Tuesday, March 11, 2014
A drawing by Master Butcher Hans Sebald of pig parts.
Take it from me, buying pork direct from a farmer will mean (a) you will never ever buy it again from a run of the mill supermarket – at least if you can help it (b) you need a freezer (c) you need to have or acquire patience (d) you need a farmer you can trust.
Practically speaking you should probably find the farmer first. That’s pretty easy in Maine thanks to the direct access you have to farmers via the plethora of outstanding farmers’ markets. If a farmer is selling meat he/she might be willing to sell you a whole pig or know someone who would. During the winter, when access to markets is more limited, you could search the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s farm database.
Once you have found the farmer you may want to visit the farm to see how the animals are raised (I did, which made me feel good about my selection) and ask questions like will the pig be slaughtered on the farm or somewhere else. I purchased a pig from Treble Ridge Farm in Whitefield and wanted to know what the transfer process was for the pig the day of slaughter. It was very important to me the process was humane. Alice Percy, one of the farmers, was happy to answer all my questions. To learn more about Treble Ridge Farm you can check out their website or the profile I did on the farm last summer.
For the purposes of this piece I am going to assume you want the farmer to take care of having the pig slaughtered, and the pieces cut and wrapped for you. If you want to learn how to slaughter and butcher your own pig I recommend you check out the posts I wrote last spring on the day I spent with a master butcher at Fleisher’s Grass Fed and Organic meats shop in Kingston, New York.
OK, let’s keep going.
Timing – Keep in mind small producers slaughter most of their animals from September to December. This is also when many people think of buying a pig, so in some cases farms have greater availability during other seasons.
Costs – The average price of a pig is between $800 – 900. Cost is determined by the hanging weight, so a pig that is closer to 180 lbs might be $800 and one that is around 200 lbs would be $900 or a little more. Pigs fed non-organic grain may sell for significantly less.
You will also need to invest in a chest freezer unless you are splitting up the pig between a lot of people and/or hosting a roasting party. According to the selection at Home Depot the price range is $150 - $450 for a new one. No need to buy new if you can find a used one – maybe on Craigslist. According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service publication “Fresh Pork from Farm to Table” fresh pork roast, steaks, chops or ribs can be stored in the freezer for four to six months. Fresh pork liver or variety meats for three to four months.
Parts - Not every farm will send you a cut sheet, but Treble Ridge Farm did so I’ll share with you a rundown of your options. Note, you should have the option of bone-in or boneless for certain items.
Hams – whole or as steaks
Shoulder Picnic (relatively tough meat)– roast, stew meat, or ground
Boston Butt (medium tenderness) – whole, steaks, or country ribs
Loins (mildest and most tender) – whole rack, small loin roasts, pork chops, or Canadian bacon
Pork Bellies (bacon)
Ground Meat – plain or as sausages
Other Pork Products – leaf lard (for pastries), fatback (for frying), hocks and neck, feet, heart, and liver
Mistakes or risks of buying a cut-to-order pig – The farm will most likely not be responsible for mistakes made at the slaughterhouse. This means that you might get only 10 lbs of boneless pork chops and one ham not two. In my case all the cuts were right, but I received fatback, which I had not ordered (and was not charged for) and am picking up the bacon separately.
According to Percy, many pork producers, including her family’s farm, are happy to sell smaller or larger quantities of one particular cut if that's what the customer wants, but you are going to pay more. Other producers (generally the very small ones) will only sell cut-to-order pigs.
Pigs at Treble Ridge Farm.
Farmer Alice Percy answers a few novice pork-purchasing questions:
How far in advance should people reserve a pig?
This depends a lot on the farm. On our farm we produce year-round and usually have a litter ready to go within a month or two of when someone asks. Many small pork producers, though, buy piglets in the spring and finish them all in the fall, and so the customer would be well advised to contact the producer by midsummer.
Is price determined after the pig comes back from the slaughterhouse?
Most producers sell half or whole pigs by the hanging weight (the weight of the pig after slaughter, with the innards and hair removed). The price per pound hanging weight is known ahead of time - depending on the producer, the price may or may not include the processing costs (if it does not, the customer is responsible for paying the processing fees directly to the slaughterhouse), and since these can be considerable the customer should clarify this in advance. In our case, the price per pound hanging weight is $4.50, including processing costs. But we don't know until the pigs gets back how much it will weigh - our whole pigs could weigh anywhere from 160# to 230# hanging.
What happens after the pig leaves your farm and goes to the slaughterhouse?
We haul our animals to the slaughterhouse on our own trailer and unload them into holding pens there. These are just small box stalls in a barn outside the slaughter facility. The animals usually spend one night in these stalls. In the morning, they will be herded out of the stall and down a narrow aisle to the kill chute, where they are shut in to prevent excessive motion (this helps ensure a clean, painless kill) and then killed with a bolt gun and then bled out. They are then scalded and scraped to remove the hair, the innards are removed, and the carcass hung from a rail to chill.
What is the normal turn around time?
A delay is mostly due to the smoked items, especially hams that require a long time to brine (so that the brining solution can penetrate the thick meat). However, the carcasses are chilled at 32 degrees, well below the temperature of a home refrigerator, and if the slaughterhouse is busy the carcasses can hang there for a couple of weeks before even the basic cutting is done, with no loss in quality. Additional delay may occur because of the farm's schedule with the slaughterhouse - we are sixty miles from the slaughterhouse, and try not to make special trips up there to pick up meat because that would be an inefficient use of time and fuel. For the same reason, and also just to keep things organized, I prefer not to deliver the cuts to the customer in one delivery and the sausage and smoked things later - things end up getting lost or forgotten in the shuffle.
Any advice you would give someone interested in buying a pig?
Be patient. A cut-to-order pig is basically just a large special order, and for a small producer that can require a lot of lead-time. Also, since pigs are sold by the hanging weight, we recommend that people maximize the bang for their buck by accepting, and learning to use, all the "bits and pieces" - the lard, the organ meats, the feet, the bones, etc. They require a little more labor and care in the kitchen, but the good eating on a pig doesn't stop at the chops and bacon! Finally, understand that when you are charged by the hanging weight you MUST expect some shrink, no matter how you order the animal cut, though there will be significantly more shrink if you like boneless cuts and no organ meats. In any case, if your farmer charges you for a 180# pig but delivers boxes that only way 110# of 130#, he's not cheating you - that's just the way meat processing works.
It is not uncommon to pick up your order at a farm packaged in cardboard boxes.
Homegrown Pork: Humane, Healthful Techniques for Raising a Pig for Food by Sue Weaver
The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat by Joshua and Jessica Applestone and Alexandra Zissu
Basic Butchering of Livestock & Game by John J. Mettler Jr.
Good Meat: The Complete Guide to Sourcing and Cooking Sustainable Meat by Deborah Krasner
Primal Cuts: Cooking with America’s Best Butchers by Marissa Guggiana
The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.
When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.
In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.