Friday, January 14, 2011

Where's the beef? All about buying local beef

We have finished the last of our ground beef just in time for tomorrow's beef pick up. In the morning, I'll be sorting through a quarter cow that will last us until next Winter. *this post was updated to reflect the information from our latest order 1/15/11. I'm planning to add some photos later.*

When people learn that we buy our beef locally and on a large-scale, I tend to get a lot of questions. And, over the last two years, the size of our buying group has continued to grow as friends and colleagues learn more about the health, environmental, and economic benefits to purchasing locally raised grass-finished beef. So I thought it would be apropos to write an entry with the skinny on beef buying, from the various options, how to source your purchases, the costs and what to expect, and, very importantly, how to cook it correctly.

Certainly, the most economical way to buy beef is by ordering part of a cow, but there are other options. A number of local farms sell beef by the cut and some offer meat shares similar to produce shares found in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. I am frequently asked about what we purchase and when. We have organized small groups who go in together on purchases of whole steer. The minimum order in this circumstance is 1/4 cow, but your price per pound will fall as you increase to 1/2 and a full cow.  Typically, cows are sold by farms only twice a year, with pick up in the December and June time frames. You generally order your meat about 4-6 weeks in advance. Our schedule is off a little this time because the meat processor was too busy. So, our November order is resulting in a mid-January pick up. When you order larger than 1/4 cow, you will be given a "cut sheet" that allows you to choose how you want your animal processed. This includes choices about sizes of roasts and types of steaks, for example. You'll be offered all the extremely healthy internal organs of the cow, but have the option to leave those with the butcher. Those unwanted pieces are usually resold for things like dog food, I understand. So, the next question I get is: how much is 1/4 cow? Well, our meat is packaged in printer paper size boxes, 12"x12"x24". For an entire cow, you will get 8-10 of these boxes, depending on the size of the animal.  One box is about a typical freezer-over-fridge compartment.  So, even for a 1/4 cow, you will undoubtedly need a separate freezer. Since you are buying meat to store for 6-12 months or more, you really want a chest freezer in the first place. What's the investment here? It varies, of course, but is probably going to run you a few hundred dollars new.  If you do buy a bulk beef (or other meat), make sure to keep your chest freezer at between about -3 degrees F and 0 degrees F to ensure the longest life of the meat. Often, regular freezers are seat between 0 degrees F and 5 degrees F, and they cycle higher to prevent frost.  We are a family of three and we order once a year now, but of course, it really depends on your personal consumption. I am often asked how the meat is packaged. It depends on the butcher. Wagner's Mt. Airy Meat Locker packages in shrink-wrapped plastic that is marked with the cut, but not the weight. It's good quality.

Ok, so that is the technical scoop on large orders. You need to be aware you can't just decide to get a cow and pick it up tomorrow, but it is the most cost effective approach. Other options include 50 lbs boxes, which will fill a typical fridge-freezer compartment. These are usually some assortment of ground beef, steaks, and roasts, and they vary by farm. Several farms realize that it isn't practical for many folks to have chest freezers, so they offer either purchase by the cut, or a meat share CSA. In the former, you are going to pay a price per pound that will be significantly higher than bulk or at the store, but the quality will be very high. With a meat share CSA you will pay a flat price for a season and every week or two, you'll go to the farm or a market and pick up a box of meat. Often, a meat share will include a wide range of meat, so you won't just get beef, but a combination of beef, chicken, pork, and maybe lamb. I'll list some more resources at the end, but my favourite local buy-the-cut farm is Evermore Farm and I'd recommend the meat CSA or by-the-cut from Green Akeys Farm in Westminster.

Let's see. Costs and expectations. The cost of local beef by the cut will vary from farm to farm. Usually, they will have the prices listed on their website. Similarly, I've seen a wide range of prices for meat CSA shares. By the cut, you can expect about $6-7/lb for ground beef and steaks to run $13-18/lb from what I've seen. Often, the farm will sell a variety pack.  Evermore Farm has a Winter meat CSA (too late this year) that has options from $55/month to $165/month. Since I buy once a year, a quarter cow, I can best give that information, as I've kept records. Without being overly precise, our full cow orders have come out just over $2200, with each 1/4 share being then in the range of $550-600.  Bulk orders are charged by the hanging weight of the animal, which is not the same as the weight you receive in the end for a variety of reasons, mostly because it is before butchering. This can make costs a little confusing, but generally we have received around 320 lbs in the end, with a true cost for us, regardless of cut, of about $6.95/lb in 2011. So, you can see this is much more economical. I look at it as we paid $6.95/lb today for our ground beef and for our rib eye steaks. Then, we are getting our roasts and steaks at about the same price as local packages of ground beef cost. If you wanted to separate it out, in a half cow today, we got 65lbs of ground beef and 110lbs of cut meat for about $1100. That's relatively representative of our group's orders. I have kept detailed records of what exactly we've received (by cut) over the last few years. If you want to see that level of detail, let me know and I can send it to you.

How do you find a good source? Well, there are a number of ways to locate farms in Central Maryland. First, I can give you a list of those I've dealt with, but there are a lot of beef farms in Carroll and Frederick County. It is good land for livestock. The biggest consideration should be asking the right questions so that you get what you want. Locally grown beef, like locally grown produce, doesn't imply anything about the conditions the animals were raised in. Local farms can and do raise livestock with conventional methods, including diets dominated by corn and the use of scheduled antibiotics. Terminology is confusing and so you do need to ask questions. Don't buy from non-responsive farmers and, honestly, I have found some of them locally too. More on terminology in a second. I strongly encourage you to visit the farm so you can see the farmer's practices first hand. Like produce farmers, livestock farmers should be completely transparent about how they are grazing their animals, what they are fed in the deep Winter months, and how they deal with antibiotics.  As with all local goods, I find to be an excellent resource to find farms, and then I dive into their websites. Other thing to be aware of is that sustainable livestock farming takes a lot of land and experience. Despite the best intentions, from my discussions with farmers, it is going to be tough going to raise grass-finished beef on small acreage in a way that protects the land and the animals. I have met folks who bought grass-finished beef from a farmer and ended up with really tough cuts; good beef shouldn't be this way, and I suspect that happens from lack of experience or processing at the wrong time.

Terminology is a kicker here. Grassfed beef is a meaningless term because all cows are fed grass at the beginning of their life. Cows are ruminants and are unable to adequately digest corn, so it is not fed at the early months of a cows life. What you are really looking for is grass-finished beef. But, I'll admit that I often say grassfed when I'm talking and so you really need to ask what the farmer means with their terms. You might be happy to buy "humane" or "antibiotic free" beef at Whole Foods or other stores. Be cautious of what you assume by  a commercial label. Whole Foods beef, for example, is often raised partially on pasture and with limited antibiotics, but those farms (local farms) are very often still largely conventional. I've visited some. The animals, especially as they get close to processing time, are still kept in CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) set ups. They are kept in dirt and feces covered pens and fed corn out of large troughs to fatten them up quickly. So you need to ask questions and do a little research. You will also find variations in how the animals are pastured. At the farm we buy from, Ruth Ann's Garden Style Beef, she has divided her 100+ acres into 1 acre parcels. The animals graze in a parcel for awhile and then are moved to a new pasture. Their grazing spurs the regrowth in the pasture they left, and they end up visiting each parcel about twice a year, as I recall. Ruth Anne is embracing major components of sustainable livestock breeding with rotating pastures. Not everyone does that. Some farms, like the now famous Polyface Farm in Virginia, add other animals into the rotation, typically chickens following behind the cows to eat the bugs from their feces and help fertilize and turn the pasture for regrowth. The whole set of whys for grass-finished beef is well documented and I won't try to pretend to be the expert, instead I can provide some resources for your own research. My own care-abouts are: grass-finished (no corn in diet), minimal antibiotics, minimal chemicals, holistic sustainable farming practices, animal welfare, local economy. As far as reading goes, The Omnivore's Dilemma and Eating Animals are two good choices for understanding different drivers for buying grass-finished beef, but there really is a lot of information out there and a simple Google search on grass-finished or grassfed beef will provide ample reading for the curious.

If you are interested in buying part of a cow, I've found that it isn't that hard to find others to go in with you. The cost difference is significant if you can purchase an entire animal, and the butcher (at least the one we use) will label boxes down to 1/4 cow. Over the last few years, our group has included over a dozen families in different orders, so that we've always gotten the best pricing. Once people know you're organizing orders, you'd be surprised how often they'll jump in.

Once you've found yourself the proud new owner of some locally raised grass-finished beef, you want to make sure you cook it correctly. Because these animals aren't being stuffed with corn, they are much leaner than conventional beef and if you cook the meat to USDA-recommended temperatures you are likely to end up unhappy and wondering about the money you've just spent. The basic rule for beef cuts is that they should be cooked to 120-140 degrees F, rather than the 145-170 F recommended for conventional beef. I usually pull out steaks and roasts at around 125 degrees F.  As the meat sits for 5-10 minutes, it will gain a few degrees. Following this guide, I use our meat in all recipes otherwise unchanged, but there are cookbooks specifically focused on cooking sustainably raised meat. My two primary go-to books are The Grassfed Gourmet by Shannon Hayes and Tender Grassfed Meat by Stanley Fishman.  Both books cover a lot more than beef.

Well, I think that is the skinny. As I said, there are actually quite a few options to consider in Central Maryland, but here are a few resources:

Ruth Ann's Garden Style Beef -- this is where we have ordered all our beef. Ruth Anne's family are Frederick County dairy farmers. Her brother does organic dairy farming near Frederick and she runs the northern Carroll County farm herself. We've had only good experiences.

Evermore Farm -- they only sell by the cut or by CSA subscription. we have not bought beef here, but have bought other meat and are very impressed overall.

Green Akeys Farm -- we haven't bought beef from them, but they sell meat shares and we buy most of our chickens and lamb from them. great farm.

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