If you prefer to keep the image of meat say, a juicy hamburger safely separated from the image of an actual animal say, a 1,200-lb. castrated bull then cow-pooling is not for you. Jean Edwards is clearly not squeamish about knowing precisely where her steaks come from. In 2007, she and her husband James, a corrections officer in Vermont, went in with another family to buy a side of grass-fed beef directly from a farmer. The Edwardses wanted naturally raised meat but couldn't afford natural-food-store prices. Not only did cow-pooling prove to be cost-effective but also the meat from Mike Bowen's 900-acre North Hollow Farms, in central Vermont, was so tasty compared with beef raised on corn in an industrial feedlot that in the years since, Edwards has purchased an entire side just for her family. On a recent evening, the 43-year-old mother of five loaded her minivan with 250 lb. of beef, butchered and vacuum-packed to her specifications. "Not only am I buying a freezerful of meat, which gives me a kind of secure feeling," she says, "I'm dealing directly with the farmer, which is almost inspirational." (See pictures of people cow-pooling.)
At a time when many family incomes are falling, the pressure is on to give up expensive foods like organic produce and grass-fed beef. But thanks to the Internet, cow-pooling is an increasingly popular way to get high-quality non-factory-farm meat without paying about $16 per lb. for a strip steak the usual price at the Whole Foods Markets of the world. After "processing," a euphemism for slaughtering and butchering, high-quality beef bought via cow-pooling costs $3 to $5 per lb., which is cheaper than it would be even at a farmer's market. Of course, that price includes ground beef and stew meat as well as tenderloin and filet mignon, not to mention beef tongue and a cantaloupe-size heart.
While direct-farm buying still represents only a tiny fraction of total beef sales, the market for such meat is expanding, according to Erin Barnett, who runs LocalHarvest.org a national directory of local food producers. After a long wait, Barnett, who lives in Northfield, Minn., got word in May that the side of grass-fed Buelingo steer that she and four other families were buying at a nearby farm was big enough for slaughter. (Buelingos are sometimes referred to as Oreo cows because of their distinct black and white bands.)
Ever since being assigned this steer, Barnett and her fellow cow-poolers have been involved in a "delicate negotiation process," she says, gently lobbying for certain cuts. By definition, butchering for some cuts excludes others. "But we're a pretty flexible bunch, and a lot of us like hamburger."
Keith Matis, a retiree in Silver Spring, Md., developed an NFL-draft-like system for picking cuts of the quarter steer he and two families bought in Virginia's Highland County. Shareholders took turns placing dibs on the most desirable cuts. For Matis, these included the heart, which he considers a "good substitute for bacon." (See pictures of the perfect steak.)
A side of beef weighs about 250 lb. after butchering and can fit in a 10-cu.-ft. freezer. According to the Appliance Manufacturers Association, freezer sales in April were 14% higher than in April 2008, a rare sign of growth in an otherwise sagging consumer sector. For customers who have less storage space or can't eat that much beef in a year its freezer shelf life many farms will take orders for quarters of beef and alert customers when an entire animal is sold and ready for slaughter. Essentially, this is cow-pooling among strangers, although ordering this way is slightly more expensive. (For a list of farms that sell sides of beef online or locally, check out EatWild.com.)
Tamar Adler, a writer and community organizer in San Francisco, runs a social-networking site devoted to cow-pooling called Bay Area Meat CSA short for "community-supported agriculture," which is when consumers pay money up front to a farmer to deliver seasonal food throughout the year. The Bay Area site, which launched late last year, helps people pool their resources to buy large quantities of locally raised meat. "It hits all the right spots because ranchers have a hard time getting small amounts of meat to suburban and urban markets," says Adler, who plans to start similar sites for New York and Georgia soon.
Back in Vermont, once Edwards and her family eat enough beef to carve out some space in the freezer, they plan to return to Mike Bowen's farm for a pig.