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Ordering Sides

…Nope. Not a side dish. But if you read this whole post and join me in the adventure of buying meat “by the side”, you are going to eventually need a whole lot of side dishes to go with a whole lot of meat. Vegetarians should stop reading now.

Organic meat is fiendishly expensive. Pastured, local, organic meat is even more so. But it’s one of those places in our diet that I really notice a major difference in flavor and effect in my body. Also, ethically, I have a really hard time contemplating feed lot and battery raised meats, let alone putting money into that system. So what to do? How to afford organic, ethically grown meats on a single income?

These are some happy cows, eating grass. They make healthy food for us.

Acquire a large deep freezer. Buy meat by the side.

That means anywhere from a whole animal to a half (or maybe a quarter) of an animal. That is a lot of meat, no matter how much you eat. When I picked up the butchered cow, it was 698 pounds of finished meat and took up 19 brown paper grocery bags. 2 1/2 of those bags were just sirloin steaks. There was a laundry basket and more of ground beef. It was intense, and extremely educational. But though our family eats meat for many meals, we don’t actually need 698 pounds of beef. Allow me to walk you through the process of ordering sides and side-sharing, as I do yearly with the Deck Family Farm. It’s not too complicated, but it has taken me several years to work out the details, and it’s something I talk a lot about at the Market Booth with curious customers.

Note that this is the process that works with Deck Family Farm. I don’t usually order from anyone else, so adjustments might be made depending on your farm and butcher situation.

Step One – Collect Your Information. Contact your local farm and find out the process, the prices and how the animals are priced, the butcher’s contact info, and anything else they can tell you (I like to know the average hanging weight of the animals).

  • Process – at the Deck’s farm we order our side and it is killed on site, then taken to hang and have the cut and wrap at a local butcher.
  • Price – the Deck’s animals are charged by “hanging weight”. This is the weight of the carcass without stomach, skin, non-edible organs, and other offal. Different farms charge in different ways.
  • Butchering – some farms might do their own butchering. The Decks send theirs to Four Star.
  • Hanging Weight – even after hanging weight you will lose some pounds to bone/fat/more offal as the animal is butchered into edible pieces. How much you lose depends on the animal. But it’s good to have a general idea of how much you are getting. Generally, a hanging beef is between 500-800 pounds, an hanging pork is around 200 pounds, and lamb is around 45 pounds. Those are really vague estimates, but it’s something to work with.

The information about ordering from Deck Family Farm can be found here.

Step Two – Gather Together. Find friends who want to go in with you on some meat. Beef? Pork? Lamb? Determine how much each person wants of the meat you are ordering. I usually order all three so that we have a selection in the freezer, because once your freezer is full of meat that is what you are eating. Make sure they know that they are ordering an estimate. There is no way that you can predict the total numbers at the outset. what you are going for is a ballpark figure.

I keep a spread sheet with each person’s name, email, phone number, and desired products/amounts. Once I have this info all collected I can determine how much of each animal I need. Last year I needed half a beef, a whole pork, and two lambs. That was generally split between 6 households. This year it’s a smaller group and therefore a smaller order, and we will see where we go with what the groups needs are.

Step Three – Get a Deposit. Before we go further, keep invoices, receipts, and a good record of everything you have received from everyone. Every family ordering should pay you a deposit, so that you can pay the farm a deposit. I usually ask for $100-150.

Step Four – Make the Order! Contact the farm, and start the order. Pay your deposit, and the ball is rolling. At the Deck’s farm it takes about a month to fill the order, so make sure you give yourself time for the process.

Step Five – Talk About the Butchering. Once the animals are hanging, Four Star calls me (or I call them). We go through each animal bit by bit: how big do I want my roasts? how thick do I want my steaks? Bacon? with or without nitrite? and so on. They know what they are doing and I am comfortable letting them make recommendations. It is important to note that you must give them very general instructions and everyone in your group will get the same thing (all the steaks will be 3/4″ thick, all the roasts will be 1-2 pounds…). The butcher will give you a pick-up date. If you have cures (bacon, ham) those will be ready later.

Step Six – Make a Pick-Up Plan. Everyone in your group needs to know the date of pick-up and be ready to stop by your house, because you probably don’t have room to store all their meat. I know I don’t. You are going to need a bathroom scale, some extra bags, boxes, and baskets, and a fair amount of floor space. Sometimes having someone help is also good, and can be a lot of fun.

Step Seven – Pick Up and Divide. Go get the meat from the butcher. Ours comes wrapped, marked, and frozen, in lots of brown grocery bags. The meat has been in deep freeze, so it will be fine for a couple of hour, but you will still need to work fairly quickly.

If you are doing a simple split – half a beef 4 ways – then divide each product (ground, chuck, sirloin…) into four piles. Reserve anything that is remaining and parcel these out as fairly as possible at the end.

If your division is more complex, you have to weigh out each animal to get a total finished weight. Then divide it up according to approximately what each person in your split ordered. Weigh each person’s portion and write down the exact weight for each. This is a little complicated, but it is one of the ways I get more people involved and can more easily order a selection of animals. You should end up with a list that looks like:

Me: Beef 50 – Pork 30 – Lamb 15

Ella: Beef 25 – Pork 10 – Lamb 0

Shanti: Beef 30 – Pork 0 – Lamb 10

Alex: Beef 50 – Pork 20 – Lamb 15

Once everything is divided, put it outside or anywhere cool while it waits to be picked up. I throw a couple layers if blankets over everything to help insulate the frozen meat. Let everyone know that it is ready to pick up.

Step Eight – Do the Math. Get all your paperwork in one place: how much each animal weighed and cost, how much the butcher fee was for each animal, what you’ve received in deposits, and the final finished weights for each person (that list above).

If you did a simple split, one beef four ways, it’s easy. Beef price + butcher fees = total animal cost… Divided by 4 (the number of people) = total for each person… Subtract the deposit received from each person and you arrive at the final total that each person owes you.

$1,001 + $227 = $1,228 {total cost for 1/2 cow}

$1,228 / 4 = $307 {total for each participant}

$307 – $100 = $207 {final total after a $100 deposit}

If you went for something more complicated, it looks like this: Pig price + butcher fees = total animal cost… Divide the total animal cost by the total finished weight you calculated before you divided it up to get your price per pound. Go through your list and multiply each persons meat poundage (for the animal you are working with – pig in this example) by your recently calculated price per pound. Subtract the deposit received from each person and you arrive at the final total that each person owes

Let me reiterate that it is essential that you keep really good records if you are sharing out. Write it all down, make a spreadsheet, find an app that works for you… Just keep good notes.

Ordering meat by the side is tremendously rewarding and money saving. Our pastured, grass-fed, local,organic beef cost us $5.30 a pound this year – for ground beef, roasts, sirloin steaks… I don’t have to remember to get meat at the store. It needs planning and saving and often flexibility. And I love knowing that our dinner is already packed into the freezer or waiting on the canning shelves.

Tis the season to order a side. Consider it.

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