In December, long before the rest of us were dreaming about spring flowers and chocolate bunnies, Jarrod Spangler and Shannon Hill, owners of the Maine Meat butcher shop in Kittery, were thinking about Easter hams.

They adjusted their orders with the farmers who supply them with whole pigs, so that in the weeks leading up to the spring holiday they would bring in extra animals. That means butchering three pigs a week instead of two, which provides six whole boneless hams. (Half a whole boneless ham, according to Hill, can feed eight to 12 people.) When the shop first opened, the butchers at Maine Meat deboned, brined and smoked eight whole hams. Last year, they produced 14.

“This will be our fifth Easter,” Hill said, “and every year we’ve gone up a whole pig’s worth of ham.”

Maine Meat co-owner Jarrod Spangler removes a ham from a tub of brine before tying it and putting it in a smoker. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

If you’d prefer an Easter ham from a pig that’s been raised in Maine rather than in the confines of a factory farm, they are available at local butcher shops like Maine Meat. But demand for local meat is growing so quickly, and the number of neighborhood butchers is still so small, that it’s a good idea to order ahead.

“It’s a scale issue,” Spangler said. “We’re not a giant shop, so it’s hard for us to make more than 12 to 14 hams for Easter.”

At Rosemont Markets, butchers slow down production of ham for the deli departments at the beginning of April to be sure they’ll have enough hams for Easter, which falls on April 21 this year.

“It’s usually hard to have enough,” said Carlos Tirado, manager of Rosemont’s new Falmouth store, who also oversees the company’s butchering program based in Cape Elizabeth. “We almost always sell out, so we encourage preorders and special orders.”

In Maine, everyone wants to buy local, but in this case, why is it so hard? Historically, Maine has produced a lot of smoked seafood, but not much smoked meat. Years ago, farmers might have kept a little wooden smokehouse on their property and smoked hams themselves, but the state’s smoked meat tradition can’t really compare with what’s found in Southern states, such as Virginia and Tennessee.

“Here in Maine, there’s never really been a big smokehouse tradition,” said Andrew Smith, owner of Smith’s Log Smokehouse in Monroe. “Naturally, there was some, because you have no other way to preserve some meat. But nothing like down South. Down South, they were always very serious about it.”

Smoke pours our of a smoker as Maine Meat co-owner Jarrod Spangler lifts the lid. The ham inside will smoke for 12 hours. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Today’s farmers don’t have the time to smoke their own meat, butchers say. Slaughterhouses will process, pack and wrap a pig, but for the most part, they leave the artisanal craft of brining and smoking hams that can make the centerpiece of an Easter table to local butchers.

The number of neighborhood butcher shops is increasing but not enough to keep up with the demand for local meats. Just since Maine Meats has opened, Spangler noted, he’s trained butchers who went on to open their own shops in three New England towns. But each shop is limited in what it can produce, and there still aren’t enough butchers to go around.

“Whole craft butchery is not something that is in every neighborhood like it used to be, which is unfortunate,” Tirado said.

Local butchers are also limited by the number of pigs they can buy. Easter hams are not like Thanksgiving turkeys, where the customer buys the whole animal. Butchers who buy too many extra pigs just to provide hams end up overextending themselves budget-wise and creating a situation that goes against the buy local philosophy, which eschews waste.

“We butcher whole animals,” Tirado said, “so to keep production for six stores running smoothly, it’s almost unfair to ask my small butcher staff, in a week’s time leading up to Easter, to slaughter and butcher an extra 10 pigs just to get the extra 20 hams. We have to respect the whole animal and use everything from the animal. We’d be left with thousands of pounds of chops and grind.”

Pig farmers say local pork is better because, not only are the animals treated well, it’s moister and more tender than pork from factory farms.

Maine Meat co-owner Jarrod Spangler ties a brined ham before putting it in a smoker. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Steve Burger, owner of Winter Hill Farm in Freeport, raises Berkshire pigs that he sells to Maine Meat, which buys heritage breeds from several Maine farms. (He also sells occasionally to the Riverside Butcher Co. in Damariscotta and Bow Street Market in Freeport.) The pigs move around the farm during the year, freely digging, foraging and grazing for food, and they are fed 300 gallons a week of the whey that’s a byproduct of the farm’s cheese operation, then fed grain before harvesting. Berkshires grow slower than conventional breeds, Burger says, but that means they put on more intermuscular fat, so the meat is more marbled.

“The meat has a nice red color,” he said. “I always like to refer to our pork as the other red meat and not the other white meat.”

The meat also retains more moisture, which Burger says is important for both cooking and eating.

Tom Hasty, owner of Breezy Hill Farm in South Berwick, raises a Yorkshire-Landrace crossbreed that it sells to Maine Meat and to Rosemont Markets. He buys the piglets in Maine when they are 8 weeks old, and six months later, they are ready for market. The pigs stay inside the barn, where they are grouped together in pens by age, but they are hormone- and antibiotic-free, Hasty said. He also feeds his pigs a dairy byproduct to fatten them up – milk curd that he sources from Immucell in Portland, an animal health company that manufactures products designed to reduce the use of antibiotics in the dairy industry.

Once a pig makes it to Maine Meat, Spangler takes a whole ham (each ham weighs, on average, 10 to 14 pounds, but it’s usually cut into halves or thirds) and debones it, then brines it for eight to 10 days in molasses, brown sugar and sea salt. The ham is smoked using sustainably harvested charcoal from Canada and applewood, two days before the customer picks it up. The shop includes an optional mustard glaze.

At Maine Street Meats in Rockland, butcher Tommy Spaulding buys pork from Broad Arrow Farm in Bristol, Big Daddy’s Farm in Whitefield and Leaf & Caul Farm in Washington. Instead of letting the ham sit in a brine, Spaulding injects the meat with a brine of salt, sugar, water, peppercorns and chilis and spices. The ham is cured for seven to 10 days with salt, brown sugar and spices, then smoked over applewood for three to four hours.

“I think our first year we might have sold six or seven hams,” Spaulding said. “It’s definitely become more popular. We will definitely sell out.”

Pete Sueltenfuss, owner of the Otherside Delicatessen in Portland, buys pigs from North Star Sheep Farm in Windham and from Maine Family Farms. He debones the hams, brines them for a week and then smokes them in the smoker at his Veranda Street location. They’re seasoned with molasses and mustard. Last year, he prepared 15 to 20 hams for the Easter season and says he always tries to have some on hand for last-minute customers.

At Rosemont, butchers receive four whole hogs every Tuesday from four suppliers who rotate each week. The whole hams, which average 10-12 pounds,  are deboned, usually cut in half, then brined for a week in salt, sugar and molasses, according to Tirado. They’re smoked at the company’s Brighton Avenue location, where there is an industrial smoker. (None of the pig is wasted – even the ears and pork skin are dehydrated to sell as dog treats.) The hams are sold with a brown sugar and honey glaze on the side.

Buying an Easter ham that’s so carefully raised and prepared does cost more, in the $11 to $16 per pound range. Otherside and Maine Street Meats both charge $10.99 per pound. Rosemont’s hams are priced at $13.99 per pound, and Maine Meat charges $15.99 per pound. A grocery store ham, by comparison, can range from $2.59 per pound to over $5  per pound.

But Maine’s neighborhood butchers say the extra cost is worth it.

Buying Maine-raised Easter hams, Spaulding says, “keeps local farms up and running.”

“It’s a better product,” he said. “You know where it’s coming from. You know where it’s raised.”

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