PALMYRA, Maine — Having a direct relationship with the people growing your food is one of the best benefits of being able to walk into a farmers market and talk with farmers about what they’re offering that week.
Farm-fresh fruits and veggies aside, the ability to talk with farmers about their farming practices is in even higher demand when people are looking to source meats locally.
“The big thing for people is knowing that the animals are treated with respect and that they’ve had the best life they can possibly have. So [customers] are getting a really high-quality product that was responsibly raised,” Lizz McLaughlin, who owns MooShine Cattle Co. in Dyer Brook with her husband Ben, said.
From farmers markets to community supported agriculture shares to buying meat by the whole or half animal, there are a variety of ways people can purchase locally raised meat from Maine farmers. But these ways of doing so take a litte more consumer education than simply going to your local grocery store and taking a stroll amongst the coolers of prepackaged meat.
To determine which avenue would be the best way for your family to purchase local meats preference, budget, need and storage are the biggest things to take into consideration.
Hanne Tierney, who has been raising pigs for 15 years at Cornerstone Farm, suggests that for people who are just starting to purchase their meats locally buying in bulk is not the best option.
“They shouldn’t delve right into buying half an animal,” Tierney said. “When we used to sell by the half and people came, the one thing I always suggested they do was please try out meat first. […] Do you like that product is really the question.”
Tierney used to offer pork by the whole or the half, but she now solely sells her array of pork products at farmers markets and through her farm’s CSA program. With the massive growth in farmers markets since she began her farm, Tierney said the extensive number of markets available have allowed for farmers to more broadly market their meat, giving consumers greater access.
Tierney raises a variety of heritage breed pigs at her farm in Palmyra. Because of the high cost of organic feed, her pork products are not organic. They are, however, pasture raised and free of antibiotics, artificial growth hormones or animal byproducts. The number of pigs she brings to her go-to U.S. Department of Agriculture-licensed butcher each year varies, but last year it was 100.
Each week, Tierney brings about 400 pounds of meat to market, including a selection of sausages, bacon, pork chops, ribs and roasts. Buying individual cuts of meat in a farmers market setting is slightly more expensive than buying in bulk, but buying at a farmers market offers consumers flexibility in choosing to buy a lot of one cut instead of only being able to get a limited amount of a cut from a half or whole animal. Markets also allow consumers access to local meat whenever they need it instead of having to plan in advance.
“Going to market is great. There’s a lot of meat at market now. When we started selling at market years ago there, were very few people selling meat at market and that has just grown,” Tierney said. “[Customers] can just drop in spontaneously when they need it.”
About 90 percent of Tierney’s pork sales are done through market, with the remaining being sold through her farm’s CSA program. Like many farms, Tierney offers the traditional box share, but she also offers a debit style CSA that members can use at her farmers market booths. Much like the flexibility of buying meat at market, CSA customers can choose the cuts of meat they would like included in their CSA shares.
CSA shares are the most popular way customers buy meat from MooShine Cattle. Co., McLaughlin said. Her farm, like other farms who sell meat in bulk, chooses not to sell their meat at farmers’ markets, instead they rely on their CSA customers and people buying pigs or beef cattle by the whole or half.
For people who want to have their meat needs for the foreseeable future filled, buying in bulk is a good option. It’s also not for the faint of heart, though. “If you want a half of a pig, you’ve got to be game to try it all,” Tierney said.
Each farm varies on their procedure and cost for purchasing meat in bulk, so doing your research on which farm will meet your family’s needs is key. Whether to invest in the whole, a half or a quarter of an animal is another personal choice based on how many people you’re feeding and how much meat your household consumes, McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin said that when buying meat in the half or whole, consumers should brief themselves on the cuts of meat and where they come from in an animal, while also being aware that each animal only has a limited number of those cuts. A benefit of buying meat this way, is that “they can have the animal butchered basically exactly the way they want it,” McLaughlin said.
The hanging weight of the animal portion you are buying is generally the price you will be charged. At MooShine Cattle Co. the current hanging price is $3.50 per pound. However, the poundage will decrease once the meat is butchered based on the cuts the customer has selected. Cuts that are bone in will result in a higher cut weight than cuts that have had the bones removed.
Once the farm has sent the animal to a USDA-certified meat processor, the farm will receive the frozen cut meat per the customer’s specifications. McLaughlin covers the butchery costs for her customers buying in bulk, though this is not the case at every farm.
If you’re looking to buy meat in bulk, you better be sure to have a chest freezer, because McLaughlin said there’s no way any portion of an animal could fit in a standard kitchen freezer.
“I don’t think there’s any reasonable percentage of an animal that you could fit into an over the fridge freezer,” she said. “If you have a tiny chest freezer you can fit half a cow or a whole pig, but it’s important to be realistic with yourself about how much space you’ve got.”
Most of McLaughlin’s customers purchase a 10 pound monthly CSA share, where they can pay for the share monthly and save themselves some freezer space.
Regardless of the way you’re purchasing your meat, just buying meat from a local farmer can give you peace of mind by knowing exactly how the animal was raised. While local meat is generally more expensive than what is available at the grocery store, Tierney said you really can’t compare the two.
“There’s no possibility of putting [my products] next to a grocery store product and saying A, these are the same product; B, this tastes the same; C, cost the same; or D, have the same benefits ecologically,” Tierney said.