Since we have been "animal-less" for the last two years, we have practically become vegetarians. Turns out that buying good meat at retail prices is a bit tough on our meager incomes. It's ok- we have become pros at cooking beans, rice, quinoa and other affordable foods. We don't have any food waste anymore either, except for our coffee grounds, which get composted anyways. We turn all our veggie scraps into soup stock and if we do eat meat, all of the bones and extra fat go to the stockpot too. But I digress...
So being animal-less has meant being more or less meat-less. But now that we have a firm place to call home and thus a place to store food, we finally plunked down for a side of pork. We have sold hundreds of sides of pork, but never been a customer ourselves. It used to be quite common for Americans to buy "locker beef" or sides of pork directly from a neighbor, relative, or farmer who lived nearby. It was economical and assured a steady supply of protein through thick and thin, especially wintertime when you maybe couldn't get to a store for a couple weeks. People would can, cure, dry, smoke, and freeze the meat in various ways so that it would last for months and be consumed in smaller quantities. This method of food purchasing sort of fell out of fashion for 30 or so years, at least in the rapidly urbanizing regions of the country where most Americans live. It still was quite the norm in rural America to buy a quarter steer or half pig, as it still is today. Luckily, this trend is reversing. You can find sides of livestock all over the country- see www.localharvest.com to find a local producer in your area.
Buying meat in bulk like this has many advantages- the per pound price is considerably cheaper than buying cuts of meat at the store. You get steaks and chops at the price of ground meat. The meat is usually fresher than store bought and quickly frozen. You can have it cut to your specifications- like thick pork chops? Like bone-in roasts? Like your ground meat a little leaner? Like your beef dry aged for a couple weeks to make it more tender? When you buy meat in bulk, you usually get to make those choices. The other big advantage to buying meat like this is understanding a bit more how the animal was raised, who raised it, and even the quality of the slaughter and butchering. You deepen your relationship with the meat supply chain- it become less anonymous and opaque. Maybe that makes you feel like the meat is safer, more wholesome, and perhaps it is. The other advantage (some would consider this a challenge) is that buying meat in bulk encourages you to eat a variety of meat cuts and expand your culinary prowess. I remember the first time I butterflied a boneless pork loin, stuffed it with sauteed apples, bread, nuts, and butter and then tied it back up to be roasted. I was beyond proud when that roast wowed my family. That would never happen if I just bought the same ol' cuts at the store that I knew exactly how to prepare (in the same boring way). Best of all, in my opinion, is that buying meat directly from the farmer/rancher will better keep them in business. Keeping the folks in business that take good care of our meat animals is the best way to assure humane livestock production and good land stewardship. It's a win-win. You save money and the farmer makes better money. Direct dollars, less middlemen.
The disadvantages of buying meat in bulk is usually the large price tag you have to bite off all at once, where to store it, and then figuring out what to do with it all. I don't get intimidated by 100 lbs of meat sitting in my freezer- indeed it gives me a great feeling of security. But for others it may cause stress for meal planning thinking about what to do with all that meat. Agghh....the stress of privilage.
Drawing from our recent pork buying experience, here is some advice:
1) Find the right farm raising the animal how you like it- we spent about a year trying to find a farm within a 100 miles of us that was raising heritage breed pigs (we like their fat and flavor over modern breeds) on pasture and feeding organic grains. We found plenty of pastured pigs, but most of them were blue-butts (York/Hamp crosses) that are too lean for our tastes. Or when we did find heritage breeds they usally had been fed conventional feeds. I was willing to relax a bit on that issue knowing how extremely high organic feeds have been lately, but whenever I did, my husband would just remind me of the evils of Monsanto and GMOs, and I would sulk off, porkless. We did finally locate that local perfect farm with a pasture-raised, heritage-breed, organically-fed pig. Phew! Here was our Berkshire pig from High Roost Ranch of Glenwood, Washington.
2) Check your bank balance and figure out the numbers- when you buy a quarter, half, or whole animal direct from the farmer, you usually pay a price based on the hanging weight. That is the weight of the animal after it has been killed with head, guts, and blood removed. Some farmers charge by the live weight- the weight of the living animal- if they have a manner to weigh the beast. I see this happen with lambs quite often when they are sold at around the 100-110 pound live weight range. If you are paying for the live weight, you should ask about how many pounds of usable meat will come off that animal and then do the math to see if that makes sense for you. With our Berkshire above, we paid only $3.50 a pound hanging weight, which is a steal for an organically-fed pig. I truly hope the farmers can stay in business with those prices. I did not pick this farm because their prices were so low, but rather for the breed and their animal husbandry practices. But I can't deny being delighted with my final bill of $318.50 (91lbs hanging weight x $3.50/lb.) for a half pig. On top of that, we paid for half the cost of the custom mobile slaughter fee of $60 since we just bought half of the pig. Slaughter costs for a steer will run much higher, up to $150. If you are just buying a half or quarter beef, you will pay 1/2 or 1/4 of that fee, so factor that into your costs. Around the country, you may pay anywhere from $3.00-6.00/lb. hanging weight for beef and pork. Goat and lamb usually run a bit higher because their carcass sizes are much smaller, around 40lbs hanging weight for a whole animal. I usually see goat/lamb prices around $6.00-8.00/lb. as a side or whole animal. Still all considerably cheaper than buying good quality meat at a grocery store, which may run $7-24/lb. depending on the cut.
3) Pick the butcher and give instructions- Often the farmer will give you a couple choices of where to have the animal butchered. You can even elect to cut it up yourself at home, which can be fun and educational or a giant pain in the butt if you don't have the right tools. Our farmer gave us two options for butchery and we choose the butcher that had a better reputation for quality. All they had to say was "their bacon is divine" and that sold us on Mayer's Custom Meats of Vancouver, Washington. A bit further for us to drive, but their reputation was excellent. If you are buying that much meat, you want it to be processed well. Once you choose the butcher, the farmer arranges to get your animal there somehow. In our case, the mobile slaughter guy took the carcass directly to the butcher. Once the carcass arrives at the shop, the butcher gives you a call and asks you how you want your side cut up. We received a pleasant phone call from a very nice woman and I ran down the list of cuts that I wanted. After years of raising pigs and selling pork, I know how I like my pork cut up. However, if you are new to this, ask either the farmer or the butcher to give you sample cutting instructions (here is one for pork). You will have to decide how thick you want steaks/chops, how big the roasts, whether or not to leave bones in the meat, spice flavorings for sausage, and other details. Don't be intimidated if you don't know everything- feel free to ask the butcher what their favorite ways to prepare certain cuts or what sausages they like best. If MSG, nitrates, sugar, salt, dextrose or other preservatives are a big deal for you, make sure you tell them to leave certain things out. Also, if you prefer paper-wrapped or plastic vacuum sealed packaging, you should make that known. You may not have an option, but if you do, I would suggest vacuum sealed because your meat can last longer and it is easier to see what you got inside the pacakge. However, if you are going to gobble up all the meat within 3-6 months, paper wrapping is just fine.
4) Find the space- a lot of people fret about having enough freezer space to buy meat in bulk. It turns out that you can fit half a pig or a quarter beef in a regular size top-mounted freezer space, as evidenced by this picture below. We even have a few other things crammed in there too, like turkey stock, frozen tomatoes, and other odds and ends. Our 91 pound hanging weight pig turned into about 70 pounds of meat (we left the bone in all cuts to get a better efficiency) and that all miraculously fit in our freezer. For the time being, we don't have to go out and buy a stand-alone chest freezer. But you can buy something decent for a bit over $200 and fit a half steer or whole pig if you so desire. The new models are so energy-efficient you should hardly notice a blip in your utility bill. I even have off-grid friends who just bought a chest freezer they can easily power with their solar panels. However you store your meat, just make sure it is good and frozen. Check the door seals and for ice build-up, which may indicate a leakage of cold air and you could get freezer burn on your meat. Chest freezers are better sealing than stand-up freezers and have less problems with ice build-up.
5) Get the meat, pay for it, take it home quick- self explanatory. But usually the customer is responsible for picking up the meat from the butcher, paying for the butchering costs (separate from the price paid to farmer), and then transporting it home. Bring some coolers and some ice for that. Butcher costs run between $.50-1.50 a pound, depending on what you have done to the side. Simple cutting is on the lower end of the price scale, grinding may cost a bit more, and then sausage-making and curing will cost the most. To save money, keep the fancy sausages at a minimum. You can also do bulk sausage instead of linked sausage to save a few dollars too. We ended up having our pork belly turned into bacon, hocks smoked, and our ham roasts and trim turned into 2 types of bulk sausage in addition to all the regular cuts. Nothing too fancy and our total bill for a 91 pound pig was just $72 for all the butchering and packaging (I expected it to be closer to $100, so was pleasantly suprised!). So add those costs into your budget as well. This put our total pig costs at $420.50 or $4.62/lb. on the hanging weight. Realize that your final packaged meat weight is going to be less than the hanging weight. With pork, you can expect 60-80% of the hanging weight (more if you ask for all the bones, fatback, etc.) and with beef, lamb, and goat you should expect closer to 55-75% usable meat from the carcass. If you want to get your money's worth, ask for all the soup bones and trim. You can use that to make stock or feed to your dogs, but you might as well get it if you can.
6) Start cooking!- Start out with some of the easier cuts that you have familiarity with and then start adding in some new ones. Open up a cookbook or search the cut on the Internet. Type in "top round roast" and see what delicious recipes pop up. Start experimenting- brining or marinating your meat, smoking it, barbecuing, braising, roasting, stewing, pan searing, dry rubbing and enjoy the journey. Your palette will be greatly rewarded, even if you screw up a peice or too. Your pocketbook will thank you. Your friends will start popping up unannouced at dinnertime more frequently. Your "what should I cook for dinner" conundrum will start to ease itself. You will know a farmer and you will honor a specific animal that gave up it's life for you. That may bother you, but more than likely it will give you a special reverance for your food and make it that much more enjoyable.
Now go find a farmer and make the call!