You have an herb garden. You shop at a farmers' market. Maybe you even have a share in your local CSA. But have you ever thought about taking your commitment to local eating to the next level, going whole hog by organizing a meat share?
A growing number of people are buying whole pigs, cows, or lambs to share among friends, according to Chris Fuller, a butcher and consultant based in Los Angeles. “More people every year seem to be interested in meat shares,” Fuller says. “Recent culinary trends in urban areas have jump-started this relatively quiet movement that was once only found in rural areas.”
Zora O'Neill, a food and travel writer based in Astoria, New York, is one of those people. For the past two years, O'Neill has organized the purchase and distribution of a whole pig among a group of neighborhood friends. Though she had bought a quarter hog herself in years past, the meat was coming from Heritage Foods USA, a mail order company in the Midwest. “It's great meat,” she says, “but it's not the greatest in local-farmer terms.” O'Neill was interested in buying a pig closer to home, and she was curious whether she might be able to go a step beyond the quarter hog, ordering a whole pig to be shared among friends.
She turned to Facebook to gauge interest in what has since become an annual meat share. “I posted, asking any of my New York-area friends if they were interested [in going in on a share of the pig],” she explains. “I wasn't expecting much feedback, but within half an hour, I heard from the three people I needed [for a share]!” O'Neill coordinates everything for share members, ordering the whole pig, paying for it in full, receiving it, and dividing the bounty among members. She asks members in advance about the cuts and parts they'd prefer, and shares this information with the farm so they, in turn, can forward it to the person processing the pig.
“Divvying up the cuts is a little tricky,” she says, but spreadsheets help. “This year, I took a tally of all the pieces and how much they weighed (how many packages of ground pork, chorizo, boneless chops, and so on), then figured out roughly how many pounds each person should be getting," O'Neill said. "Then I looked at their preferences for cuts and picked out a selection that added up to roughly the right weight.”
O'Neill also puts out a call for share members to stake their claim to odd parts. One member took a big chunk of the belly to make pancetta; another will be making guanciale with the jowl. And this year, Andrea Lynn, author of the book Queens: A Culinary Passport: Exploring Ethnic Cuisine in New York City's Most Diverse Borough, claimed half of the head. “I made head cheese by braising the pig head; then, a stock was made from the remaining bones and cooked down until gelatinous. It was an all-day project but something I would have never done had it not been for that pig head,” she says. O'Neill, for her part, rendered lard.
Experimenting with parts of the pig that might otherwise go to waste is just one of the benefits of membership, say those who join meat shares and those involved in the supply chain. Fuller explains that meat shares help farmers and butchers, too. “The biggest advantage for the farmer,” Fuller says, “is the ability to use the dollars from share sales to help with the expenses of raising and butchering livestock. Any time money can be secured without taking out a loan with interest is a benefit for the farmer.”
He explains that shares also aid farmers with inventory control. Shares help farmers, especially small-scale farmers, prevent overstocks of less popular or underutilized cuts, thus preventing waste.” Butchers benefit in the same way. “Shares allow the butcher to dictate what cuts they move and for how much ahead of actually cutting the meat. This way they can reduce waste and increase the saleable products that come from a carcass,” Fuller says.
For O'Neill, coordinating the pig share has other benefits. Learning more about her local foodshed is one of them; other advantages are purely social. Though the members of her share all live nearby, she doesn't see them often and says, “I'm happy to have an excuse like this to see them.” She's happy to have the social connection with the farmer supplying the pig, too. “I happen to be getting the pig from a small farm that is just starting out, from people I'm only a couple of degrees separated from. So that social connection, on both sides, is really nice."
O'Neill and Fuller have plenty of advice for people who may be interested in starting their own meat share. While choosing a local farm is key, Fuller mentions other factors to take into account when evaluating prospective farms. “People looking to organize shares of meat need to understand not only the growing practices of the farm they're patronizing, but also the slaughterhouse that's used, as well as who's doing the butchering," she said. "It's important to know the overall costs of each step (who's paying and is there mark-up at any stage). Price, food-safety, and quality are all important factors.” Ask the farmers you're contacting about these aspects of their practices and relationships. “It is critical that the farm trusts the slaughterhouse to slaughter and clean the carcass well, with animal welfare and food-safety at the forefront,” Fuller says.
Even better than asking these questions by phone is going to visit the farms in person. “Most of the press that has driven folks to search out alternatives to the grocery store for their meat purchases paint a vivid picture of grass-fed, happy animals," Fuller explains. "There are a lot of farms that do great work taking care of their livestock and raising very healthy, happy animals that may not be 100% grass-fed or 100% antibiotic free."
When it comes to identifying prospective share members, O'Neill's Facebook query illustrates how useful social media can be. Don't underestimate interest in a meat share, even if none of your friends has ever talked about one. Many people don't know that meat shares are even a possibility, so if you mention it and offer the opportunity, you may, like O'Neill, find an unexpected amount of interest. You'll want to make sure the people who form your share community are flexible. While you, as organizer, should try to accommodate each member's preferences, O'Neill says that “members should not be making massive plans around a loin roast, for instance, because the processor might not cut it right, or it might make sense to divide up the shares a different way.”
With respect to logistics, O'Neill advises that the person coordinating the share either have a large freezer where the meat can be stored upon delivery, or be sure that members are able to pick up their shares on the day the meat is delivered. This is especially important for people who live in urban areas and may have limited storage space. “I knew I couldn't fit [the whole pig] in my freezer,” says O'Neill, “so I had to schedule delivery on a day when at least a few other people could come by and pick up their shares.”
Finally, you'll likely want to have your share members pay up before the meat is delivered to you. O'Neill lets her share members pay upon pick-up, but notifying members ahead of time what their share price will be and collecting their portion will help you pay for the whole hog, cow, or lamb up front and will avoid any last minute cancellations among share members.
Prices will vary by farm, size of animal, and other variables, including method of delivery, but O'Neill and her three share members paid $110 each this year. “Make sure [share members] know the cost up front,” O'Neill advises, “and [explain] how much meat that will actually get them. Our [share] works out to a little less than $10/pound, which can seem a little painful on the face of it, but I think it's a bargain if you're committed to eating quality meat.”
Share member Andrea Lynn agrees. “If you're someone who cooks a lot and is into paying a little more money for better-sourced meat, it's a must-do at some point. Who wouldn't want the opportunity to have high-quality meat stashed in their freezer to pull out for dinners?” she says. Fuller emphasizes that while the investment of time and money may seem big, “it's worth the upfront effort.” People who participate in meat shares are usually happy with the experience, he says, and when they're happy, they'll come back each year for more.