Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Side of Beef from Stonyledge Farm

In the middle of December, Stephen and I brought home one-half of Steer 42.  

First, I would like to summarize my philosophy that leads me to eat "outside the box" (or, "outside the bun," to borrow a phrase from Taco Bell):
Food is basically the only thing I buy that becomes a part of me.  My bones, organs, muscles, skin, hair, blood - everything - started out on my plate.  If I were building a house, I wouldn't use poor-quality materials or cut corners to save time and money.  The raw materials that go into the animals I eat are just as important.

In nature, bovines eat grass.  For a few weeks of the year, they may eat the seed heads that sprout from the grass.  In industrial farms, cows eat chewing gum, "spent hens," bits of other animals, urea, stale candy, doughnuts and heat-treated garbage in addition to their main staple: commodity corn.  As the price of corn goes up, so does the amount of non-food "filler" in the feed.  A high-corn diet makes cows sick, so they receive antibiotics, plus hormones to make them grow faster.

While food quality is important to me, so is money.  With grass-fed beef starting at $8.00/lb at the farmers' market, I can hardly afford to have it regularly.  To cut costs but not quality, I purchased a whole side of organic grass-fed beef from a local farm, bringing the average cost per pound down to $4.80.  That's still high when you compare it to supermarket meat, but satisfies my concern for quality.

I began staking out the local food scene as soon as I found out we were moving to Rhode Island.  I built a spreadsheet of the farms I found, comparing products, prices and distances from Providence.  As I was a business major and a job seeker for quite a while, I have found that the mantra of "networking, networking, networking" thus drilled into my head also applies to sourcing local food.  I have e-mailed and visited many farms, and in the process learned about others, and so on.  Many were dead ends due to prices or locations, and that's all part of the search.  I found Stonyledge Farm via the Footsteps Farm website.  While organic certification isn't as important to me as overall farming practices (example: I would rather eat a non-organic grass-fed cow than an organic corn-fed cow),  I am delighted to add that Stonyledge is certified organic.

For beef, I decided on Stonyledge because they had the lowest prices.  In 2008, they charged $2.95/lb for hanging weight plus processing costs.  Hanging weight is the weight of the animal minus head, hide and organs.  After cutting, the actual meat you receive is usually projected to be 70% of hanging weight.  For us it was actually around 84% because I requested many bone-in cuts of meat as well as organs and bones.  The bones contain a lot of flavor!  From a hanging weight of 350 lbs, we brought home about 295 lbs of meat and peripherals.
Processing costs include a $65 slaughter fee for the whole animal ($32.50 for half) plus $0.93/lb to cut and cryovac the meat with a USDA label, description and weight on each package.

I started an email conversation with Belinda at Stonyledge in April.  I immediately got on their waiting list for a half-side of beef.  The terminology was confusing to me, because I was under the impression that a side of beef was half of the animal - which it is - and that a half-side was therefore a quarter - but no, it is actually still half.  Going back through the emails, I see that Belinda was clear about how much meat I was in for, but I didn't understand until the week of delivery.  Belinda has been extremely helpful with answering all of my questions.

The day before the slaughter, Belinda patiently walked me through the cut sheet, which I also didn't understand.  You do not need to know how many pounds are allotted to each cut (i.e. sirloin, ribeye, roasts), just specify how many pounds you want of each cut per package.  Since there are just two of us in this household, I requested the smallest possible number of items per package.  For example, our strip steaks are individually wrapped one to a package so I can thaw and cook just one at a time.  The largest packages of the regular meat were the chuck steaks, with the biggest weighing in at 4.71 pounds.  The most numerous were the ground beef packages, with 87 units averaging 1.21 pounds each.  Notice I wrote 'regular meat' in reference to the chuck steaks.  I also received, among the organs, an unlabeled item weighing five and a half pounds.  They were pretty sure it was a heart since it looked like the two other heart packages which weighed around two pounds each.  The important thing is that it was free!  Remember - organs weren't included in the hanging weight.

When we arrived at Stonyledge Farm, Ed showed us around while we waited for Belinda to arrive with the meat.  We were followed by a cooing flock of chickens as we met some pigs, calves, and a rebellious heifer that we helped corral back into the appropriate pen.

The meat arrived in five large boxes.  It was already frozen solid when we got it and remained so the whole way back to Providence.  

The box of organs was missing at the time of the first pickup.  This was the fault of the processing facility, not Stonyledge.   They had set the box with a different order and hadn't labeled it.  The facility also apparently did not give us the exact cuts we had asked for.  Belinda mentioned that they'd been having problems with this processor and might use a different one in the future.  I don't know the name of the processor.  I didn't remember what I'd asked for anyway and was very happy with the meat I received.  For example, they gave us semi-boneless ribeye instead of bone-in.  It was still fantastic.  With a quick sear on each side and ten minutes in a 425-F oven, those steaks just melt in your mouth.  Did I mention that grass-fed beef is also cleaner than factory-raised?  

They found the box of organs about a week later, and just yesterday I returned to Stonyledge Farm to pick it up.  I also bought some cuts of pork and two dozen eggs.  I'm waiting until Stephen gets back into town to try the pork, and the eggs have been terrific.

The beef cuts were distributed as follows, in pounds:

Ground Beef:  105.27
Stew Beef: 20.32
Bones: 16.8
Top Round: 16.75
Tenderloin: 3.95
Flank Steak: 1.71
Shoulder Steak: 11.87
Sirloin Tip: 10.15
Shanks: 13.93
Brisket: 7.52
Hanger: 1.04
Skirt: 0.96
Short Ribs: 9.93
Ribeye: 16.14
Chuck: 20.27
Sirloin: 9.67
NY Strip: 6.42
Liver: 4.96
Heart: 3.68
Tongue: 3.37
Mystery Organ: 5.54
Pig Liver (free): 4.52

I recommend having a 14-cubic-foot freezer for this amount of meat.  We plan to keep about a month's worth of meat in our regular freezer (the one attached to the refrigerator) so that we only have to open the chest freezer once a month.  It's a worthwhile investment if you plan to buy meat in bulk, or have a prolific garden, or both.

All of the meat has been fantastic so far.  Before now, I rarely cooked beef because of the expense and difficulty of finding good quality.  Some cuts, like the steaks, I had never prepared.  Grass-fed beef is extremely lean (comparable to skinless chicken breast, I've heard) so it gets dry and tough very easily.  I have been experimenting with a Jaccard meat tenderizer and find that it takes five or six passes to tenderize the good steaks.  Roasts and stew beef need to cook very slowly for at least three hours, after which they become perfectly al dente - neither mushy nor tough.  The Cook's Illustrated goulash recipe worked perfectly with the stew beef.  It required little more than onions and beef in a covered dish in a 300 degree oven for three hours.  One final word on cooking times: grass-fed beef is exceptionally high in omega-3 fats.  Omega-3s come from eating green things.  They tend to lose their health benefits when heated too long.  There isn't really a way around long, slow cooking for the tough roasts, but steaks and ground beef should be cooked as little as possible to preserve the Omega-3s.

Again, all of these cuts averaged to $4.80/lb.  Grass-fed ground beef tends to run around $6-8/lb and strays upwards of $20/lb for the nicer cuts.  Even "Naturally Raised" bones and organs at Whole Foods can cost $4-6/lb, and these animals usually have spent up to a third of their lives on feedlots (approved feedlots, but feedlots nonetheless).  Grain-finished beef quickly loses the nutritional benefits of grass-feeding.

Buying this amount of beef hasn't exactly saved us money, since we normally wouldn't buy the nicer cuts, but has rather allowed us to raise our standard of living for not as much money as it should cost.  I have bought some exciting heirloom beans with which to spread out the beef, and it should last us a few years.  It's a significant investment, and as far as health is concerned, a worthy one.


Sue said...

I'm glad you're enjoying your grass-fed beef. If you decide to buy another side next year and you're looking for a better price, consider Vermont Natural Beef ( price for last years early orders was $3.25/lb hanging weight. Late orderes paid $3.40/lb. That price includes processing and delivery in New England. There were no extra processing fees.

Deborah said...

Sue - thanks for the info! I love hearing about new sources of good food. I'll especially pass this on to people I know around Vermont.

susan allport said...

Thought you would be interested in this short omega-3 video:

Deborah said...

Wow! That's amazing! I knew omega-3s were important, but that really hits it home.

J. Powers said...


Thanks for the exquisitely detailed--and impressively impassioned--post. I, too, care a great deal about food, but I refuse to go vegetarian for reasons related to thrift, eating philosophy, and sheer pleasure. I was wondering if you had a favorite cookbook?

Deborah said...

J - Thanks for your comment. Lately my job has been keeping me pretty busy and I haven't had much time to look at cookbooks! When I do cook from recipes, the Food Network Kitchens Favorite Recipes cookbook is one of my favorites to turn to for fresh ideas. Their recipes always seem to come out well. Another favorite, though not exactly a cookbook, is the Cook's Illustrated magazine - I love their approach to food.