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Think of a butcher and you generally think of a man, but being one of the few fully-qualified female butchers nationwide isn’t something that bothers Larney Craig. Having worked in the trade on and off for almost a decade, she’s no longer a novelty. Now, she is just one of the Farm Fresh Meats team, her skills and experience equal to that of any male butcher.

But it wasn’t always that way. When questioned about why she chose a career in butchery, the 28-year-old struggles to come up with an adequate response. As a child, growing up in Temuka, Larney never really knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. ‘I left school without much of a plan. I worked in hospitality, and then tried hairdressing, but I didn’t really enjoy that either,’ she explains.

Then, without really knowing much about butchery, she banged on the door at Farm Fresh Meats pleading for a job. ‘I don’t really know why. I wanted some knife handling skills. I wanted something I could make a career out of. I had grown up with men, so the idea of working in that kind of environment didn’t daunt me. I liked the challenge, and I wanted to prove people wrong.’

Deep down she just felt drawn to it; ironically, it was only after she’d started her training that she learnt her late grandfather, whom she never had the opportunity to meet, was a butcher. ‘I just kept hounding him [Haydn].’

Admittedly, owners Haydn and Suzanne Cleland had their doubts at the beginning, but Larney’s dogged determination paid dividends. Admiring her courage and tenacity, Haydn eventually relented, giving her a job packing meat.

He didn’t think she would last long, but to his surprise, Larney stuck it out. ‘I kind of thought it was going to be like a butcher’s shop, but back then it was mostly a home kill operation. I almost passed out the first time I went into the factory. It was hard work. Long hours, early mornings and physically demanding,’ says Larney.

As time went on, Larney’s passion for butchery grew. ‘The more I did, the more interested I became.’ She soon realised that packing meat wasn’t a career, and if she wanted to take it further, she had to take the next step. Despite others questioning her motives, Larney was committed. Seeing her potential, Haydn offered Larney an apprenticeship and after a little initial apprehension, she jumped at the opportunity.

While most of the training is given on-the-job, the apprenticeship course is comprehensive and also includes a large written component, explains Larney. ‘There is a massive amount to learn. It’s not just about learning about breaking and boning techniques, or about the different cuts from chicken, beef, lamb and pork carcasses. You learn about the anatomy of the animals, different breeds, what customers want and what advice to give to them, as well as how to run a business, equipment management, health and safety requirements, and food hygiene standards.’

Contrary to popular belief, being a butcher is not all blood and guts, or lugging round huge carcasses of meat, she explains. Meat cutting is an art built on a specific skills set, often in the blood or passed down through the generations. Taking a whole carcass and breaking it down into different cuts that look lovely and don’t resemble anything like a whole body. It can be a physically demanding job, but brawn isn’t everything.

Technique is key. Butchery is very specialist to master, and with their finer hand and attention to detail, more and more young female butchers are excelling in the industry.

As part of the training, young apprentices also attend block training courses where they have the opportunity to meet other apprentices. Despite regularly being the only female in the room, Hadyn found that Larney excelled with the written component, whereas other apprentices he had previously put through the training had struggled. After more than 8000 hours of training, she graduated as a fully-fledged butcher in 2014.

Larney left Farm Fresh Meats after she had finished her qualification to experience other jobs, taking time out working in Australia. She also spent time in other butcheries, which proved a real eye-opener. ‘I just needed to get away for a while. It had been a long haul [to get qualified]. You can get a bit stale in this job. I thought the grass might be greener elsewhere; it wasn’t.’

She rejoined the Farm Fresh Meats team last August (2018), working in a more customer-focused role. While the business started out as a specialist home kill operation, after its move to the purpose-built Washdyke factory in 2010, it’s now a dual operator, running a small butcher’s shop on-site offering a variety of products including a wide range of small goods.

To begin with, having a female butcher on staff was a bit of a novelty, says Haydn. Early on he remembers a few occasions when Larney would be serving a customer and the customer would ask to talk to a butcher, assuming she was just the girl behind the counter that takes the cash. Larney would politely say nothing and get one of the other butchers to help them. But he’d make a point of telling his customers she was the best person to talk to anyway.

‘It used to wind me up that customers would ask for one of the boys, but in this job, its pays not to be too sensitive. I love working with the home kill customers, giving them all the options with how to maximise their beast. There’s often cuts of meat they haven’t thought of or don’t know how to use,’ says Larney.

These days it doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman. If you can answer a customer’s question about the meat, that’s what counts. But there are always going to be some customers that don’t think like that.

Gender, she says, rarely comes up on the job. No one treats her differently because she’s a woman, and Haydn says the jokes, drinks and camaraderie are and would be the same whether or not Larney has two X chromosomes. ‘She’s a strong character, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. She has [earned] the respect of everyone she works with.’

‘You have to be able to pull your weight,’ says Larney. ‘It’s an industry that you’ll get eaten alive if you can’t pull your weight. We have a lot of laughs here and we talk a lot of dribble. It’s a great environment to work in. Give me a family business over the big corporates any day. We are like one big family and we really look out for each other. We put our heart and soul into the business and treat it like our own. That’s what I love about it.’

While her family are ‘proud as punch’ of her achievements, Larney’s had to learn to live with some of her friends struggling with what she does. ‘Some of my friends just don’t want a bar of it, while others are really interested in what I do.’ It can still feel like a bit of a party trick when she tells people she’s a butcher, and their reply is, ‘You’re a what?’

But Larney hasn’t let it put her off. She remains just as passionate about the industry as the day she picked up a knife for the first time. ‘I genuinely love what I do. I don’t think you could actually do this job if you didn’t love it. While the days are structured and you might be doing the same job all day, every single week is different. There is never a dull moment.’

While Larney loves her current role at Farm Fresh Meats, long-term she has aspirations of running her own butchery. ‘That’s the dream.’

[ WORDS + IMAGES Annie Studholme ]