Sunday, October 11, 2020

Buying A Quarter Steer (Beef)

For just the second time in a decade, we've purchased bulk beef from a local farm. I'll be honest, with the ongoing pandemic I'm glad we have freezers full of meat (and garden-preserved veggies) to help us avoid trips to the grocery store while we continue to spend most of our time at home over the winter.

This post is to help demystify the bulk meat purchasing process (see also my post about buying a whole hog).

We purchased our beef from the same farm that raised our pork and chickens. I contacted them in May and placed a deposit on a quarter of one of their Black Angus steers. They told me the next beef would be available in October. This farm offers mixed quarters, rather than designated front and rear quarters. This means that we're basically sharing half of the steer with someone else, allowing each of us to have some of the cuts from both the front and rear quarter (so we can get both brisket and sirloin). 

On September 19 the farm called with news the steer would be butchered on September 24, and I provided my cutting instructions over the phone (approximate size of the roasts, thickness of steaks, number of steaks per package, size of ground beef packages, what goes into ground and stew meat, if we want any non-grocery cuts, etc.).  Beef is best if it hangs (ages in a cooler) before being cut into smaller pieces, so we didn't receive our cuts until October 10.

And yesterday, we received 3 large cardboard boxes full of packaged meat, delivered right to our door (I love that about this farm). Buying meat this way makes me feel good about supporting our local economy. The steer grazed and lived a life on pasture 20 minutes from our house, and it was slaughtered and butchered by a full-service butcher 15 minutes from our house.

What We Got From Our Quarter Beef

The farmer delivered the boxes right into our garage, where we had a folding table, scale, Sharpie, and inventory sheet set up in front of our auxiliary freezer (a 3/4 size upright freezer). I like to weigh and inventory each cut of meat for record keeping. Not only does it allow me to write posts like this, but I can also keep track of what's in our freezer without digging around in it constantly. 

The first box I opened was all ground beef. That's a lot of taco nights.

44 tubes of ground beef in a box

Here's the full inventory.

Trim Cuts

  • 44 pounds of ground beef
  • 7 packages of stew meat, 9 pounds total
  • 1 package spare ribs, 1.5 pounds

Steak

  • 7 rib-eye steaks, 10.5-14.5 ounces each
  • 7 t-bone steaks, 18-25 ounces each
  • 4 bone-in sirloin steaks, 24-38 ounces each (!)
  • 3 top round steaks, 19-27 ounces each
  • 1, 1-pound flank steak

Roasts

  • 2 arm roasts, 3-3.5 pounds each
  • 2 briskets, 2.5 pounds each
  • 6 chuck roasts, 2.5-4 pounds each
  • 1, 3-pound rump roast
  • 1, 4-pound sirloin tip roast
In total, that's 118.5 pounds of beef. You could easily alter the composition of this order by having the steaks cut thinner (we cut ours thick), or putting more of the roast meat into either the ground beef or the stew meat.

Extras

As always, I also requested some of the "extras." The farmer was surprised that she received more requests for organ meat than normal, so I asked for some things that I wasn't able to get because we were sharing this steer.
  • Kidney (10 oz)
  • Liver (3.5 lbs)
  • Neck Bones (3 lbs)
  • Soup Bones (4.75 lbs)
  • Suet (5.5 lbs)
The liver is for the cats. The kidney may be too, unless I get adventurous. T bones are for stock, and I hope to use the suet either in a traditional British recipe when I'm feeling adventurous, or render it into tallow that I can use for frying.

Once unpacked, this fit easily in our auxiliary freezer. The bottom drawer is filled with ground beef, and most of the cuts are on the bottom shelf (there's a plastic container with more cuts on the shelf above it, but it will fit on the bottom shelf if I force it) as well as the lower two shelves in the door.

freezer filled with beef

Looking back on our first bulk beef order in 2012, I'm struck by the difference in breeds of steers. Back then, we shopped around for "the best value." That means what we ended up purchasing was a Jersey steer raised mostly on pasture. These aren't steers that are bred for meat; they're the male offspring of a dairy cow (which obviously can't be raised for milking). So not only was it cheaper, but it was smaller. Our half steer back then provided just under 150 lbs of meat, and the t-bone steaks were 1/3 to 1/4 the size of what we received this year. Our recent purchase was a Black Angus steer, which is bred for beef.

Quarter Beef Cost Comparison

Some people purchase beef and other meat in bulk to save money. Although there is some cost savings, that's not our main motivation. We want to support a local food system based on natural practices, and enjoy the security and convenience of a fully-stocked freezer. Yet, the cost comparison is helpful for folks trying to decide if they want to make their own purchase, so I'm including it.

What We Paid

Our quarter beef was priced at $4.60 per pound hanging weight, and our quarter hung at 213.75 pounds. We also paid $173.38 to the butcher in processing fees. So, our total cost for the quarter beef was $1,156.63. Divide that by the 118.5 pound of grocery store cuts, and we paid $9.76 per pound.

What It's Worth

The meat we purchase is raised on pasture, so the best comparison I can find is the USDA Monthly Grass Fed Beef Report. After consulting the September report, we barely came out ahead when comparing our grocery store cuts. We paid about $192 less than we would have for all the same cuts at retail, thanks in large part to the steaks we received. I should note, however, that the listed range for a quarter of grass fed beef is $5.75 - $11.75 per pound, so our farm is charging well below average. 

Why We'll Keep Purchasing Bulk

Interestingly, we would probably only buy steaks 2-3 times per year if we didn't buy beef in bulk, so we probably spend more money on meat when we purchase it this way than if we were to buy directly from the store. However, grass fed beef isn't always available in our local grocery store (especially cuts beyond ground beef) and it is often trucked in from around the country, processed at the same large meatpacking plants as conventional beef. I'm much happier buying my meat directly from a farmer, and it diversifies my eating habits in the process.

If you live in the Madison, WI area, check out Anisoptera Acres. They're an off-grid family farm that raises pork, beef, and chicken on pasture. In addition to bulk purchases like the ones we made, they also offer single cuts of meat and homemade honey with free home delivery on orders over $40.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

2020's First Frost

This was a week of last harvests in the garden.

On Tuesday I picked one more basket of ripe tomatoes.

basket of tomatoes

Most were roasted, blended, and then slow cooked into about 3 cups of tomato paste. The large yellow tomato in the upper left of the photo was saved for our last tomato sandwich of the year, which we eat today. It was a BAT - bacon, arugula, tomato.

Thursday (October 1) was a forced harvest, as we were expecting our first frost. I picked one more basket of tomatoes at varying stages of ripeness, including many green tomatoes. The biggest harvest was peppers; I had loads of sweet peppers on plants at a variety of stage of maturity, but most were still green. I also picked plenty of jalapenos, a few ripe Fatali and Scotch Bonnets, and plenty of immature hot peppers. The pepper harvest filled the bottom of a large plastic tote.

large container filled with mostly green peppers

There are about 3 gallon bags of whole peppers in the fridge, and the rest have been chopped and are freezing on trays. I expect there are at least 2 gallons of chopped frozen peppers. Chili base for the winter shouldn't be a problem. I need to figure out what I'm going to do with the hot peppers. I think I'll make one jar of candied jalapenos. We've never had them and I'm wondering if they'd be a good canning project next year. I'd also like to make another hot sauce, but may need to chop and freeze some for winter soups and stews.

I thought I had four ripe banana melons to bring in, but three of them had suffered significant damage from insects or other critters. That left me with one—just the second banana melon I've gotten all year. This one was much more ripe and flavorful than the first; my husband and I ate the entire thing before dinner. I definitely want to grow melons again next year, but I'm not sure what variety.


I also brought a large bunch of celery in before the frost, just in case the other plants didn't make it, and I snipped the last stems of basil. A walk through the garden this morning confirmed that cold-hardy veggies like celery, Swiss chard, carrots, and rutabaga are looking great, while the frost claimed everything else. Sunday night is bringing another frost. In fact, as I write this it's already 31.5 degrees in the garden.

Dave at Happy Acres hosts Harvest Monday for gardeners around the world to share their bounty.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

September Notes

A post with no pictures. Imagine that.

September has been a heavy month in my mind. Wisconsin's COVID-19 cases keep rising (daily case are nearly 10x what they were when we had the stay at home order), the politics surrounding the presidential election are ugly, I see systemic racism around every corner, yet I still have a job to do, a household to contribute to, and a garden to care for. I haven't felt like taking the time to blog about harvests, though. Here's a summary of the month's happenings, for posterity.

As September nears its ends, my tomatoes are still producing (mostly Juliets, although there are a few straggler Celebrities), peppers are doing wonderful, and I finally got my first ripe banana melon. I'll consider growing the banana melon again; it's the perfect size to use a melon baller, making the serving easy. Mine tasted like a mild, floral cantaloupe. I suspect the flavor would be more concentrated if I watered it more regularly. I've harvested carrots and the first rutabaga for roasting—the carrots are gorgeous, and I'll wait for the first frost or two to kiss the rest of the rutabaga. Some celery was harvested for pork stock I made.

I roasted the first few red kuri squash, which have been curing for about a month. I didn't realize the skin of this winter squash would be both edible and delicious. It's a nice, easy roaster. Also harvested my one and only butternut squash, which has now been curing for a week. Usually I have them in abundance; either my seed was too old or the area I planted it in was too shady.

Cooking and preserving has been in high gear. I canned 7 quarts of beets from the garden, continued to make and freeze or eat tomato sauce (some of which joined some Swiss Chard in a delicious vegan lasagna I made for a dinner with friends), froze nearly a gallon bag of chopped sweet peppers, and cooked my dried beans for the first time in a soup along with Swiss Chard ribs, carrots, and blended roasted veg (red kuri, carrots, rutabaga).

Then came the apples. I get 5 pounds of apples per week in the fall in a CSA share from a local farm. I dehydrated a half gallon jar of apple slices, and then decided to go big and order some #2 apples - 100 pounds of them. Mom came for another visit and we canned 26 quarts of applesauce, 10-ish 4oz jars of apple syrup (failed jelly), and 8.5 pints of apple butter. Just today I made the last remaining apples into applesauce that I stored in the fridge; probably about another 3 quarts.

The cover crop I planted is looking fantastic. Since a frost still isn't in the 10-day forecast, I think we'll end up having to mow it at least once this fall. As it germinated, it was clear I seeded some areas better than others, so I ordered some more seed and resowed some areas of the new garden yesterday. By mid October I should have most of the existing garden cleaned up and planted with cover crop for fall as well.

My seed garlic arrived about two weeks ago. I ordered from The Garlic Underground, which is just 35 miles from my house. I'm hoping that means their garlic will be well-suited for my garden's micro-climate. Planting will commence a week or two after our first frost.

I've also done a bit of garden-related reading. I ordered a stack of 10 books during Chelsea Green Publishing's Labor Day sale, and so far I've made it through Growing Great Garlic and Going Over Home: A Search for Rural Justice in an Unsettled Land. While written nearly 30 years apart, both had good lessons for me.

Lastly, we purchased a weather station for the garden! I'm hoping it will better help me understand my microclimate, and will also provide some electronic record keeping of our temperature and rainfall. You can take a peek at my local weather conditions.

That's the highlights of the garden for the last three weeks. 

Monday, September 7, 2020

Labor Day Canning Extravaganza

I enjoyed a 4-day weekend for Labor Day this year, and spent most of it either in the kitchen or the garden. Since putting up food is just as important as growing it (if you want to enjoy it all year), I'm documenting some of my preservation here. And because I'm damn proud of what we got done on a "leisurely weekend." (We = my mom and I. She was my kitchen and garden helper Friday - Sunday.)

Tomatoes. Oh, the tomatoes. We had 36 pounds of tomatoes to process, and took care of the first 20 on Friday afternoon. We washed, peeled, quartered, removed seeds and gel sacs (saving them in a bowl to address later), and heated them according to the Ball crushed tomatoes recipe. We filled almost five quart jars (the fifth was less full than I would have liked, but I topped it up with juice). The remaining two quarts (7 fill my canner) were filled with tomato juice left in the pot, and also strained from the discarded gel sacs. To get that juice, I ran the discarded liquid through a food mill, and then poured through a fine mesh sieve. Into the boiling water canner it went, and then we had a mess to clean up and I had dinner to prep (we had country style ribs with roasted potatoes and steamed green beans).

The weather was gorgeous on Saturday, so we spent it in the garden prepping the expansion area for cover crops, which I seeded after dinner. Aaron was a big help in this endeavor.

But on Sunday, it was back to the kitchen, and tomatoes. The remaining 16 pounds went into a double batch of roasted tomato soup. This recipe doesn't rely on the boiling water peeling method. Rather, you wash, half, deseed (again, saving that goop for juice), and then roast the tomatoes. After roasting they should just slip from their skins. But not so easily if you've accidentally overcooked them, or used very small tomatoes, or maybe ever. This was a tedious job, and I was thankful for my immersion blender so I didn't have to spend even more time transferring soup from pot to blender to bowl and back to the pot. As anticipated, this recipe filled 6 quart jars so I processed one more quart of tomato juice along with it. While the soup was in the pressure canner, I sliced jalapeños and made pickled hot peppers for the first time, since Aaron eats them on pizza. I processed 7 half pints in the hot water bath canner while the pressure canner was depressurizing. Everything was done at about the same time.

Monday could have been a day of rest, but I had more hot peppers I wanted to process. I made an orange hot pepper jelly, substituting yellow fatali hot peppers and some red and yellow yum yum sweet peppers for the jalapeños in the Ball recipe. This turned out very spicy, but should still be good on some goat cheese with bread or crackers. I canned 12 four ounce jars and had about 10 ounces left to store in the fridge.

Grand total: 33 jars of preserved food this weekend. Not bad.

Harvest Monday: September 7

I passed peak tomato without even noticing it.

After picking another 30 pounds on Thursday evening, I realized there wasn't an overwhelming amount of fruit hanging on the vines. Sunday morning, I harvested just a handful. We'll have tomatoes here and there for another 1-3 weeks but I believe the days of 30-pound harvests are long gone.

Looking back, the first tomatoes ripened around July 26, came in at a steady but manageable pace for the next 3 weeks, and then kicked into high gear for 30+ pound weeks for the next 2-3 weeks, and now we're back to the steady trickle. It's interesting to look back at the calendar because it feels like I've been harvesting and processing tomatoes forever.

Here's the photo evidence from Thursday. In addition to the tomatoes, I got some nice peppers.

cardboard flat of tomatoes with some green, chocolate, and yellow peppers

cardboard flat filled with tomatoes

My mom and I processed 20 pounds of the ripest tomatoes on Friday, resulting in 5 quarts of crushed tomatoes and 3 quarts of tomato juice.

Saturday was a work day, prepping the garden expansion area for cover crop seeds, which I managed to sow just before sunset, followed by my husband raking them in with the lawn tractor. It was just in time, as the rains came overnight. This is the first year I'm planting a cover crop. I hope it goes well. I went with an all-purpose garden cover crop mix from True Leaf Market. 

While cleaning out a portion of the garden, I pulled my first few carrots (gorgeous, but long; I probably let them go too long) and the rest of the Jacob's Cattle bean plants. No photos though.

Sunday was dreary; perfect for more canning. First, I went to the garden during a break in the rain to pick the majority of my basil. I also ended up with a handful of tomatoes and some more gorgeous peppers.

tomatoes and peppers in front of a pint glass full of basil

Mom and I tackled the Ball roasted tomato soup recipe for the first time, doubling it. We ended up filling almost every square inch in my oven with trays of roasted tomatoes.

four sheet pans of halved, seeded tomatoes

16 pounds of tomatoes and hours of work yielded the expected 6 quarts of roasted tomato soup + 1 quart of tomato juice. This better be darn good soup! While the tomatoes were processing, I put together a batch of pickled jalapeños that could be water bath canned. My husband eats pickled jalapeños on his pizzas frequently, and we've always purchased them at the grocery store. I hope he likes the home canned ones, because jalapeños are easy to grow and quick to pickle. When I put them in the canner, I had both burners running a canner, which I think was a first for me.

a pressure canner and water bath canner on the stove

Sunday dinner was wood-fired pizza from a local farm, but I made a salad of tomato, basil, mozzarella, olive oil, and a balsamic reduction.

large slices of yellow tomato topped with slices of basil and a single basil leaf, dotted with balsamic vinegar

This post is part of Harvest Monday; visit Happy Acres to see what other gardeners are harvesting this week.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Harvest Monday: August 31

I made a new friend in the garden this week. Although she startled me when I first met her, now I like to look for her when I'm out there. I've learned she's a common Yellow Garden Spider, but this is the first time I've seen one. She's woven her web right among the Juliet tomato plants.

yellow and black spider in its web

This week's harvests were still very tomato-centric; I brought in over 30 pounds, and so far I've canned 9 pints of salsa, 6 quarts of crushed tomatoes, and 7 half pints of tomato juice. I did another dehydrator full of Juliet tomatoes, adding another quart+ to the pantry, and I still have two large bowls of slightly underripe tomatoes on the counter. It seems like it will never end, but I'm not complaining. Our weather appears to be turning this week, with lows dipping down into the 50s and highs in the 70s most days. I think we'll have one or two more 80 degree days this year, but we're definitely on the path to fall. As long as this weather holds for the next 30 days or so, I'll be happy. Fall is my favorite season.

Although the seasons are starting to change, Juliet shows no signs of stopping. look at these lovely tomato clusters!

cluster of small tomatoes at varying stages of ripeness.

The Romas are just about done, and the Celebrities are chugging along but slowing down. My indeterminate tomatoes are still setting blossoms; they seem more optimistic about the season than I do.

I harvested some bell peppers and hot peppers, although something seems to be causing rot in the red bells, which is disappointing because they finally got enough color to pick this week. I picked my first Chocolate bell pepper though, and those plants appear healthy. This was one of a number of first harvests.

I hardly use celery in the summer—in my kitchen it shows up most in soups and stews, fall - spring. So when I grow it, it's almost entirely for the freezer. I took my first cutting this week; I should have picked it earlier to encourage more growth, but I'll still get plenty this year. This was a nice bouquet for an afternoon before it was chopped and frozen.

celery stalks in a mason jar

Another first harvest was a Minnesota Midget melon - a short season variety of cantaloupe that grows to be about softball size. This is my first year growing melons in the home garden, and I've been anxious to see if they will ripen (they were planted a bit late, direct-seeded, with very old seed). I'd read about "the slip" with melons—you know they're ripe when the fruit slips right off the vine without any resistance. I picked up a melon that had changed color to inspect it, and I gasped when it slipped! I think I should have let it go for a few more days, as it still had plenty of yellow on it and it was a bit bland tasting. I have one more of these that should ripen (along with lots of Banana Melons), so I'll try to let that one go longer.

small yellowish melon held in the palm of a hand


two halves of a melon

Some of my Jacob's Cattle bean pods were dry, so I harvested and shelled those. I'm surprised I got any at all, as this entire row was eaten almost down to the dirt by something right after I planted it, but it was resilient. I'll be lucky if I fill this jar this year with the entire row, but I look forward to eating my first home-cooked dried beans.

Approximately half a cup of dried purple beans in a glass jar

My last "harvest" was something I was threatening my husband with all week and had all but decided not to do. We have purslane everywhere in the garden, growing as a weed. Particularly in the area we've cleared to expand the garden for next year (I still need to write about those plans), we have a bumper "crop." The more I read about it, though, the more I wanted to try it. So I grabbed some and brought it in to add to a green smoothie, after snacking on it in the garden to see what it tasted like. I blended it with a tart apple, cucumber, almond milk, and a little light honey syrup left from canning peaches. It made a great smoothie! There's a chance it won't all end up in the compost pile next year.

Here's a photo of some purslane, held up over a field of purslane.


The field of purslane is no more, though. I made it out there with just enough time before sunset on Sunday and tilled the entire space. The plan is to have the layout for the new garden planned over the next week so I can cover some areas with cardboard mulch, mark out the space for the garlic beds, and seed the rest with a cover crop to enrich the soil before next spring's planting.

As for last harvests, I picked two 8-ball zucchinis that may end up on the compost pile (although still small, they were turning from green to yellow like a fall squash would) and then pulled the squash beetle ravaged plants. In a big of spitefulness, I tossed one of the squash beetles into the spider's web.

The rest of my weekend was filled with non-garden food projects, including rendering lard for the first time (somewhat successful) and taking delivery of bulk meat from a local farmer. I wrote about our process of buying a whole hog, if you're interested.

Harvest Monday is a time for gardeners around the world to share their harvest and other garden activities. It's hosted by Dave at Happy Acres; head on over to the Harvest Monday hub at the bottom of his posts to see what he and other gardeners are doing.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Buying A Whole Hog

We've been buying bulk pork since 2014, when we started with half a hog from a local farmer we knew personally. Today we took delivery of our third whole hog, and I thought it might be nice to write up some details for folks considering making their first purchase. If you decide to opt out of the factory-farmed meat economy, you may be intimidated by the process of purchasing your meat directly from a farmer. This post will help you understand the ordering process from start to finish. Later this year I'll add a post for beef.

Why We Buy Whole Hogs

  • We want to support local farmers who raise their animals humanely, and as naturally as possible. We want to know that our pig had a good life. We have, on occasion, visited our pig to "meet our meat" while it's still on pasture.
  • The meat tastes better. At least to us, pasture-raised pork chops, bacon, and roasts have a much richer flavor than anything you'll buy in a grocery store. If you're able to find a heritage breed, like Red Wattle, you're in for an extra treat.
  • We control the cuts of meat. We like our pork chops thicker than most, and sometimes we want the pork belly whole so we can make our own bacon. We want the butts whole for the smoker. Yes, you can always order these from the butcher, but we enjoy the control we have over the finished product.
  • I like the challenge of cooking all parts of the pig. As you'll see later in this post, there's hardly any part of the pig I don't take. While some people may think of pork as just chops or bacon, I like to have the bones for stock, hocks for soup, and even fat for rendering lard.
  • We like having a stocked freezer. Between my gardening, canning, bulk purchases, an occasional trip to Costco for dried goods, I can make many meals without going to the grocery store. I love a Sunday night of meal planning that doesn't require a grocery list.
One reason I didn't list was saving money. Although we do save money on a per-pound basis compared to the retail price of pasture-raised pork, "going whole hog" isn't a net money-saver for us. If we didn't have all this meat in the freezer, we would eat less of it overall, reducing the meat bill. There's a full breakdown of our savings compared to the retail price at the end of this post.

I should note, we have more than sufficient freezer space for bulk meat. In addition to the standard size refrigerator/freezer in our kitchen, we have a chest freezer in the basement and an upright freezer (about the size of a standard refrigerator) in our garage. The chest freezer was purchased used on Craigslist, and the upright freezer came from a scratch and dent sale at the appliance store. So yes, we have more freezers than people in our house. Don't judge. A whole hog will probably fill half to 3/4 of a chest freezer.

Ordering A Whole Hog

Ordering bulk pork generally requires planning. We've usually ordered our hogs anywhere from 3-8 months in advance. Prior to this year, our last bulk pork purchase was in 2017. The young farmers we purchased from in 2016 and 2017 decided not to continue producing pork, so we needed to find a new farm. I used the Wisconsin Farm Fresh Atlas to find farms in my area producing pork, and was pleased to find a farm less than 15 miles from our house. I contacted them in early May and was able to reserve a whole hog scheduled for butchering in August. I was required to put down a $200 deposit, and was then instructed to just wait for a phone call in August to provide cutting instructions.

To find a provider near you, either use a similar farm guide, google (although many farms have very basic websites, if they have a website at all), or contact a local butcher. They can either sell you a whole or half hog directly, or connect you with a farmer who uses them as a processor.

Cost of a Whole Hog

All you'll know when you order is what the price per pound will be for your hog. This year, ours was $4.05/lb. Nationally, this can range anywhere from $3.50/lb - $9.50/lb. If you only order a half hog, the price may be slightly more. To estimate the eventual cost of your purchase, you need to identify the following things.
  • Price per pound 
  • Estimated hanging weight (this varies by breed; your farmer should be able to provide an estimate)
  • Butcher and processing fees
Your total will be the price per pound multiplied by the hanging weight, plus the butchering and processing fees.

The hanging weight is how much the carcass weighs after it's been butchered and some non-edible parts (hide, feet, head, some internal organs, some bones) have been removed. The hanging weight is usually about 72 percent of the total live weight of the animal. We've had hogs hang as low as 95 pounds (a heritage breed that was either a runt or was harvested too early) and as high as 175 pounds. I've seen reports of some homestead hogs hanging over 200 pounds. The actual weight of the cuts of meat you'll get will be less than the hanging weight since it includes fat, some bones, and other parts you may not want (I take them all).

Butcher and processing fees are somewhat variable, but usually there is a kill/butchering fee, a processing fee (to cover the labor for breaking down the carcass) and specialty processing fees such as smoking/curing or sausage making. Our total butcher and processing fees are usually between $100 and $200 for a whole hog, depending on what cuts/products we order.

You won't know your final price until after the hog has been butchered and processed. The farmer will call or email you with the hanging weight and the total amount due. They may or may not have the butchering and processing fees available depending on how they're handling pickup (see below).

The hog we ordered this year is our largest (and most expensive) yet. It's also the first time we haven't ordered a Red Wattle; we decided to opt for our closest farmer who practiced natural techniques rather than seek out a Red Wattle farmer. Here's how the price of our hog was calculated.
  • Price per pound: $4.05
  • Hanging Weight: 174 pounds
  • Butchering Fee: $50
  • Processing (60 cents per pound): $104.40
  • Ham Smoking (85 cents per pound): $31.37
  • Bacon Smoking (95 cents per pound): $13.49
So, the cost of the meat was $704.70, and the processing was $199.26, for a grand total of $903.96. What did we get for that? I'll share after explaining what it means to submit "cutting instructions" and how to actually get your meat products.

Submitting Cutting Instructions

Cutting instructions are exactly what they sound like—instructing the butcher on how you'd like your meat cut up. There are plenty of options when butchering a whole hog, and when you choose one thing (e.g., pork tenderloin) you impact your ability to have something else (e.g., T-bone-like loin pork chops). If you've never butchered an animal before, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the different ways to break down a pig—even though you're going to have someone else do it for you. This video from Whitefeather Meats is very instructional; I especially like how they make different choices on each of the two sides of pork to show you what is possible.

Your farmer or butcher will complete a cutting sheet to document your instructions. This is the cutting sheet I completed (pork is just the bottom third of the sheet). When you order your hog, ask where it will be butchered and then you can research their cutting sheet in advance. Here are the cutting instructions we provided for our hog.
  • 5 lb roasts (we like them large for smoking)
  • Chops 1.5" thick, 2 per package (since there are two of us)
  • Hams: smoked, in half portions 
  • Bacon: Smoked, half sliced regular, half sliced thin
  • Spare Ribs: yes
  • Country Ribs: yes
  • Pork Butts: Roasts, keep whole
  • Pork Hocks: Yes
  • Pork Fat: Yes, and I requested that the leaf lard and back fat be separated.
  • Neck Bones: Yes
  • Pork Liver: Yes
  • Trimmings as ground pork
  • Special Instructions: Save the jowls and the head. I couldn't get the trotters because of the way they butchered it and the timing of my instructions. It pays to get your instructions in early!
You can change this up any way you like to get you the most of what you love. In the past I've had them cut out the tenderloin, resulting in smaller pork chops. We've also had them make bacon out of just one belly and give the other to us whole. I've forgone pork chops all together and had the butcher cut a bone-in loin roast (but they didn't remove the chine bone and carving it was difficult). I've skipped all the ribs and just added that to the ground sausage. I've ordered brats instead of ground pork. I've also historically ordered my hams "fresh" which means they're just like any other pork roast you'll receive and can be used for pulled pork-type recipes. This time I finally wanted to get some smoked hams so I have something too cook at the holidays that seems more traditional.

I use the pork fat to render lard (it could also be used in homemade sausage making), the neck bones and head for pork stock, and the liver for... I'm not sure yet. Perhaps this year I'll make a pate. In the past we had it made into liver sausage which we honestly didn't love and ended up feeding to our cats. At least it was used. 

I know for some people pork is all about sausage, so you may forego some of the roasts to get more of it. I personally love plain ground pork (especially in kimchi fried rice), so I take it plain.

Picking Up Your Pork

Your farmer will explain the pickup process to you; in my experience it happens one of three ways.
  • Pick up directly from the butcher, paying them the butcher fees directly and paying the farm the pork fees separately.
  • Pick up at the farm, paying all fees at once (if they have lots of freezer space)
  • Home delivery, paying all fees at once.
Our first three hogs were picked up at the butcher. We'd mail the farm our check for the pork, and pay the butcher the processing fees. If you have to go pick up your animal, bring containers—ideally, coolers. It may help to wear gloves, since you'll be transferring frozen packages from a butcher cart directly into the back of your car. You'll go into the shop, tell them you're picking up an order, provide your name and the farm's name, and they'll wheel the product out from the back for you. They may have a back loading entrance where you can do this without disturbing retail customers. When you finish you'll want to drive straight home and get your product into the freezer.

We lucked out, and the farm we ordered from this year prefers to do home delivery. They tell me that normally they'll even walk the product into your basement and put it directly in the freezer, but since we're in the middle of a pandemic they're doing largely contactless drop off on the porch. This morning our farmer drove up around 8:30 a.m. and dropped 3 medium-size boxes on my porch, grabbed the check I left for him, chatted briefly through the screen window and wished me a good day.

What We Got From Our Whole Hog

My husband tells me I'm a little overboard with my bulk meat record keeping, but I like to say I'm just thorough. Every time we purchase meat in bulk, I inventory, weigh, and label every package (most packages don't have the weight listed on the outside for private orders like this). This helps me keep track of what's in the freezer (since much of it is buried at the bottom of our chest freezer) and calculate our average cost per pound of package meat.
chest freezer filled to the brim with butcher paper-wrapped packages of meat


From this processor, each cut came wrapped in butcher paper and affixed with a detailed label. I've worked with other processors that just stamp the name of the cut on the butcher paper, and others who deliver everything in a double layer of clear shrink wrap.

Grocery Store Cuts

  • 11 packages of bacon, 1-1.25 lbs each
  • 2 pork butts, 8 lbs and 9 lbs
  • 20 bone-in pork chops, about 1 lb each (yes, they're huge)
  • 2 packages of country style ribs, about 2 lbs each
  • 2 packages of spare ribs, 2-3 lbs each
  • 13 packages of ground pork, about 1 lb each
  • 4 smoked hams, 7.5-9.5 lbs each
  • 2 loin roasts, 4.5 - 5 lbs each
  • 2 shoulder roasts, ~5 lbs each
  • 3 packages of hocks, 2-3 lbs each
  • Jowls, 2 lbs
Although some of these may be considered specialty cuts (e.g., jowls, hocks), they're what I consider "grocery store" cuts. You could likely walk up to the meat counter in most grocery stores, or in any butcher shop and get any of these cuts. If you preferred your roasts smaller, you'd obviously get more roasts than we did. We got less bacon than I expected; maybe our piggy had a smaller-than-average belly.

We received 137.5 pounds of grocery store cuts.

"Extras"

I told you I like to cook with the whole hog! In addition to grocery store cuts, we also received the following items.
  • Fat - 17.75 lbs
  • Leaf Lard - 6.5 lbs
  • Neck Bones - 3.25 lbs
  • Liver - 3.75 lbs
  • Head (in 2 halves) - 7 lbs
We received 36.8 pounds of "extras" from the hog, which surprisingly brought us all the way back up to our hanging weight.

Whole Hog Cost Comparison

Dividing the total cost by what we received in grocery store cuts, we paid $6.57 per pound for our pork this year. That probably seems like a lot if you're used to buying conventional pork (otherwise known as commodity pork), which retails on average around $3.75 per pound. That's what you'll see in the grocery store by default. Pastured pork, however, costs more. It's what you'll often see at specialty shops like The Conscious Carnivore. The August 2020 USDA Monthly Pasture Raised Pork Report provides the retail cost per pound for most of the cuts I received (or the closest equivalent). I've calculated the savings per pound on each of these items.
  • Bacon: $11.12
    • Savings: 41%
  • Butt Roast: $8.22
    • Savings: 20%
  • Pork Chops (sirloin chops): $9.70
    • Saving: 32%
  • Country Style Ribs (back ribs): $8.66
    • Savings: 24%
  • Spare Ribs: $7.04
    • Savings: 24%
  • Ground Pork: $7.59
    • Savings: 13%
  • Ham: $7.74
    • Savings: 15%
  • Loin Roast: $10.22
    • Savings: 36%
  • Shoulder Roast: $8.30
    • Savings: 21%
  • Hocks: $5.40
    • Savings: -22%
  • Jowls: N/A (apparently these aren't as common as I thought)
Every cut retails for well above the average price per pound we paid (except the hocks, which I only have the wholesale price for). Additionally, according to the USDA the wholesale price of the lard is $8.76/lb and the liver is $5.13/lb.

The total retail price of the grocery store cuts I received is $1,149.09. We paid $903.96, for a total savings of $245.13 (21%). 

I actually use the "extras," so we should also consider that the fat and liver retail at $224.61, although I wouldn't be purchasing them if I didn't already have the hog. All told, we received $1,373.70 in pork products.

Conclusion

I hope this demystifies the whole hog buying process for you. We've been very happy with our bulk meat purchases, and will continue to purchase meat this way. In fact, along with this hog the farmer also delivered us 10 whole chickens (that's 73 pounds of chicken), and we've ordered a quarter cow for delivery in October. The pork and chicken, along with a few remaining frozen bits of stock, have completely filled our chest freezer, so the beef will go in the upright freezer in the garage. I will write about our beef buying process when that meat arrives.

If you have questions about purchasing bulk meat, or if your experience was different form mine, let me know in the comments.