Cowpooling, a meat buying club or a meat CSA, is all about simplifying the commerce of food. While a CSA (community-supported agriculture) means that you technically buy a share of a farm and are paid in dividends with produce or meat, cowpooling is, simply going in on a beef carcass with others.
In the life of any livestock, there are four intermediaries: the rancher, the harvester or slaughterhouse, the butcher and the consumer. In the industrial meat system, all of these steps happen behind the scenes. Cowpooling can mean that you become the captain of the SS Beef, and understanding these four roles makes the process of cowpooling navigable.
THE RANCHER: Finding good beef is about asking the rancher questions, such as Do you grass feed solely or do you supplement with grain? This amounts to personal preference, but grass-fed is considered healthier. Do you use antibiotics? A no-no. Do you raise the animals yourself? Many entrepreneurial ranchers have begun aggregating from a group of local farms to sell the meat and while this isn’t necessarily bad, it is good to know.
Farmers markets and restaurants are great resources for finding the best meat. I spoke with Chef Anthony Devoti of Five Bistro who recommends Ron and Jolene at Benne’s Best Meat, sixth generation ranchers in St. Charles. Web sites, like stlbites.com, are also good gathering spots for locavores. Chris McKenzie has forums of friends there that purchase Red Wattle pigs from Farrar Out Farm and steers from American Grass Fed Beef. The group now buys about eight hogs a year and several beef. “This weekend I’m making bacon in the backyard with some friends,” gushes McKenzie.
THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE: If you are purchasing an animal direct from the grower, you can use any slaughter facility. For meat to be legal for resale, it must be under USDA-inspection from slaughter through packaging. However, if you are eating the meat and not re-selling it, you could use an exempt slaughter facility or have the animal slaughtered at the farm. Transporting an animal to a slaughterhouse causes stress, which affects the texture and taste of the meat, and raises ethical concerns for some.
THE BUTCHER: If you purchase a whole or half steer from Benne’s Best Meats or Missouri Grass Fed Beef (which sounds like a conglomerate but is really just Jeremy Parker and his family farming on a piece of land they’ve worked since the 1940’s), they will walk you through the butchering. Places like Swiss Meat & Sausage Co. in Hermann will even make beef bratwurst or summer sausages.
The final step is you, THE CONSUMER: As Janine Benne points out, you have to be open to cooking all kinds of beef cuts to make this worth your while. I have found great resources in my most dog-eared of cookbooks: Cooking By Hand, by Paul Bertolli and Bruce Aidell’s many carnivorous guides, like The Complete Meat Cookbook. Many whole animal purchasers I know are now making their own sausage, salami and even pickling tongues. Wherever your palate sits on the adventure scale, buying directly from a farmer is satisfying, enriching and delicious. As Chris McKenzie says, “The experience has been sublime. There’s no way I’m buying pork at the grocery store again.”
The Green Gourmet is created by Sarah Weiner of Seedling Projects, and features guest columnists from St. Louis and beyond who share simple ways to bring the food movement to your kitchen. Marissa Guggiana, of Sonoma Direct, is the author of Primal Cuts: Cooking with America’s Best Butchers, available this fall.