Buying Meat Directly From a Farmer: One Homesteader's Tale
Today, we’re so fortunate to have a guest posting from Shannon at Homestead on Earth. I’m an ardent fan of her blog, where she posts the unvarnished truth about her efforts to live a sustainable life. She and her family live in a rural suburb in Southern Maryland on .72 acres where she grows an impressive garden and will soon be raising chickens. You’ll enjoy her essay about getting meat directly from the source.
Going At Life Half Hog
I did not go looking for someone to sell me half a hog.
As a matter of fact, when I first started looking into buying local food, meat wasn’t even on my radar screen. Like most people, when I thought of “local food” I thought of CSAs and farmer’s markets, which to my limited understanding meant produce, plain and simple. But when I started participating in a local area food group in Southern Maryland, there was much more than produce on the menu. There were eggs. There were broilers. And then one day there was this:
“For one more week, Fresh Start Farm is taking orders for the meat from half or whole hogs for fall delivery.”
Hello! What is this? Are you telling me that I can buy a hog?
Of course I had a ton of questions. Starting with, why on earth would I want to buy a hog?
Buying an entire (or a half or a quarter) animal can seem both outrageous and intimidating. For one thing, how much meat are we talking about here? How much is it going to cost? A deposit was required; how much of a deposit? What are the cuts of meat? Does the farmer butcher it himself? When will I get the meat?
Here’s how it works.
First off, when you order a whole or a half (or in the case of a cow, a quarter) of an animal, you are entering the Rubicon of fickle nature. Temporal exactitudes are impossible. The hog will be butchered when it reaches approximately 250 pounds; when that is depends on a number of factors, and in our case the biggest factor of all turned out to be the weather. The hogs have a large field to themselves and spend much of their time foraging for acorns underneath a small grove of trees, a task that was made much more difficult by our unusually wet fall. Week after week of rain and several feet of snow apparently made the acorns – and so the desired butchering weight – harder to come by. When I originally placed the order, delivery of the meat was scheduled for sometime in November. As I write this post mid-January I still don’t have that meat. But what I do have is peace of mind about the meat to come. When the farmer told me that he “could speed up the process by feeding them corn” but that he wasn’t willing to do that, I realized that the first question I should have asked about this whole project was, “What are the hogs going to eat”?
It’s only recently that I’ve become aware of the shortcomings of even organic and “naturally-raised” grocery store eggs and meat. It wasn’t until I read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma that the penny dropped. In Pollan’s tongue-twisting words – we are what what we eat eats. And just because our beef or chicken or pork was raised “without the use of antibiotics or artificial growth hormones” or has been certified “organic” doesn’t mean that it wasn’t standing in a feedlot up to its ankles in its own “organic” manure, eating industrial “organic” corn that is otherwise unfit for human consumption.
It’s enough to make a person lose her appetite.
But as I said, all of this had not yet arrived in my sphere of notice when I decided to throw caution to the wind and order half a hog. The question I asked was “is it organic”, not “what is the farmer feeding it”. So with approximately 80 pounds of meat coming my way, I really lucked out to find a few months later that the Tamworth hog was being fattened on foraged acorns, an image that calls to mind the feral hog that Pollan shot for his “perfect meal”.
Fact number two is that you and the farmer (and the hog) are not the only players involved here. In Maryland it’s illegal for the farmer to butcher the hog himself on his property, so they are taken somewhere else for slaughter. But not to the butcher. It turns out that the butcher, who keeps a shop five minutes up the road from me, and from whom I will pick up the meat, doesn’t do the actual “butchering”. What he does is turn the freshly killed animal into various cuts of meat – the chops, the tenderloin, the ribs, etc. He can also smoke the bacon and make the sausage. I won’t be getting a ham, as it apparently takes six months to properly cure a ham; so I can specify how I want to receive that meat – as sausage, or ground pork – at the time that it’s slaughtered.
Who do I pay? And for what? And when?
Initially this was a matter of some confusion for me. Because we’re talking about not only small farmers and small businessmen but individuals, I can’t say that the process would always work exactly this way, or that the prices would always be exactly what they are for me here at this time; but here’s how it’s going to work for me. I gave a deposit of $70 to the farmer; basically fronting him the money so that he could purchase the baby pig and feed it. The deposit also guaranteed that one of the half-hogs would be mine later. When it’s time for the hog to go to slaughter, I will pay the farmer the balance of what I owe him – so that his total intake will come to $4.25 a pound.
When the hog reaches slaughter weight (250 pounds live; about 162.5 pounds “hanging weight”), the farmer takes it to slaughter. A few days prior to that, the farmer will send me a “cut sheet” from the butcher that I can use to decide on what cuts of meat I want, what I want smoked or cured, how much and what kind of sausage I want, etc.
Once it’s slaughtered, the meat goes to the butcher where it is turned into various cuts of meat, much like what we’re accustomed to seeing in the supermarket. I will pick my meat up from the butcher. He will then be paid for his labor for any smoking, curing, or sausage-making that he has done, as well as $.25/lb for all the meat that he has processed in my name. And then I will cart some 80 or so pounds of pork home to my freezer.
So in addition to the fickleness of nature, until all is said and done (until you know the exact weight of the hog, until you’ve decided how much you want of each kind of meat and what exactly you want the butcher to do for you) there is some ambiguity about the total price.
Is it cheaper?
Even given said ambiguity, I have to answer with a resounding, heck yeah.
The hanging weight of a 250 lb. hog should be around 162.5 lbs. (The live weight is the weight of the animal before killing it. The hanging weight or carcass weight is the weight of the slaughtered animal as it hangs from the rail, after the hide and viscera have been removed.) According to the farmer that I’m buying the hog from, one half of the hanging weight should be around 81.25 lbs. At $4.25 per pound the total would be $345.31 paid to the farmer, plus at least another $20 to the butcher (81.25 lbs. X $.25/lb. for processing). I’m not sure yet what the cost paid to the butcher for making sausage and bacon will be, but I don’t think it’s going to be too much. For purposes of discussion, let’s say my total cost will end up being about $375 (amount paid to the farmer plus amount paid to the butcher). That would make the total price per pound more like $4.62.
$375 seems like a lot of money; but 81 pounds is a lot of meat. I am talking about this subject as part of Urban Homesteader’s January Money Diet, so how does the price of $4.62/lb. for various cuts of pork compare to other meat-buying options?
For starters, we have to compare like to like, so the price of a pork chop in your neighborhood chain grocery store that has been fattened on corn and spent its life in crowded conditions being pumped full of hormones and antibiotics isn’t a fair comparison. Until this local farmer starts raising cows this coming spring, I’ve been buying grass-fed beef from U.S. Wellness Meats so I thought I’d check out their pork prices as a reasonable point of comparison (prices shown below do not include shipping by FedEx, which comes to a mere $7.50 per total order).
- 1 lb. ground pork: $6.25
- 12 oz. pork chops: $6.75 (or $9.00/lb.)
- 1 lb. pork breakfast sausage: $6.99
- 1 ¼ lbs. Italian sausage or bratwurst: $8.65 (or $6.92/lb.)
- 1 1/2 lbs. bacon: $14.30 (or $9.53/lb.)
- 1.65 lbs. ribs: $18.99 (or about $11.50/lb.)
You get the idea. Buying in bulk makes all of these cuts a LOT cheaper.
Why do it?
Reason #1: As I just said, it’s a LOT cheaper.
Reason #2: If you’re here reading the Urban Homesteader, then you’re probably interested in making your own life more sustainable, which means that you may have already realized that there is a paradox at work in that effort: individual self-sufficiency inherently involves community. We’re participating in community when we buy food at our local chain grocery store too; we just don’t see that community, and we may not always share its values. Profit as a motivation is not always compatible with optimum human health. Buying a whole or a half animal directly from a farmer that shares your food values puts you in touch with your local community, just like buying produce at farmer’s markets. It’s a good way to get to know who’s doing what right where you live.
Reason #3: Buying a whole or a half an animal for meat is a sound alternative to industrially produced food. You’ll know where your meat came from, how it was raised, who raised it, and what it ate. You can probably even visit the farm while it’s being raised, and see all of these things for yourself. Also, there’s a real good chance that the particular kind of animal that you’re buying isn’t the only thing available to you from that farm. You may find that you can meet all of your meat and egg needs – and maybe even get some produce – from a single point of contact. For instance, the farm where I’m getting my hog raises hogs, goats, rabbits, ducks, geese, Guinea fowl, chickens (for meat and eggs) and turkeys, and they will soon be adding cows. They also plan to grow seedlings for transplant in the spring for home gardeners.
Reason #4: You’ll be supporting local small farmers, who are slowly being legislated out of existence and need all the help they can get.
Reason #5: There’s a lot to be said for the great variety you can find on your supermarket shelves, and you don’t have to give that up. In fact, you have a great deal of control over what you end up with. Just talk to your butcher. Want less chops and more sausage? Do you like mild sausage or hot sausage? Want your ribs cut a certain size? All the meat you get will be cut and prepared to order.
Reason # 6: Get to know your neighbors! Still think it’s too much meat to keep on hand? Why not get together with a few neighbors and go into it together? You’ll get less cost, and less meat, and a greater sense of community.
Sounds great! How do I get signed up?
I ended up with this opportunity because one day I was sitting at my desk at lunchtime, bored, and Googled “local area food” and the name of a nearby town. Lo and behold, up popped a blog on that very subject and things kind of rolled from there. A web search is always a good place to start. So is going to farmer’s markets. If you can find a farmer selling meat, ask about options for buying whole or half animals. I’ve also recently become aware of this web site,http://www.eatwild.com/products/index.html which is “the most comprehensive source for grass-fed meat and dairy products in the United States and Canada.” And if you’re anywhere near Southern Maryland, definitely check out the It’s Only Natural Farm website, where you can check out the products and order online for pickup.
Making a move towards healthier, more sustainable eating is like making any other change. It’s a process; a series of gestures that become something almost without one realizing it. Usually these gestures are small; buying half a hog, though, seems like a pretty doggone big one. Still, more often than I like I find myself standing in front of an open freezer, staring in and wondering what on earth I can cook tonight to go with all those frozen vegetables from last year’s garden? I know that this single purchase won’t relieve me of having to buy meat from time to time. After all, a person can only eat so much pork. But I look forward to knowing that for possibly as long as a year once I get it there will be no more trips to the grocery store because I don’t have anything to cook; no need for concern over the quality of the meat that I am eating – where did it come from? What did it eat? What kind of life did it live?
I’m really looking forward to that.
Thanks again, Shannon, for sharing your interesting and informative story. To learn more about buying meat locally, Local Harvest maintains a national directory of local food producers. For a list of farms selling sides of beef online or locally, visit EatWild.com.