A Paleo Newbie’s Guide to Buying Meat Direct from the Farm

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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?

Mystery solved

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. Buying beef from the farm isn’t mysterious or difficult when you’ve done it once.

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.

Your Guide to Buying Beef from the Farm

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

buying beef farm The boys came along to help.
  • 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.
buying beef farm The meat came out on a dolly, crated and in brown paper bags. Each cut was individually wrapped in paper although many pack their meat in plastic.

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.

buying beef farm Half a cow fit into the well of the van trunk space and some more. About the size of a large grocery shopping trip.
  • 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.
buying beef farm My freezer after the meat had been stocked. The door shelves were entirely full of offal and bones.

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

buying beef farm The number of packages by cut for a quarter of beef.

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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Alison Golden writes on the topic of paleo over at Paleo/NonPaleo. She aims to share ideas, inspire and motivate readers by teaching them how to live paleo in a non-paleo world. She is also the author of the bestselling book, The Modern, No-Nonsense Guide to Paleo, a unique tool that gives the reader hundreds of strategies to navigate the learning process to successful paleo living.

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

D. M. Mitchell August 14, 2012 at 8:27 am

Two years ago we got a half a beef from a couple in my sister’s church, but then found out that he had “grain finished” the steer, which pretty much undoes the good things like, CLAs and Omega 3s. Still it wasn’t given hormones or antibiotics. Last year I found Fouch Farms in Mariposa, CA. We live in Yosemite Lakes Park, just south of Coarsegold, CA, which is about 40 miles south of Mariposa. At Fouch Farms the beef is pastured raised, grass fed and grass finished. (They have pigs too.) But, they have a small breed so our half wasn’t as big as the first one. Fouch Farms slaughters then sends the carcass to a custom butcher in Turlock, CA, about an hour and a half drive from our home. The butchered and packaged frozen meat fit easily in the back of my sister’s P.T. Cruiser and there was little to no thawing by the time we got home. We got the liver and heart, as well as soup bones, but my sister forgot to tell them to save some of the fat so I could render it. Oh well, next time. You have to get your order in early, like in January, and the slaughter takes place in late June or early July, then it takes another 10 days or so before you can pick the meat up. It has to cool hand to let it age, so it is more tender.
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Alison Golden August 14, 2012 at 7:50 pm

I hadn’t thought of looking at the size of breed, that’s a good point. I forgot to ask for the fat too but like you say, you learn for next time. It’s all a learning process. Thanks for commenting! :-)
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Scott August 14, 2012 at 8:34 am

you mentioned buying a quarter, can you buy in smaller quantities, or only through a cowpooling group? Are the cuts ready to cook, or will I need to do some further “home butchering”? finally, what the heck is offal? and while I understand the importance of saturated fat in paleo, what are you doing with the extra fat and bones? Great article, you answered many of my questions

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Deede August 14, 2012 at 9:11 am

Usually the butcher can offer you smaller quantities, but the price per pound will be higher. Cuts are typically frozen before you pick them up – but other than thawing time, they are ready to cook.

“Offal” is the internal organs and entrails of the animal i.e. heart, liver, kidneys, etc. Use the fat for lard in cooking or in place of butter.

Bones are used to boil down to make beef broths, soups and stews.

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Alison Golden August 14, 2012 at 7:51 pm

What Deede said. :-) And thank you, glad it was helpful. :-)
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Alison Golden August 14, 2012 at 7:56 pm

In addition to liver, kidneys and heart, we also got cheek and tongue.
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Jeanmarie August 14, 2012 at 9:22 pm

The quantities you can buy depend on the rancher. They prefer to sell in larger lots of course, but nowadays more ranchers are getting savvy about direct marketing to consumers and will be more flexible if they can. We’ve bought a quarter beef at a time, for a household of two. We went to the ranch because of an introduction; they have previously focused on their wholesale market. But they invited us to lunch, then the son-in-law gave us a tour of the ranch. It was totally awesome. We got to ask the rancher all the questions we wanted to over lunch about his philosophy of caring for cows, and the history of his ranch. This is Magruder Ranch in Potter Valley, California, in Mendocino County. Great people, wonderful meat.

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Jeanmarie August 14, 2012 at 9:25 pm

And we now buy pork from them, as well. We’ve bought pork from others three times, and a quarter beef elsewhere before. Glad we found Magruder.

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Alison Golden August 20, 2012 at 3:53 pm

I think it’s wonderful when you can meet your rancher and get to know them. We want to know the parents of our children’s friends, why not the producers of the food we put in our bodies, huh? I’ve even heart of people buying eighths of a cow share which I think is awesome.
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Deede August 14, 2012 at 9:07 am

We have been purchasing both our beef and pork from local farmers for several years. In our experience, this is an easy and very affordable way to supply our family’s meat needs, while ensuring we support the local economy AND know exactly where our food comes from. If you have never experienced this, I whole heartedly recommend it.
We designate a portion of our tax return every year to pay for the purchase of 1 whole steer and 2 whole hogs. It seems expensive up front, but once you do the calculation AND experience knowing EXACTLY where your food comes from, you’ll never go back to grocery store meat again!
For someone who really desires to do this, I offer the following advice: Go to a local butcher shop and inquire who has animals available. They are an excellent source for ranchers to sell their livestock. Speak with the rancher about how you prefer to have your animal fed. They will appreciate not having to corn feed the steer for you – (it saves them money!), and they will probably pass the savings onto you. (Ranchers typically only corn feed a steer for the last 60-90 days.) We have the rancher deliver the animal to the butcher for us – and pay the rancher direct for the animal’s live weight (intact, whole animal), typically $1.10 per pound in our area (SW MO) Then the butcher charges the kill fee ($25). In our area, it is $0.45/pound of hanging weight (after the animal has been gutted, skinned and all the excess parts removed) to have them “processed” (the butcher term for cutting and wrapping the meat). After the waste of bones and excess fat or unusable parts of the steer, we typically pay $2.35/pound for all the beef; this is everything from hamburger to Prime Rib roasts and T-bone steaks! After the animal has been killed, it needs to hang for a period of time to age – this ensures your meat does not taste like grass. This is typically 7 – 28 days, depending on your state requirements and your butcher. During this hanging time, meet with the butcher to decide which cuts you would like. I recommend you look at a chart online (http://virtualweberbullet.com/meatcharts.html) for what cuts come from which part of the animal and determine which suits your needs best and what size packaging you want. Our family has 6 so we always have the cuts wrapped to accomodate 6 people at each meal. Take advantage of the opportunity to have amazing cuts for cheaper than hamburger! Ask the butcher for the boiling beef, soup bones, neck bones, tail (oxtail) and request the fat be made into your own lard. No sense in throwing away this plethora of goodness. Definitely ask them for the liver (if you don’t like liver – use your dehydrater (or oven on lowest setting for 18 hours) and make AMAZING liver treats for your dogs – just sprinkle a litttle garlic powder over the liver after you have sliced it into about 2″ strips – 1 whole beef liver made 11 quarts of liver snacks – they will LOVE you even more for it and it’s the healthiest snack you can give them!) My butcher has so many people who do not want the liver, he keeps it for me to make dog treats all year long – and he gives it to me for FREE (my favorite word!)
The meat will come wrapped, frozen and marked with each cut. Go straight home – do not pass “GO”, do not stop anywhere else, get that meat into the freezer! Sit back and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing you just saved yourself a ton of money on weekly grocery shopping ( I can feed my family of 6 on $150 per week since I do not have to buy meat), you supported the local economy and you provided the absolute best meat possible for your loved ones. Bon Appetit!

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Alison Golden August 14, 2012 at 7:55 pm

Yeah, they were a bit taken aback when I said ‘yes’ to the offal. I only got a quarter yet I ended up with 5 livers, 2 hearts, and a pair of cheeks. Must have been the weirdest cow…:-)
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Malua August 14, 2012 at 9:10 pm

Thank you so much for this!!!!

I have been investigating the wholesale meat purchase for the last few weeks. But I had this inner tension – leading to procrastination – because of all the questions. Know that is resolved and I will be more confident in my preparations. Thanks also to Dedee for sharing your tips.

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Alison Golden August 20, 2012 at 3:58 pm

So glad it helped, Malua! I tried to write a post I would have like to have read a few weeks ago. :-)
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MarkA August 17, 2012 at 11:11 am

I purchased an eighth of a cow from a ranch in Colorado called Callicrate this year. It came to just over 100lbs at about $3.75/lb. They do grain-finish their cows, which I didn’t realize until after I purchased, but they supplement the finishing feed with CLAs to up the percentage in the final product. They also raise wagyu cattle, which are naturally higher in low-melting-point intramuscular fat, which supposedly has a high amount of omega-3. Anyway, the beef is some of the best I’ve ever had and came in a pretty broad range of cuts, some of which I had never cooked before. It’s lasted since February so far (just my wife and me), but we are starting to get low and will probably get another eighth in a month or so. The meat came frozen and wrapped in butcher paper and we were able to pick-up from a local farmers market, so we didn’t have to drive to the ranch. The great thing about Callicrate is that they have their own slaughtering facility and are firm believers in the humane care and slaughtering of the animals.

We have a pretty small fridge, so this was as much as we could purchase in one go. I’m considering getting a chest freezer so we can do larger amounts of beef, pork, and chicken. I was worried about freezer burn, so I also vacuum-sealed all the cuts when I go them home.

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Alison Golden August 20, 2012 at 4:09 pm

I love the idea of the the meat being wrapped in butcher paper which was how mine came. Much prefer it to plastic. I think a prudent purchase of a second freezer is often a sound investment. I don’t know of anyone who regrets buying theirs.

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Shannon August 21, 2012 at 7:34 am

Alison thank you so much for this article – I too was in search of what to do for my grass fed beef purchases. With your posting I found a great local ranch here in Southern CA called The Nick Ranch and have been communicating back and forth my questions. I joined their Star Membership program and will now have the cuts of my choice shipped to me monthly at reasonable prices. I also always like to learn more about the owners of any company I do business with and especially for something as costly and important as the food I eat. I have to say this has been one of the best experiences regarding service, answering questions and working with quality people. Thank you Alison for this article, I’m now on the right track and will have my first shipment by 9/4.

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Alison Golden August 21, 2012 at 8:59 pm

So glad you had such a great experience, Shannon. Thank you for the feedback. :-)
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Hana February 15, 2013 at 12:30 pm

Thanks for this post! Luckily we live in NC where there are multiple farms to buy grass-fed beef or free range chickens. I just started looking into meat options early this year and we went in with a group buy and ordered a 1/4 cow from a local farm which I am splitting with my parents. Pick up is in a few hours and I am sooo excited! They are actually bringing the meat to a location just 10 min from my house so we don’t even have to drive the 50 min to the farm. Can’t wait to try all these new cuts…we got to make our selections prior to butcher!! After researching information about commercial farming practices I knew I could no longer support that industry. Very happy to support small farms who treat their animals with respect and practice sustainable farming!

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Tina January 18, 2014 at 10:52 am

I also live in NC, in the Raleigh area and was wondering which farm you get your share from? Thanks!

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Alison Golden January 22, 2014 at 3:50 pm

Tina, you can check eatwild.com for farms in your area.
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Kirsten Thomas February 25, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Unfortunately for me, I don’t live anywhere near farms. I have “farm envy” for those of you who can drive to pick up your meat! I have, however, found some great internet sources for pork and beef, and have been getting them delivered. I am on my third delivery, and yes, the size and breed of the cow do matter. Be careful of the ones that say grass fed, and are actually finished on corn. There have been some great articles on why cows should not eat corn, and what it does to the cow, it does to us also. Look for “pasture finished” or ask the farmer. Good tip about remembering to get the bones and fat. Most people don’t want them! Great articles on this site, thank you!

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Robyn February 25, 2013 at 2:33 pm

For the past few years I have purchased most of my meat piecemeal from various grassfed sources. This year was my 1st time buying an entire animal, a pig, directly from the farmer. I split the pig w/a friend, so we each got the same pig “parts” but could have them processed as we directed. My only disappointment was discovering, after the fact, that the cured product had MSG. My fault. I should have asked. Another learning experience. :-)

I would be hesitant to buy a huge quantity of beef or pork from any farmer without 1st trying some of their meat. IMO, there is a vast range of quality in grassfed meat. Some farmers go to great effort to plant and feed a variety of grasses and plants to produce juicy, flavorful meat. Some farmers turn the cattle out to eat whatever is available. Call me a snob, but I think I can taste the difference.

Whatever you do, I think pasture raised meat is well worth the effort and expense.

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Sam April 20, 2013 at 10:54 pm

One of the best grass fed beef ranches in Colorado is South Platte Free Range Beef, LLC contact them at southplattefrb@gmail.com or check them out on Facebook.

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Cheryl May 5, 2013 at 12:01 pm

I purchased a 1/4 cow late last year from Freeman Brothers Ranch in west central IL late last year and I still have some left. It’s just me and the dogs so a 1/4 is perfect. I emailed the ranch and received personal attention from Ron who guided me through the process. When I picked up the meat, I was given a tour of the farm along with an up close and personal look at the cows in the field. His cows are completely grass fed and the meat is exceptional! I’m now planning on buying my next 1/4.

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Brad Fackrell May 6, 2013 at 7:09 am

Thanks Alison. Truly “grassfed” not grain finished is key which means you have to ask the question to the rancher. For anyone living in Northern Utah, I recommend or Northern New Mexico, check out http://piedmontranches.com/
The rancher even makes some deliveries if you happen to live pretty close to a route he usually takes. He even ships frozen and packed in dry ice as necessary.

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scott May 6, 2013 at 8:29 am

well while we’re at it, i’ll throw in a plug for my rancher, Jack Shafer at Shafer family farm http://www.shaferfamilyfarm.com/Pages/default.aspx in the San Joaquin valley (central California, Merced area). This is his first year doing the entirely antibiotic free thing and all grass fed with no grain or corn finish. They are breeding Lowland Angus beef, which tend to be small. I haven’t got my meat yet, in fact as far as I know, “S9″ is still out there grazing, but I’m looking forward to it, and thus far Jack has been very accommodating and real easy to work with

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Jenn August 5, 2013 at 10:43 am

I have bought a pig before. The farmer sends it to the butcher, we pay the farmer for the pig. We instruct the butcher how to cut it and then pay the butcher for the processing. We pay about $265 for a pig, all costs except fuel and time included. I don’t remember what the final hang weight was.

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Carmen October 7, 2013 at 2:16 pm

We just purchased our first half. After all was said and done, it cost us $4.15/pound. That is a great price around here for grass-fed, grass-finished beef. Ground beef runs $6/pound and steaks start at $11/pound and go up from there.

We found our farmer at the farmers’ market. We bought meat from him last year and when he ran out we asked if he would consider selling a half to us this year. He said he would and he did! We agreed on a price (the market rate for what the steer weighed when he took him in), split the cost of slaughter, and we paid for our own butchering cost. Because we got a half, we did have to go through deciding on the cuts we wanted, but the butcher was very helpful, and I learned a lot about the various cuts.

We bought a second, small freezer and it filled it to the top. We ended up with 80 pounds of ground and 80+ pounds of other cuts, plus soup bones and offal. The owner of the steer didn’t want the liver or heart, so we got them. Don’t know what happened to the rest–I guess they figure nobody wants kidneys, tongue, etc.

If you can find a farmer at your farmers’ market, this is a good way to get meat. You know them and they can answer any questions you have. We talked each time we saw them at the market, and it was fun to keep tabs on “our” steer.

Thanks for this post. I wish I had seen it before I had to figure everything out for myself!

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Anni February 8, 2014 at 2:06 pm

We buy only pastured, locally-produced animal products. It wasn’t always that way. We’ve changed our food choices as we’ve learned more and more. I shudder to think what was in our food that we used to eat! :/
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