About two years ago we decided that it would be a good idea to go in with my husband’s parents to buy a side of beef. It’s not a new idea. Buying local grass-fed beef seemed an obvious choice for us, since we wanted to raise our children with as little exposure to antibiotics, hormones and GMO grains as possible. In the Boston area as in most places it can be an expensive and confusing process. We started talking to the beef purveyors at local farmers’ markets, but ended up more confused than we were when we started. Prices were all over the place, what you got with a side or quarter of beef was unclear, and many farmers had strange unknown names for cuts of beef that made it hard to tell what we were getting. When we found out that a new baby (then later learned it was babies) was on the way, we abandoned the process entirely. After all, if I had to have well-done beef to avoid any chance of getting toxoplasmosis, then I didn’t want beef at all.
Then, a few months before the babies were born, I picked up a copy of edibleBoston in my doctor’s office and came across an article on Adams Farm in Athol, MA. The article, written by Margaret Leroux, was about a slaughterhouse that put the humane treatment and welfare of the animal as well as sanitation above all else. It told of a family business that rebuilt from the ground up after a terrible fire. The Adams family enlisted the help of Dr. Temple Grandin in designing the new slaughterhouse to ensure that humane practices were unequaled in every step of its operation. I highly recommend you read the article which can be found in the Fall 2011 issue of edibleBoston.
Fast forward to this year. Articles all over the web are talking about the rising cost of beef due to the drought in the Midwest. Whole Foods is selling grass-fed ground beef, one of the cheaper cuts of beef, for $7 a pound. After discussing the rising costs of beef and food in general, my husband and his parents we decided it was time to look into buying a side of beef again. We were unsure of how to go about it but knew that we wanted local beef, raised without antibiotics, and fed only grass. I remembered the article on Adams Farm and looked it up.
One of the things that has bothered me in the past about other grass-fed farms that I’ve looked into is that the cows are still slaughtered in the same slaughterhouses as grain-fed beef. As I understand it, all beef sold for human consumption in the USA must be slaughtered in a USDA inspected slaughterhouse. So you are spending a lot of money for a product that is raised humanely and sustainably only to have it shipped off and processed in the same manner as all the other animals. Adams Farm was the perfect solution for us because they slaughtered their own animals. Not only are they USDA inspected and certified, they are HACCP certified which means that sanitation is important to them. It’s important to note that they also process meat for other farms. I am not sure if all the farms they process meat from are all grass-fed, antibiotic free. However, the humane treatment and safe-food practices of handling the meat is a priority there, and I believe that the more informed you are about where your food came from, the better off you are going to be.
When you buy a side of beef in most places, you pay by the pound for the hanging (untrimmed and butchered) weight of the animal. That means that even though the hanging weight of the side of beef might be 400 pounds, you may only get 50 to 60% of that as finished product. The amount you take home also varies based on the amount of fat on the animal, how you want it butchered and whether or not you want your steaks and cuts bone-in. Since Adams Farm not only raised the animal, but butchered it too, we had complete control over how we wanted every piece of beef. There is also probably a cost savings since most farmers have to pay for a third party to process the meat.
The order sheet is organized by primal cut with a few basic questions at the top; this is the fun part. How many pounds of stew meat do you want (usually cut from trimmed beef not used for other cuts). How many pounds do you want per package, do you want butcher paper or vacuum packaging, how thick do you want your steaks. Do you want the chuck cut as all roasts, all ground or a combination. Do you want your rib-eye bone-in (yes please!). Do you want porterhouse/T-bone steaks or do you want strip and filet; do you want cube steak; do you want London broil? You get the idea. The wonderful people at Adams Farm made ordering so very easy. We were able to get exactly what we wanted and knew exactly what to expect.
There were other benefits to using Adams Farm over others we looked at. Not only was the beef raised and slaughtered there on the farm, but the prices were almost half the price we had been quoted in the Boston area. We ended up paying $2 a pound less by buying from Adams Farm than some of the others we had looked at. For our side of beef that came to a $830 savings; more than enough to justify driving the hour and half from the Boston area to Athol–otherwise known as the farthest side of nowhere.
It is important to note that Adams Farm is not selling organic meat. Organic is not always the most important rating to me. Here is what was important: our meat was almost 100% grass-fed with no antibiotics. If you noticed that I said almost 100%. When doing my research I found a lot of farms that supplemented with grain during the lean winter months or finished the animal on grain. Finishing is the process of fattening an animal before slaughtering to affect the flavor and weight of the animal. However, at Adams Farm the cows are occasionally given other vegetables such as pumpkins but no grain. No grain means less GMO’s, less dependency on fossil fuels, and more nutrition into the animal. Healthy food in, healthy food out.
After placing the order we were told to expect the meat to be ready in about four to six weeks. Then less than three weeks later, I received a call saying that the meat was ready. The next day we drove out to picturesque and, oh yes, VERY remote Athol, MA. You pick up the meat at the storefront where they sell their meat as well as local produce, cheese, eggs and spices. It’s a pretty neat place. If you’re ever near Athol (which is near the Mohawk Trail) then you should stop by. What? Not going to be near there? Hmm, can’t say I’m too surprised.
Our 415-pound side of beef yielded 114 pounds of ground beef, plus all the roasts, steaks, and other cuts we had requested. The little over 300 pounds of finished meat was packaged in a series of twenty plastic bags, each bag containing dozens of smaller packages. Several bags contained nothing but one pound packages of ground beef. As we had requested, steaks were individually sealed, and every sealed package was marked with its contents. We filled every cooler we owned with the meat and headed back home. As I had a huge empty freezer waiting, I was not worried that it would all fit, but I was surprised at how much room in the freezer it did take.
With the exception of Saturday, which is frequently steak night, we usually only eat beef one other night a week. This meat is going to last us a long time. According to the USDA, meat kept at 0ºF will remain safe indefinitely, but quality will start to diminish after 12 months. I think that we will almost surely go past that 12 month marker.
If we will do this again is up in the air. Although there is a huge savings per pound by buying the whole side of beef, it is a very significant investment up-front. If we find that we eat meat more frequently than we would traditionally, or if we have a significant power outage the investment may not be worth it. However, in addition to the savings there are the other benefits; we are helping our local economy; we are helping the local farmer; and we are buying local sustainable meat that was raised in a humane and thoughtful way.
Our meat is arguably healthier and safer than meat raised in the feed-lot system. I’m not a scientist and I cannot speak to or prove one way or other that it is or isn’t. However, I can say this. From what I have had so far, the meat we purchased is far tastier than the meat we buy in a typical grocery store, grass-fed or otherwise. I do not know if this is luck; maybe we just got a particularly tasty animal, but it’s just better!