Go on, admit it. You’ve thought about it, haven’t you? You like the idea of eating top-quality meat.
You like the idea of eating meat bought directly from the farmer. Meat from an animal whose living conditions were not only humane but positively natural.
One who feasted on wild, native grasses grown in soil responsibly tended by a rancher who understood the value and economics of a sustainable farming process. And all for a fraction of the price of meat in the store.
Cow in headlights
For several years, I’ve wanted to buy part of a cow from a rancher. I wanted to make sure I got to eat the best quality beef I could with all the above benefits. But I kept putting it off. It all seemed rather overwhelming.
I live in the urban sprawl of Silicon Valley. Cows are about as rare as the rain. I don’t know too many ranchers. And despite trawling many a website, I finally realized I was procrastinating because there were so many unknowns about the process. Questions I couldn’t seem to get answered.
Ranchers, especially small ones, focus on what they do best. And that’s often cows, not communication.
A townie’s questions:
- Will I pay more for the same amount of beef than in the store?
- Will I have to lift the meat into the car? How heavy is it?
- How does it come packaged?
- How will I transport it back? How will I keep it cool and fresh?
- How much space does it take up? Will it fit in my van? Will it fit in my freezer?
- Is it worth traveling two hours to pick up?
- How long will it last?
- Will I end up with lots of cuts of meat for which I have no use?
- Will I get sick of eating beef? And will I be eating it until the end of my days?
I was particularly concerned about the price. I’m very cost-conscious and tend to stick to lower-priced cuts of beef. Steaks rarely make an appearance on our dinner plates. I worried that I’d ultimately spend more for my beef because I’d get the better quality cuts that I normally avoid. And I’m no gourmet cook – how does one cook a porterhouse steak exactly?
As you can see, I seemed a little anxious, probably a comment on how removed I am from the source of my food. But now I’ve done it, it’s the mystery that has been removed.
In the end, I had a friend guide me through the process but for those who don’t have this luxury and for whom buying a partial dead animal is a little like navigating unfamiliar territory without a map app when your GPS is broken, I thought I’d share this short guide based on my own experience.
1. Find your rancher
- Go to Eat Wild for sources of pasture-raised meat or read this post on cowpooling for ideas.
- Read the rancher’s website, especially how they raise their animals, the pricing structure and note how far the drive is from your home.
- Don’t get distracted with the finer points of beef technicalities if this is your first time – all the ranchers on the Eat Wild list provide top quality beef.
2. Find cowpooling friends
- This is optional. It isn’t necessary these days to commit to buying a whole animal and share it with others but it can help reduce the costs.
- Ask around and see if anyone is interested in buying a share of meat with you.
- Discuss how you might share your part. Most cuts come in multiples so you should be able to share evenly without too much negotiation.
- Ride on the back of someone more experienced who’s willing to show you the ropes.
3. Decide how much you want to buy
- Look at your freezer options. I have a 18 cubic foot upright freezer and a quarter of beef took up approximately 30% of the space. I could probably stuff in three-quarters of whole cow if I organized it well and packed it jam-full.
- Buy a smaller quantity first in order to understand the process and your ability to store and eat such a large amount of one type of meat.
- If you buy half a cow or another type of meat, you may be asked to give directions to the butcher about the cuts you want, size of the packages. If you are unsure, ask the butcher to guide you – they are usually very helpful.
4. Place your order and send off your deposit
- Meat is usually paid for with two payments.
- There’s often a deposit that is based on the estimated weight of the beef (they don’t know exactly because they haven’t slaughtered the cattle, prepared the beef and weighed it.)
- The second payment is for the balance that represents the difference between the estimated price and the actual price based the weight of the meat you’ll be collecting. This is usually paid for at time of pick-up or just prior to collection. The total should come to the estimated price per pound you understood from the ranchers website.
- However it is done, speak to someone to confirm each payment step and make sure you get a receipt and confirmation of your order.
- Ask for offal, fat and bones. Do this when you order your meat as they will likely throw them away if you don’t.
5. Plan in advance
- Order in advance of you needing the meat because there will be a delay between you ordering and the animal being slaughtered. The order and deposit is usually placed some weeks in advance of collection.
- The ranch will notify you when it is ready.
- They also often have some beef on-hand but it feels good in these circumstances to think your meat is your meat.
6. Have your freezer prepared
- Make sure you have enough space for your meat, use up food to make more room if you need it, give the freezer a clean.
- I actually chose this time to empty my freezer, turn it off and clean it out for the first time in twelve years. I figured this would be the last time I would see the back wall for quite some time.
7. Collect your meat.
- The day before, make sure you confirm with your ranch contact that you are planning to collect the meat and confirm the pick-up address.
- Also confirm what payments will be made on collection and the methods of payment they will take.
- Restate that you are willing to take offal, fat and bones.
- If you need to, take your meal breaks on the drive to the pick-up so that you have a clear run home when you have the meat in the back.
- Take the kids with you. Kids need to get closer to the source of their food in order to appreciate everything that has to happen in order to get it into their little tummies. That is how they will appreciate your cooking, the animals that are sacrificed, the sustainability of our practices and our planet. So take them with you. They might not get to even see a cow on the trip but they will see the effort that goes into sourcing good quality meat and internalize the importance of it.
- Pay the balance of the cost of the meat and the butchering charge if necessary.
- Ask for the offal, fat and bones if you haven’t already.
8. Transport your meat.
- If you’re driving two hours or less, you don’t need anything special to transport your meat. You can simply put it in the trunk of your car.
- If you are concerned about keeping the meat cool you can use emergency blankets, ice, frozen gel packs or pack it in coolers (although beware of the extra space you’ll need for the coolers.) You can also keep the temperature of the car low. And remember, the more meat you transport the cooler it will keep.
- A quarter cow takes up the space of a small grocery shopping load.
- The meat should come out packaged and labeled with the cut of meat detailed on the outside.
9. Unload your car
- Put your meat straight in the freezer when you get home. Get the whole family involved with you directing where it should go. (Kind of like moving house. )
- As it goes in, organize it on your freezer shelves by cut so you’re not rootling around every night looking for the one you want.
- Keep a sharpie handy so you can label the packages more effectively if necessary. It can soon get frustrating if you are having difficulty locating a type of beef.
- Make a note of the date so you can see how long it takes you to get through the amount of beef you bought.
10. And you’re done!
- Start pushing your cooking boundaries and search for some new recipes.
- Pat yourself on the back and go take another risk.
I ended up paying around $4 a pound – all cuts from stewing beef up to T-bone and
porterhouse steaks. Extremely good when you consider I pay more than that in Wholefoods just for ground beef.
The total outlay for a 1/4 of beef was around $500 with an initial deposit of $350, plus gas and time. I don’t know how long it will last yet, I’m estimating three to four months for our family of four.
It was absolutely worth the 2-hour drive – it was fun and a good experience to get out of the city and into the countryside for a change. And in fact, I’m now so keen, I’m looking to get some pork!
Have you bought meat direct from the source? Was it a good experience? What tips do you have for someone doing it for the first time? Tell us in the comments.
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