Meet the Meatsmith — Renaissance Man and Catholic Convert
God-oriented farming was linked to conversion for one Oklahoma transplant. ‘If you want to make good bacon, you probably need to become Catholic,’ says the agrarian enthusiast.
For Brandon Sheard and his wife, Lauren, the desire to eat naturally and farm sustainably set them on a path that would eventually lead them into the Catholic Church and the teaching of sustainable animal husbandry, discovering a vision for God-oriented farming. Through a deeper — and even supernatural — understanding of agriculture and food preparation, the Sheards offer insight into the year-round importance of the family table that the holiday of Thanksgiving highlights in an often secular way.
In 2007, Brandon and Lauren were living in Southern California while completing their graduate degrees in Renaissance English literature and religion and theology, respectively. Raised Protestant, they were unsatisfied with academia. Initially, to address various health problems, they both turned toward the simple concept of “good food” and stumbled upon the world of sustainable, natural farming. Even though Brandon grew up in suburbia, with no farming experience, he ended up taking a job on a small farm in Washington. “It was in that context that I learned to grow food and tasted for the first time my first real food,” he told the Register. “It was bacon, appropriately enough.”
Brandon recounted how research changed their whole lives: “It engendered in us a very vague philosophical preference for ‘the natural thing,’ so when we got married, ‘the natural thing’ was to not contracept.” For Brandon and Lauren, the reason “we shouldn’t spray our tomatoes with pesticides” was the same that led them to realize “we probably shouldn’t put chemical or physical interrupters to our fertility.” That was the beginning of their conversion to the Catholic faith. “We got to know some other larger families that happened to be Catholic, who helped to direct us and could say, ‘You know, the Catholic Church has a few things to say about natural procreation.’” This was an eye-opener for Brandon.
“Our conversion to the Catholic faith was simultaneously a conversion to the land,” he recalled. In 2010, the Sheards decided to start Farmstead Meatsmith, their current business. “It wasn’t obvious that it would become my business,” Brandon said, “but I wanted to feed my family with food that I could grow.” At the end of the day, the goal of sustainable agriculture is cooking food with the outlook that “you need to feed people with immortal souls.”
“It’s always the simplest foods. It’s bacon: salted, smoked with real wood.”
Today, having researched historic butchering and preservation methods with the same research skills he learned in graduate school, Brandon conducts numerous workshops on sustainable animal harvesting. “I’m not an environmentalist,” he said, adding that in his view, “the only solution to environmental problems is the small family farm — you put a family on a patch of farm that they can tend to.”
But sustainability is not an end in itself for Brandon. “The whole project itself has to serve the salvation of souls,” he explained. “When you behold it that way, you see that the order is inscribed in the old village, with the church at the center, spreading out towards the fields.” Brandon believes that “God has ordered creation in such a way that the Mass restores and orders all of creation and actually restores the damage of the Fall. If our agriculture is going to participate in that, which is our goal, then it has to be a part of the virtue of justice, a rendering to God what he is owed, restoring this order that was lost, which is a part of the virtue of religion.”
So now, when people from even secular backgrounds come to his courses, he says to them, “If you want to make good bacon, you probably need to become Catholic, because then the order of it will all make sense.”
While he does offer services such as a mobile butcher, Brandon mostly teaches: “I teach hands-on. I put knives in everyone’s hands; they don’t just watch me.” Together with his wife, he runs a podcast, a website and an array of services. “The entire narrative from field to plate is remarkably intelligible: Only the tapestry taken as a whole discloses the entire pattern.” To this end, they’ve released a video series entitled “On the Anatomy of Thrift,” described as “a manifesto on the subject of eating animals.” The series deals with “the history, theory and philosophy” of butchering, as well as “the brass tacks of meatsmith know-how.”
The term “Meatsmith” is a neologism or newly coined word that Lauren seems to have invented. “Butcher” or “meat processor” did not accurately capture the roles Brandon was taking on. Thus, like “blacksmith,” he intends the term to encompass every stage of the process from the rearing to the cooking of pigs, sheep and other animals. He hasn’t trademarked the term, though. “I think I’m sufficiently an academic nerd that I would derive more pleasure from the term becoming a common word — even getting into the dictionary — than having an exclusive right to it.”
The Sheards are now based in Oklahoma. After their initial conversion to Catholicism, Brandon described a “second conversion” when they discovered the Latin Mass. The Sheards are proud owners of 10 Oklahoma acres that sit 15 minutes away from a Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) parish.
Brandon’s hope is to help others to recover the richness of an integrated agrarian lifestyle.
“Just do it in your backyard,” he encourages. It is “a domestic virtue” related to “the family table, for delivering abundance to the home kitchen.”
Meditating on the significance of the Thanksgiving holiday, Brandon paraphrased a thought of Dietrich Von Hildebrand, who said that “reverence is the elemental gesture in response to being itself.” The more work we put into something, the more we value it, and Brandon thinks this is related to our ability to give thanks: “The modern food system seems to obfuscate the cost of food and its sentient origins and the work it takes to put a turkey in the table. Paradoxically perhaps, the more labor you put into the preparation of the meal, the more compelled you are to regard it as a gift.”
As Americans prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, the Sheards offer a new perspective on the meaning of food and its preparation, an inspiring example of people who have come to discover eternal truths of heaven, where we are ultimately headed, by first looking to the earth from which we come.
Learn from their experience. Viewer caveat: Watch with care, as the whole process of meatsmithing is shown in videos and posts.