After Kathy and Brian Dague of Edgewater had their second set of twins, they decided it no longer made sense to buy organic beef for their family of seven at the local supermarket. Instead, they purchased a cow from Wagon Wheel Ranch in Mount Airy.
More precisely, they bought an entire cow's worth of red meat, some 400 pounds of ribs, roasts, steaks and ground beef. It's all trimmed and packaged in meal-sized portions, ready to store in the second freezer they bought for just this reason.
"It's a lot more economical if you're looking for organic and grass-fed meat," says Kathy, mom to two girls and three boys.
At least once a year, the Dagues purchase the meat of an entire butchered cow from Wagon Wheel Ranch in Mount Airy.
"It's perfect for us because I can go into the basement and shop for dinner in my freezer," she says.
The Dagues have gotten their friends and neighbors hooked on cow shares, as well.
"We just send around an email to see who wants to order with us," Kathy says. "We've ordered up to two cows at one time, and two pigs."
The Dagues, like others in the Baltimore region, are purchasing their beef from local farms, buying an entire cow at a time, as a way to eat locally and sustainably. Also popular are whole turkeys and chickens, and whole or shares of pigs and lambs.
They spend about $6 a pound for local, grass-fed organic beef. To buy the same cuts of organic beef from a traditional grocery store would generally cost about $9 per pound.
Call it farm-to-table eating if you want to seem trendy. But like many food trends, buying meat by the animal is actually more retro than trailblazing.
"In our parents' day, it wouldn't be unusual for somebody to have a half-share or quarter-share of beef and have it in the freezer and ready to go," says Lynne Ferguson of Ferguson Family Farm in Parkton, which sells beef by the cow or cow-share.
She says grass-fed beef is leaner and healthier, with higher omega-3 content, compared to cows that are raised in confined spaces and fed high-calorie corn. Omega-3 fats are considered "good fats" that contribute to heart health and reduced cancer risk.
Buying red meat in large quantities from local farms is becoming popular with cost-conscious and health-conscious families like the Dagues, as well as with people on meat-centric paleo diets, which forbid consumption of grains, refined sugars, processed foods and legumes.
Farmers like selling in bulk so they don't have to worry that some cuts will sell out while others languish on retail shelves. "It works out better for us, it works out better for the customers," says Brian Schiner, the owner of Wagon Wheel.
He say he can barely keep up with growing demand. In 2004, his first year selling beef, he processed and sold eight cows, mostly through bulk orders.
"Last year, we sold 86," he said. "We didn't do any advertising. It was just word of mouth."
Schiner says most of his customers are families with young children. "They don't want their kids getting the growth hormones and antibiotics of commercial meat. It's driven by health. And then we have people who care about how the animals are treated," he says.
To buy a cow share from Wagon Wheel, customers start by putting down a $75 deposit and specifying if they want a quarter-share, half-share or whole cow. The animal, which weighs about 1,200 pounds, is butchered and the meat air-dried at one of two small facilities in Maryland and Pennsylvania, says Schiner. A quarter-share typically yields about 90 pounds of meat, requiring about three cubic feet of freezer space for storage.
Scott Childs, of Prime Pasture Farms in Glen Arm, says a typical yield for a quarter share would be 35 to 45 pounds of ground beef, 3 pounds of round steak, 5 to 7 pounds of sirloin steak, 5 to 7 pounds of rib steaks, 5 to 7 pounds of T-bone steaks, 6 to 10 pounds of pot roast, 4 to 6 pounds of chuck roast, and 3 to 5 pounds of sirloin tip steaks. The brisket, which would be divided in a half-share, gets ground up for quarter-shares "because there's no way to split it right."
Childs says he gives his customers 1 to 2 pounds of liver; other farmers say they give customers the organs and bones upon request.
"We tell our customers, if you want the organs let us know, otherwise we use it to feed our dogs," says Schiner. "Same with the bones. Some want the marrow bones for soup; if you ordered a quarter and the other three people didn't want the bones, we'd give them all to you."
Ferguson, for example, makes a broth by browning the bones in the oven then putting them in a stock pot, covering it with water, and letting it simmer at low temperature for two days. She strains the resulting liquid, and stores it in Mason jars in her freezer, letting the fat rise to the top to serve as a seal.
"Every so often I pull it out as a stock base," she says, "or if I'm feeling a little eh, I'll drink it as bone broth."
She cautions that it's important to only use bones of healthy cows to make broth, because "if the animal is sick, all those toxins are leaching into the broth."
Knowing the source of the meat is an important incentive for people who buy cow shares.
"It's just nice to know it's coming from a good source," says Aaron Smith, who lives in Ellicott City and has four children between the ages of 2 and 8. He started buying quarter-cows and half-cows from Wagon Wheel a couple of years ago, and he splits the bounty with his sister and her family. "I kind of like the idea of knowing it's all coming from one cow."
Buying the full range of cuts can inspire home cooks to try ribs and roasts they wouldn't normally purchase at the supermarket. "I thought it would be overwhelming," says Smith's wife, Lora, who does most of the family's cooking. But now she says the family will keep buying cow shares. "You end up with things you wouldn't normally buy, like rib-eyes and T-bones," she says. Dishes that are popular with her young children include fajitas, kebabs, spaghetti sauce and chili. In the warmer months, the family grills hamburgers and steaks.
"I try to eat stuff more organic and local and healthy," says Allan Connell, of Kingsville, who buys a quarter-share of a cow a couple of times a year from Prime Pasture Farm in Glen Arm.
Connell, owner of a tree-removal business, says he likes supporting a fellow small-business owner.
"It's just so much better than going to the supermarket for organic, grass-fed beef that you have no idea where it came from," says Connell. He is also happy that his 2-year-old daughter understands that her food comes from the cute cows and pigs she sees on the farm.
"We eat it all the time," Connell says of the Prime Pasture beef. He dips into his freezer once or twice a week to make pasta sauces, hamburgers, roasts and steaks.
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"I wouldn't go into the store to buy all kinds of bone-in roasts," he says, "but now that I have it, I'm a bit more creative."