Why You Should Crowdsource Your Meat—And How To Do It Right

Opting for a meat CSA may cut your grocery bill dramatically.

January 12, 2018
piglet on farm
Bruno Raffa / EyeEm/getty

There’s no longer anything strange about receiving a box of mystery vegetables from your local farmer every week, but people have a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that the same concept exists—but for meat.

Meat CSAs or meatsharing programs consist of buying a portion of a whole animal—a steer, hog, or even lamb or sheep—instead of choosing individual cuts, as you would in the butcher case or at the supermarket. (Don’t worry, though—unless you actually ask for a whole side of beef, you’re still getting individual cuts!)

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Why Try Meat Sharing?

While it may seem a foreign idea, it actually has a number of benefits for both the consumer and the farmer—first and foremost of which is transparency.

“A CSA share directly from the farm offers a better glimpse into how the animals are actually raised, plus it directly supports your local farmer,” notes Madeleine Morley, owner and farmer at Grass + Grit, a farm in New Paltz, NY.

Julie Schwietert Collazo, a writer and translator who participates in a meat share in New York, notes that one of the major reasons she does so is because “it makes us think more deliberately about where our food comes from.”

Meat CSAs also tend to be a better bang for your buck.

“You will likely pay more for the meat and eggs in your CSA share than you will at the supermarket, but on the other hand, you are likely making a huge sacrifice in quality at the supermarket,” says Morley.

Jill Lightner, a Seattle-based food writer, notes that since she was already buying more expensive, ethical meat at farmer’s markets, choosing a meat share actually reduced the amount she was spending on meat every month. “Meat shares were a way of helping me afford the kind of fantastic, carefully raised meat I wanted, because it reduces the cost per pound so much.” (Here are the 6 healthiest meats for you and the planet.)

 

This is especially true for cuts that tend to be more expensive in the butcher case, such as tenderloins. The vastly different prices for different cuts that have become the norm are actually arbitrary, according to Camas Davis, founder of the Portland Meat Collective.

“That has nothing to do with their actual value,” she says. “It has to do with what people know how to cook and what they think they want at the market.”

Nothing makes this so evident than the major leap in prices for soup bones now that bone broth has become so popular. “Soup bones used to be free,” says Liz Vaknin, co-founder of Our Name is Farm. “Now they're charging 12 dollars a pound in most places for high-quality soup bones.”

With most meat CSA programs, however, consumers pay a price per pound, regardless of whether it’s chuck or filet mignon. Meat CSAs also allow consumers to learn more about cuts that they might not always reach for in the butcher case. “When you're buying a quarter, half, or whole animal,” says Vaknin, “You’re really forcing yourself to do things with the bones and the smaller cuts of meat.”

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“If you’re the kind of person who wants to be challenged in the kitchen or wants to learn new things, it's a great way to be sort of forced to figure it out,” says Davis. “When you go to your freezer every Sunday and pull cuts out, you're kind of forced to open some cookbooks or go online and do some research and then suddenly, you know how to cook a top round.” (Check out these 11 cookbooks to achieve all your foodie resolutions.)

 

While Morley notes that sometimes people can be “scared off by the more unfamiliar,” she does also note that many are “pleasantly surprised” by their new discoveries. “We’ve offered grass fed goat, pasture raised duck, and guinea fowl in our share so far, and we plan on adding pasture-raised rabbit in the near future,” she says. “I can't tell you how many of our CSA members and our market customers have been pleasantly surprised by our grass-fed goat and other unfamiliar cuts.”

These “unfamiliar” cuts can even include organ meats or more obscure muscle cuts, such as heart.

For some people, this is a benefit. Collazo notes that she appreciates having access to lard or bones, if she wants them, and Vaknin notes that overall, people seem to be more open to obscure cuts than they used to be, especially seeing as they’re popping up on menus in trendy nose-to-tail restaurants. “I think it's really awesome, things like tongue, things like beef heart, things like chicken hearts, livers, those things are definitely being utilized more and more on menus,” she says.

Related: 5 Of The Least Expensive Organic Meats You Can Buy—And How To Make Them Taste Amazing

If offal isn’t your thing, though, don’t worry: most meat shares allow you to choose whether or not you’ll be receiving organ meats. Morley, for example, includes no offal in her meat CSA package, but she does sell it at the farmer’s market. Abby Andrusko, co-founder of the Grass-Fed Cattle Co, includes some offal in the CSA and sells other pieces a la carte.

“We incorporate the soup bones and liver into our standard offerings and offer smaller packages of heart, tongue, oxtail, suet, and marrow bones to our customer base,” she says. “For some people, that’s a deal-breaker, and I’m sure we lose a handful of customers each year because of that, but for other people, it’s kind of a challenge.”

And some people love them: she notes that she has one regular customer with a seemingly insatiable appetite for pieces that many others would shy away from.

“She’s like this 20-something girl, and all she ever wants to order from us is the organs,” she says.

And of course, meat sharing or meat CSAs are excellent from the point of view of the farmer. Zora O’Neill, who organizes a pig share in New York City, notes that she pays the farmer for the animal in the summer, and slaughter isn’t until winter. “It actually helps them pay their bills up front,” says Vaknin, “And it helps them know how many animals they have to bring to slaughter and kind of organize them financially ahead of time.”

The method also produces less waste: a benefit for farmers and for the environment.

“A lot of the times when small farmers just sell individual cuts of meat, they're left over with random cuts that people don't know how to use or don't want, and that's kind of wasteful,” says Vaknin. “What I like about it is that you're really practicing this nose-to-tail idea of eating meat and nothing goes to waste. I think that that's super important when you're talking about wholesome, sustainable approaches to eating meat.”

Related: 7 Ways To Eat Organic Meat On A Budget

How To Jump On The Meat Sharing Wagon

The holy grail of meat shares is buying direct from the farmer, which affords the most transparency and the lowest price.

Davis notes that this technique is increasing in popularity in her part of the country, where farmers will often raise their animals until they’re ready to be harvested and then send out a message to returning customers offering whole, half, and quarter shares.

Of course, this method requires you to get on that list in the first place.

“I think the biggest problem with farmers is that they don't know how to market themselves,” says Vaknin. “As consumers, I think it's up to us to do our part of the research and try to find it if we're looking for it, because it's out there.”

If you have a local farmer’s market or live in an area where there are farmers nearby, you might be able to seek them out, but if you live in an urban environment, this might be tough, especially if you don’t have the space to store a whole, half, or quarter animal at home.

For this reason, many turn to meat CSAs organized by farmers or third parties.

Andrusko notes that her company offers several packages, including whole, half, quarter, and eighth animals. She also offers a meat CSA, where consumers can purchase a share but pick it up in several trips throughout the year, to avoid having to store it all at home.

Related: This Farm Is Trying To Change The Future Of Organic Pork

Another alternative is an online platform, like CrowdCow, which allows you to buy specific cuts of a local cow online. When enough of the major cuts are purchased, the cow is “tipped” and processed, and the cuts are vacuum-sealed and shipped to your door. The CrowdCow team does all of the work of vetting individual farms and allows farmers to explain what their practices look like, allowing city-dwellers to feel (nearly) as close to producers as those who actually buy straight from the farm.

But the best of both worlds seems to be getting in on a smaller meat share, something that is becoming more and more popular, even in urban centers, and can easily be organized online, as O’Neill did via Facebook: she purchases a whole pig every year and divvies the cuts up with four other people.

Lightner, meanwhile, began organizing a cow share when she knew she wanted access to great meat but knew that in her two-person household, there would be no way of finishing a full quarter of beef before running into problems with freezer burn.

Related: Try These Beef Cuts If You're A Caring Carnivore

With this method, you have quite a bit more control. Lightner recounts that when she placed her first order, she spent quite a bit of time on the phone with her farmer’s processor, chatting about how thick the steaks should be cut and how the ground beef should be packaged. O’Neill, meanwhile, has slowly worked with the processor to get smaller pork roasts and ham slices instead of larger hams for easier sharing.

If you’re really organized, you can even let each household make a special request or two.

“Some families with a bunch of kids actually request extra ground beef and don't care if my husband and I grab a couple more steaks as part of that trade,” says Lightner. O’Neill, meanwhile, was able to negotiate a few skin-on roasts to try out a special Danish Christmas recipe.

Of course, there are a few downsides, like the fact that you need the storage space to store the amount of meat you’re buying. “This is a freezer-dependent way of buying meat,” says Lightner. “If your house loses power, or if you move frequently, you could end up really wasting a lot.”

O’Neill notes that when the pig arrives, she can just barely fit it into her two fridges and mini freezer while she waits for people to come pick up their shares, something that, in New York, where few people have cars, can make for some funny stories.

“I always go meet one person in Grand Central, lugging two pretty big bags, and she knows to bring a rolling suitcase that day,” she says. “We stand there in the middle of the station, under the famous clock, and dump all this pork in a bag, and she hands me a big wad of cash. Not weird at all!”

Related: Why It's More Important To Be An Ethical Omnivore Than A Vegetarian

The organizer can also be put in a bit of a precarious financial situation if other members of the share are slow to pay him or her back.

“The upfront cost for whole animals is high, even if the per-unit price is far lower than in stores,” explains Stephany Wilkes, a sheep farmer who organizes a cow share in Northern California. “For a side of beef (half a cow) we paid $1,300 butchered, which came out to $4/pound. For a small lamb, it's $300. There's also the upfront cost of a decent, chest freezer ($300 for a small one), a necessity for storing meat for any length of time without deterioration in quality.”

Wilkes also notes that timing can be a struggle.

“The date of animal slaughter cannot always be neatly or precisely scheduled in advance, so it helps to have a point person with some flexibility during the possible season of slaughter,” she says. “The best laid plans don't always pan out, though: In 2009, we were in Hawaii on our honeymoon, and got a call that a lamb was on its way, slaughtered weeks earlier than anticipated. We were fortunate to be able to call on a friend, but it is always nice to have a Plan B person in place.”

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Most of all, for a successful meat share, you need a meticulous organizer: O’Neill ended up creating a “mega-spreadsheet” to keep track of who gets what and how much they owe. But the upfront costs and the added work mean that some ask for help from the experts: Andrusko notes that her company has a “cow pooling” program that helps people share beef amongst themselves in a group.

“We're happy to help people kind of divvy up the package so that it's equitable,” she says.

However you slice it, meat sharing is an economical way of getting better meat and supporting local farmers that is quickly gaining in popularity—and moreover is teaching people how to really bring the nose-to-tail movement home.