I Can't Believe I Bought the Whole Thing

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 18, 2008

It was a cold February day, but David Fox had the air conditioning on full blast as he sped up Interstate 81 toward Washington. He was freezing, despite his gloves, jacket, scarf and ski hat, and his breath fogged the air inside his Acura MDX. But Fox's priority was the 16 boxes in the back. Inside them were 262 pounds of meat: Fox's very own side of beef. And he had to keep it cold.

Fox had ordered the beef about a month earlier from Against the Wind Ranch in McDowell, Va., about an hour southwest of Harrisonburg. He had exchanged e-mails with the proprietors to determine how the steaks and roasts should be cut and what he could possibly do with 118 pounds of ground beef. In addition to making the four-hour round trip to the butcher, Fox, 37, also bought an 8.7-cubic-foot freezer in which to store his prize. "You have to open it very carefully, or it will all come spilling out on you," he says.

Buying a whole animal has its logistical challenges. But for a growing number of urbanites, the challenges are outweighed by concerns about drugs and diseases in meat, factory farm practices and rising food prices. The number of consumers buying whole or half-lambs, pigs and steers straight from the farm isn't catalogued nationally, but buying in large quantities is on the rise, says Jo Robinson, founder of EatWild.com, a Web site that tracks producers of pasture-raised animals.

According to the site, more than 30 farms in Maryland and Virginia advertise whole and half-animals, and many are seeing their business grow. Alan Zuschlag, who raises lambs at Touchstone Farm in Amissville, Va., plans to sell 100 lambs this year and as many as 600 by 2010. Against the Wind's business is up 60 percent over last year.

For many consumers making their first such purchase, lamb seems to be the gateway animal. The average lamb produces 25 to 35 pounds of meat. Once customers get a taste for buying whole animals, the total poundage rises quickly. A whole pig, the darling of food lovers, weighs in at about 130 pounds of meat. A whole steer translates to anywhere from 400 to 600 pounds of beef.

Most small farms prefer to sell whole animals. It requires less marketing -- not usually a farmer's strong suit -- and it prevents customers from buying only choice cuts, such as tenderloins and steaks, leaving farmers with less-desirable hamburger or sausage.

The large quantities and significant financial investment can be intimidating, especially for first-time buyers. Small ranchers sell a side of beef -- usually naturally raised or organic and weighing around 250 pounds -- for between $750 and $2,000. The average retail price for approximately the same quantity of conventional beef from the grocery store would be $977.50, according to John Nalivka, an agricultural economist. The price would be significantly higher for organic meat bought at an upscale grocer such as Whole Foods Market. That quantity will last a family of four moderate meat eaters about one year.

To store it, buyers need an extra freezer and a backup plan in case they lose power. For customers wanting to avoid that expense, many farms and butchers now offer 50- and 100-pound packs of assorted cuts.

The decision to buy directly from farmers is new to many urban customers, but buying whole animals is, if anything, old-fashioned, akin to having ice or fresh milk delivered to your door. Until industrial farming practices brought down the price of individual cuts, families often bought every part of the animal. It was more economical, and, in many cases, that was simply the way meat was sold.

Consumers returning to the old ways may save money in the long run, but many are motivated by other factors. Some are concerned about hormones and antibiotics in meat. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70 percent of antibiotics used in the United States are given preventively to healthy farm animals that risk getting sick from industrial ranching practices. A small farm is less likely to use antibiotics unless they are required.

Other buyers are motivated by the treatment of animals on industrial farms. Repeated E. coli outbreaks, coupled with the release of undercover videos in February that showed workers at a California slaughterhouse delivering electric shocks to downed cows, have made many consumers think twice about where their food comes from. Still others are trying to reduce their carbon footprint by eating meat that has been raised more sustainably, closer to home. "We see a big increase every time there's something in the news," says Against the Wind Ranch co-proprietor Sarah Chaney. "If there's a story about the treatment of animals out in California, we see an immediate boost in calls."

Sarah Tung, a 36-year-old technology executive who lives in Reston, was anxious when she bought her first lamb from Touchstone Farm six months ago. But deep concerns about where her food comes from overrode her nerves. So did the results: The half-lamb she ordered took up just one shelf in her new freezer. Tung has since ordered another whole lamb and a quarter-steer from Polyface Farm in Swoope, Va.

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