By Cheryl Nechamen
Maybe you’ve decided to support local farmers or maybe you’re uneasy with the inhumane practices of feedlot operators or concerned about the safety of the food you eat. Whatever the reason, you’re ready for the next step- buying locally-raised meat. You can purchase individual cuts of beef, pork and lamb at the farmers market, but a more affordable option is to buy meat in bulk. For instance a side of beef or pork (1/2 of an animal) or perhaps a whole lamb, can be cut to your family’s needs and specifications.
You may be thinking to yourself, if I order a side of beef from a local farm, will I walk outside some day and find half a cow hanging from my porch? The answer is no (unless you really want your beef all in one piece). Custom-processed meat, purchased directly from a farm, comes in neatly labeled packages that look a lot like meat from the supermarket. There are some quirks to the process, however, so here are a few tips to help you navigate through your first experience.
As a novice purchaser of pasture-raised meat, I naively thought that I could order a side of pork or a quarter of beef (1/4 of a cow) at any time of the year. After all, animals don’t have a growing season, right?
Actually, several things can affect availability from small local farms. The very fact that they are small, means that there is no commercialization or industrial farming and so there may only be a handful of pigs, steers or lambs available each year. Even the lack of available quality butchers can affect your purchasing timeline. Farms sometimes have to schedule dates with butchers several weeks or even months in advance. Remember all of the spring born lambs? Well, they are all ready at about the same time of year beginning in September!
While whole frozen chickens are generally available year-round at the big farmers markets in Schenectady, Troy and Saratoga for about $3.50-4.50 a pound, fresh chickens can only be purchased at certain times, typically in the spring through fall. It’s more economical for the farmer to process a large number of birds at the same time and it’s easier to feed the chickens and protect them from predators for a relatively short period of time, resulting in limited availability.
One of the big advantages of ordering locally raised meat and having it custom-processed is that it’s like having a neighborhood butcher. You get to decide whether a side of pork is
cut into roasts or chops or a combination of the two, how thick the chops are and how many chops are packaged together. Typically, you also get to choose two or more types
of sausage, e.g. sweet or hot Italian, bratwurst or breakfast sausage, packaged into either bulk or links. Some farms are able to smoke the ham and bacon through the butcher they use. Then it’s just a matter of whether you want the hams whole or sliced into ham steaks and whether the bacon is thickly or thinly sliced.
Similarly, a side of beef can be cut into roasts or steaks, or a combination of the two, and if you want 3 inch steaks, that’s your decision. You’ll also get lots of stew meat and ground beef.
Of course, if you’re clueless (like us) about which cuts of meat are usually turned into ground beef and which ones make good steaks or kebobs, when you’re discussing with the farmer how to cut the meat, you can always say, what do people usually do? The farmers have a lot of experience taking custom meat orders and can give you good advice.
Now for the important question: how much does it cost to order meat in bulk and have it cut? The farmer will quote a price per pound that the farmer receives. The price usually refers to the hanging weight, before the meat is aged and cut. The hanging weight is significantly higher than what you’ll receive in nice neat packages. Then there’s an additional cutting charge which goes to the cutting facility and possibly additional charges for smoking (ham/bacon). Usually, you go to the farm to pick up the meat. If the farmer delivers the order, expect a transportation charge. Obviously, these charges will vary by farmer, but we paid about $700 for a split quarter of beef, cut into a wide assortment of steaks, etc. and about $550 for a side of pork, including smoking and transportation. By the way, a split quarter is 1/4 of a cow with a mix of cuts from the forequarter and the hindquarter. Some farmers will only sell beef by the side.
A quarter of beef takes up about 2 1/2 shelves in a stand-alone freezer. A side of pork takes up about the same space as a quarter of beef. A whole lamb should fit into 1 shelf of a freezer. If this seems like a lot of meat to you, find a friend or two and split it up.
Once you get away from the conventional feedlot/supermarket mentality of any cut of meat available at any time, the constraints of pasture-raised meat, tied to the cycles of nature, make sense and are fairly easy to deal with. And the advantages of grass-fed meat, animals that are raised under humane conditions, fed a proper diet and raised without hormones or antibiotics, far outweigh the hassles. And, oh yeah, it tastes a lot better!