 30 minute drive from James Ranch to Sunnyside Meats, so Zink and James aren't just business associates—they're active members of the same community, with a shared ideology rooted in a sense of urgency: to turn their local economy into something thriving, symbiotic, and sustainable. For them, that means hiring and distributing locally, and making sure that what they distribute for sale is healthy—no antibiotics, no hormones, no overpacked feedlots or unsanitary conditions.

Who would have imagined that a slaughterhouse could be nimble? But that's exactly the business model Zink has formulated. A decade ago, local livestock producers were teetering on the edge of economic collapse; Jerry Zink may not have changed the game, but it's possible that for this Colorado county, he's created a new one.

Click through the slideshow for a tour of Sunnyside Meats »