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.
Horticulturist Leslie Gilbert took a similar path. Five years ago, she started with lamb, then moved to beef. "There's something very satisfying about it," says Gilbert, 56, who lives in Mount Airy. "The lack of antibiotics and hormones in the meat, and you know the animals have a better life. If it's a little inconvenient to have 50 pounds of meat in your freezer, it's still worth it."
Buying whole animals requires more than just a philosophical commitment, however. It helps to have at least a working familiarity with butchering.
David Storm, a legal analyst in Charlottesville, found that out the hard way. A friend invited him to share a steer bought from a farmer just 45 minutes away. The cost: $1 a pound, plus a 36-cents-per-pound processing fee, or $735.76 for a 541-pound carcass, which translated to 275 pounds of dry-aged beef. "We did it for a lot of reasons," says Storm, 39. "One was cost. Two, it is grass-fed and fresh, so it will hopefully taste better. And three, we're supporting a local farmer, something we're very avid about.
"Plus it seemed fun. People would say, 'Anything new?' And I could say, 'Yeah, I just bought a side of beef.' "
Less fun was trying to figure out what to tell the butcher they hired to process the beef. Storm, like many Americans used to buying prepackaged meat, was not sure exactly what made up a side of beef. He knew he would get steaks, but how thick should they be cut? Should he have the chuck ground into hamburger or leave it as a roast? Adding chuck to the usual cuts that are ground results in higher-quality ground beef because it adds fat to the mix. But it also increases the already enormous quantity of hamburger a half-steer provides: 45 percent, or in his case, 124 pounds.
There were other surprises. When Storm picked up the beef, it was wrapped in old-style butcher paper, packaging that wouldn't endure long storage. So he bought a $140 vacuum sealer and spent several nights packaging the beef in front of the TV. He expects to get more use out of the sealer for processing summer vegetables.
Overall, Storm compares the experience to buying a car: It's an enormous purchase that requires a degree of trust between buyer and seller. "You wonder if you're doing it right," he says.
Farmers and butchers slowly are becoming more sophisticated at answering such questions. Sarah Chaney of Against the Wind Ranch explains to customers the ratios of steaks, roasts and ground beef and coordinates with the butcher on their behalf. Customers can then pick up dry-aged meat, as David Fox did, or pay extra for delivery.
The Organic Butcher of McLean, which sells whole steers, pigs, lambs and goats, talks with customers about what they like to cook, then determines how the meat should be butchered. The shop also sells 50-pound and 100-pound packs of dry-aged beef or beef-and-pork combinations. The packs are more expensive: $10.99 per pound for the 50-pound organic, certified humane beef; $9.99 per pound for the 100-pound pack. But smaller sizes allow customers to try before they stock an entire freezer with meat.
The smaller packs were a good option for McLean lawyer Claire Pettrone, a longtime customer at the Organic Butcher. After cooking dinner for 38 years, she needed inspiration. She found that the mix of different steaks, short ribs and roasts forced her to experiment with new recipes. "It's a little bit of a challenge, but because I do less shopping, it's ultimately a timesaver," she says. Pettrone used up her first pack of meat within four months and has ordered a second 50-pound box.
Some farmers say it's too hard to make a living selling whole animals. Scott Barao of Hedgeapple Farm in Buckeystown began selling whole and half-steers in 1997. Ten years on, he opened a retail store on the farm where he can sell the individual cuts customers wanted.
"There was huge demand for grass-fed beef, but to buy a whole animal meant too much money out of pocket and too much space to freeze it," he says. "People would end up with a bunch of cuts they've never seen before. And they don't know what to do with it."
For many customers, that is all part of the fun. Fox says he's doing more cooking since he bought his steer, something his wife appreciates. And he has gotten creative, using the Internet to find recipes for chuck roasts or shinbone meat.
"It's great," Fox says cheerfully as he tosses a three-pound London broil on the grill to serve friends on the back patio of his Capitol Hill home. "The meat tastes better. It's healthier. It's cheaper. We're saving money, without a doubt."
He has also become generous. "We love having them to dinner," says friend Blake Cogbill. "When you invite them over, they always bring their own food."