All summer, while humans have been eating, and weeding, and watering gardens and farms, a more subtle and profound transformation has taken place in pastures and hardwood pens across the Old Dominion. Domesticated animals have been working long days harvesting, storing and distributing energy on our behalf.
Cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and poultry are able to digest precisely the foods that humans can’t—grass, for one, but also uncooked cereal grains and acorns, and browse like weeds, bushes, bark, and trees. And that’s why we keep them around! They harvest and digest the energy of the sun, and store it in their bodies or invest it in offspring. What good would a handful of raw acorns be to you on a cold winter’s day? But how about some bacon?
For meat producers, late fall is a time of evaluation and decision-making. From this point forward, any animal overwintered will require feeding, fresh water, and some shelter from the elements. On the other side of the equation, some adolescent animals may be sold live, sold “on-the-hoof,” or slaughtered for retail sale. Over the past few years, the on-the-hoof transaction has become popular with consumers and producers alike. So how does it work?
The premise of meat on-the-hoof is that the sale of the animal happens in advance of its demise. That is, a farmer sells an animal to you, and continues caring for it on your behalf until you take possession of it. If you want your animal conveniently packaged as chops, ribs and stew meat, the producer may arrange for its travel to the slaughterhouse, and its return to you (in a cooler) for an additional fee.
Most lamb in the United States hails from New Zealand, with some commercial and specialty production in Colorado and a few other western states. However, a recent check for lamb producers in Virginia on www.buylocalvirginia.org yielded 61 results. Right here in Albemarle County there are five sheep and lamb producers, and even more in the surrounding counties.
Jim and Amanda Winecoff of North Garden’s Rolling Rock Farm have been raising sheep for four years now, and welcomed more than 60 lambs this spring. Their animals are kept on pasture year-round, and offered supplemental hay in the wintertime and barley when they have been bred.
“Locally raised lamb will have that characteristic lamb flavor, but will be less gamey than domestic or New Zealand lamb,” say Jim (who also owns and operates Mona Lisa Pasta). “We look for a lamb to weigh about 50 pounds before we sell it on-the-hoof and send it to slaughter. At that size, the ‘eye’ of the rack will be about an inch and a half across—about the same size as New Zealand lamb.”
Animals sold on-the-hoof at Rolling Rock Farm cost around $4 per pound hanging weight (including bones and organs, which can be yours upon request). There is a transportation and processing fee per animal, which is usually around $50 but is subject to change. For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Looking for beef on-the-hoof? Visit the Organic Butcher in the Main Street Market, or e-mail email@example.com.—Lisa Reeder
COST AND QUANTITY
Hanging weight: 50 pounds
Meat yield: 30 pounds (approximate)
Price per pound: $4 on hanging weight, plus transportation/processing fee
Meat volume: will fit in a (mostly empty) top freezer
Final cost: $8.33 per pound, assuming the above and a $50 processing fee
Approximate retail prices on locally pasture-raised lamb: leg $7/lb., ground $8.50/lb., kabob meat $9/lb., shank $10.50/lb., shoulder roast $14.50/lb., rack $20/lb.
Weighing your options
When you meet the meat, it is frozen and packaged in (mostly) familiar shapes and sizes, labeled with the name of the cut, the slaughterhouse, and emblazoned (by law) with NOT FOR RESALE.
The advantages to purchasing meat on-the-hoof are numerous—as are the challenges.
Firstly, the price is right: Lamb purchased on-the-hoof costs around $8 per pound, a steal compared to retail prices for locally pasture-raised lamb (see box above). Secondly, your purchase is directly financing both a local food producer and a skilled butcher, with no middlemen nor markups between. Thirdly, by purchasing a whole animal you are committing to learning something about the craft of meat—the size and shape of the animal (and fat, and bone), how it all fits together, and preparations that accentuate the superb quality.
But each of these factors can also be looked at as a challenge. First: Dropping $250 for a whole lamb (or $800 for half a cow!) is a big chunk of change, and may require investment in freezer space. Second: No middlemen, no markup…no instructions, no pre-trimmed pieces, no boneless/skinless chicken breast. Third: While you are learning about your meat, you will also learn about the learning curve. In general, pastured meats require less cooking time and fewer disguises for their flavor to shine.
All said, for those cooks who like mystery and challenge, and flavorful, healthy meats from our locality, meat-on-the-hoof is an adventure in home cooking.—L.R.
Our kitchen columnist, Lisa Reeder, is a chef and local foods advocate and consultant. Read more about her at http://alocal notion.wordpress.com. Next month’s local ingredient: chicken stock.