Sunlight floods in the west-facing windows above the kill floor at Rising Spring Meat Company in Spring Mills, Pennsylvania. Jay Young slices chipped beef alongside Eric Kratzer, a butcher who’s been cutting meat since he was 13.
Eric explains how he first learned to follow the contours of an animal and find where the muscles are attached. His slices are precise and intentional, carried out with a craftsman’s ease.
Jay, who does not consider himself a butcher, turns to Eric and asks, “Do you actually enjoy this work, or is it just ok? I mean, it’s pretty tedious sometimes.”
Eric says he loves it; it’s a part of him. And, he adds, he’s not just saying that because Jay’s his boss.
The slaughterhouse is located in Penns Valley, about 20 minutes from State College, PA, amidst a green and, on a Pennsylvania scale, wide open valley that is home to a motley mix of conventional and organic farmers, Amish and ‘English’, working class folks and commuter University academics. It’s a vital link between the many meat producers (a large number of whom are Amish) in the rural farming area of the valley, and meat consumers who can pay a good enough price for the product to keep this low-margin, high-risk business afloat.
Many farmers in the U.S. must drive many miles to a slaughterhouse and schedule a butchering a year or more in advance. Jay’s business not only provides local services, but it also connects local farmers to distributors who can sell their meat in lucrative markets such as New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.
In addition to running Rising Spring Meat Company, Jay, and his wife Laura, own a farm business called Young American Growers that keeps them moving all seasons: a nursery contract growing shade perennials, snow plowing services, goat breeding, and building Christmas wreaths. Laura also works full time for Penn State University 20 minutes from their home in Spring Mills and was the guiding force in establishing one of State College’s largest and most successful farmers markets.
Jay and Laura are connectors. They are the kind of people who make a community a community rather than people who merely live nearby to one another. In addition to the connections they’ve built with their businesses and between other businesses and consumers in the valley and beyond, Jay and Laura seem to know and love most of Penns Valley’s residents.
At a gathering at their 1800’s farmhouse you witness conversations between seemingly unlikely friends. Large-scale conventional farmers talking shop with tiny organic and niche producers. Republicans discussing gardening with openly gay men. Tattooed rock n’ roll musicians discussing current events with conservative seniors. Academics chatting with decidedly blue-collar tradesmen and tradeswomen, and vegetarians with meat farmers. Everyone is a friend when you enter the Young’s house, and the things that divide you seem less important than they do in day to day life.
Jay is the ‘Guy Who Knows A Guy.’ When I began raising pastured pigs, he knew a guy who sold feeder piglets, a guy who could teach me everything about pigs, a guy who sold supplies I needed. And he was the guy who owned the local slaughterhouse and processing plant that could take my painstakingly raised pigs from the hoof to a saleable product. When we lost the land we’d been leasing, both Jay and Laura were immediately on the phone with everyone they knew who might have a lead on a suitable replacement. And over the years, he’s called me up to ask me if I could give someone advice or sell them something, as well.
For Laura, connecting people is just facilitating new relationships. “If someone is an important person to me,” she says, “I want other people to have the coolness of that person in their lives. It’s really as simple as that.”
But politics, lifestyle, religion, identity, and socioeconomic class are not the reasons you make a friend, Jay and Laura say. To them, these labels are not good reasons to avoid bringing one’s friends into a more expansive and inclusive circle.
This social experiment plays out in their household.
Jay is a committed conservative and a lifelong Republican, values that he shares with his family.
“I don’t think I even knew any Democrats growing up,” Jay says of his upbringing in Marshfield, MA, a Boston suburb. He is also uniquely open to dissenting opinions and has little reservation about sharing his own. He genuinely enjoys a friendly political debate and isn’t one to hold grudges related to different political thought. “You know how they tell you not to talk about politics and religion,” he says, “I’ve always thought those were the only things worth talking about.”
Laura, on the other hand, has been largely apolitical throughout her life. She liked certain candidates over the years, but had never engaged much politically and generally avoided talking about it. She is decidedly more liberal than her husband, but admits she likes candidates more for their philosophies and attitudes than their political brand. “People like John McCain are saying ‘Come on guys, let’s fix this problem’ and Bernie Sanders is always trying to stay on topic. Even after the election when everyone was losing their shit, he was still saying, ‘We can’t be distracted. We still have problems with income inequality and people don’t have health insurance and access to education.’ I really relate to that focus.”
The last election found both Laura and Jay with new political footing. Laura found herself taken with Bernie Sanders’s message, and cast her first vote ever in the 2016 primary, and after increasing dismay with Trump, cast her second vote in November.
Meanwhile, Jay found himself unable to support the Republican nominee for the first time and was, ultimately, at odds with many of his fellow conservative friends. “There’s nothing about the Trump persona that I’d be attracted to, for someone to be that self-aggrandizing and demonstrably dishonest. I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt when he was charged with racism, but as time passed, it just didn’t pass the smell test. I thought, if he’s not racist, he’s certainly willing to let it look like he is. But ultimately, what frustrated me most wasn’t Trump, but all the people around me who never, ever, ever would have supported someone like him until he was the guy they had to support.”
This stance, and his willingness to voice it and to challenge the integrity of Republicans who initially opposed Trump, has put him at odds with the elected leaders he has supported in the past, many in the largely Republican community, his wider circle of friends, and even his mother.
“Jay’s feeling like a man without a country and a man without a party right now,” says Laura. “It was really important to him to have a community of people he felt like he understood and who saw the world in the same way. And then it was like this big wave came through and said, ‘No more sandcastle for you!’ It’s really hard on him, like depressingly hard.”
As Jay’s disillusionment and frustration with his former political allies grew, he searched for answers from them and made appeals to them, often through Facebook posts. He chose his words carefully and tried to be diplomatic and fair, but as often happens on social media, discussions would intensify quickly. His more liberal friends would often agree with Jay in much more inflammatory terms than he had used and then Trump supporters, even the reluctant ones, would feel alienated or attacked.
“We’ve alienated so many people in our lives in the wake of the election,” Laura tells me, “and that’s hard on Jay because he’s not like that. He’s a connector, not an alienator. He’s really having to put his ‘we can agree to disagree’ skills to the test.” They’ve even lost customers and received veiled threats from former friends related to their political speech.
Laura is worried. “I think the further we separate ourselves, both locally and as a country and from the rest of the world, the worse off we’ll get. I don’t know how we fix it, because if every day you’re fighting with your neighbor, or your family, or you’re getting these weird threats from people, you just wanna hole up.”
For now, the Youngs have decided to be quieter about their political opinions. Jay explains, “I’ve pretty much stopped talking on Facebook about politics because, well, fatigue, but mostly because all I’m doing is upsetting the people I’m trying to talk to. If they’re still supporting him, they’re not listening. And they’re not changing their minds.”
Jay says it hurts, but he wonders if, ultimately, there’s a way forward, a method for building bridges through simple actions like slicing meat or sharing resources. Can the intertwined needs of a small farming community overcome the erosive forces of national political division? Can the local overcome the global?