If you've been following lately, you know that I made the decision to eat only humanely raised and slaughtered meat from now on, or for as long as I can find a way to pay for it. If that proves difficult, I will simply need to eat less meat. So, like anyone searching for something these days, I hit the Internet looking for farms. After digging through the densely packed Eatwild site for New York or New Jersey farms that were both within reasonable driving distance from Brooklyn and had a whole hog price that was within my price range, I emailed three. Of those three, only one contacted me, and that was Lowland Farm. Located in Warwick, NY, the farm is under a two hour drive and their whole hog prices were bested by only one of my picks, a farm that is 2 to 3 hours drive farther from us than Lowland. It didn't hurt that my favorite hard pear cider is produced in the same town, just up the road.
Jason, the farm manager, emailed me almost immediately, and immediately I began to ask questions. I was fortunate that in less than a month hogs were going to the slaughterhouse. Some farms do not slaughter midwinter at all, and my guess is that a winter slow down enabled Jason to spend additional time answering so many questions. Once I had a basic understanding of the process, I enlisted five additional households to share the hog, because who has room in their apartment freezer for 150 pounds of meat? Of course, enlisting five households also meant tending to several different needs and wants and questions. But Jason stood up to that challenge and once we settled on a cut and cure list, I sent it, along with a $300 deposit, to the farm in Warwick, and then we waited.
Mid-February their hogs traveled to Pennsylvania for the slaughter. A farm the size of Lowland has USDA rules to follow, including the required use of a USDA inspected facility. If there is any weak link in farm to table, it's the slaughterhouse. As you might expect, it's not an open process, although Jason did what he could to reassure me that it was as humane as one might hope given the killing of several animals in a single day. The slaughterhouse is also the processor, which means they butcher, cure, package, and freeze the meat. I can't say that I am entirely unhappy with the processing, but some things were left to be desired. For instance, the curing process is the conventional model of salt, sugar, and nitrite. Another is the processor's habit of not providing the unusual cuts, such as the feet, the cheeks, and even the leaf lard. I am told it is cost prohibitive for the processor to scald the pigs, so that skin is not provided on any cuts. I am curious what happens to these parts if they do not get sent back to the farm, and even more curious about the parts we do not request. We could work around the cure issue by requesting only fresh cuts, leaving them to be cured or smoked by us. Of course, I don't have a smoker or the knowledge to cure meats, but I don't require my ham or hocks cured and there's much you can do with fresh belly. However there is little we can do to receive those parts we find desirable, like skins for Chicharrón, braciole, or a succulent shoulder roast.
There is no way to know the weight of your hog until pickup, so in order to get a handle on the tally I had to devise a price schedule based on the averages given to me by Jason. One thing that must be understood when buying whole animals is that we pay for part of the animal that we will never eat. Our tally is based on the hanging weight, the weight of the whole hog after evisceration. Our hog, at 237 pounds hanging, was fifty pounds heavier than the average. For us, that amounted to roughly eighty pounds -or $360. Now before you holler about that, understand that this price is always included in the cost of any meat, whether it is bought by the cut on farm, at your butcher, or at the grocery store. On top of this cost, I added gas and tolls to our groups tally, bringing our per pound price to $7.06.
Now, if you are inclined to buy only ribs, ground pork, or shoulder, you could spend less buying only those cuts if the farm has them in the freezer. When you buy the whole hog, you pay the same price for ground pork as well as thick-cut loin chops, loin roast, cured ham, bacon, and tenderloin. Not only is the price equalized when buying this way, but we are also guaranteed those cuts. Consider, as well, if you were to purchase pork at a NYC Greenmarket, where the $7.06 we paid per pound comes in lower than nearly any cut, including ground pork. While I am sure there is a great magnitude New Yorkers who don't think twice about the cost of pasture raised meat at Greenmarket, I feel confident stating that cost is the single largest roadblock to buying humanely raised meat. If you want different cuts, buying the whole hog is the lowest cost way to do it.
Saturday, the first of March, was pickup day. The weather was warm, hovering around freezing, and the sun was bright. I was excited to see the farm, to step over the notion that this kind of participation is merely nostalgic or cute. Me and Dino, one of our group, left Brooklyn at 8:30 am, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, virtually without traffic, heading to the Willis Avenue Bridge, then up the Deegan toward I 95 southbound and the GWB. Once over the Hudson, we headed up route 4, then 208, clearly taking the scenic route. We arrived at the hills, farms, old homes and weekenders of the New York-New Jersey Highlands in under two hours. Pine Island, that agricultural deposit, sat below, in the Walkill River valley, due northwest.
We parked adjacent to a stone wall boundary, just to the side of the pig barn. Behind the wall, bee boxes.
Inside, manning the store was a friendly gentleman (I've forgotten his name) who managed to carry out three very heavy boxes, each filled with cuts of frozen pork. Here, we discovered our hog's hanging weight (237 lbs), wrote a check for the balance, and packed the van. There was really no sound place to eye through the boxes, to unpack them, considering all that was there and the sense, too, that you want to get your frozen meat to its destination as soon as possible. A check-list would be useful here and I've suggested that to the farm manager. As it turned out, I had no idea our order was missing the much desired leaf lard and cheeks until we divided the cuts at our distribution point. I emailed Jason later that day, and he apologized, offering to provide us with a credit for these on my next visit to the farm.
A full sized hog, not unlike the one which gave its life for us.
The young hogs scampering towards us after some apples were thrown into the pen.
The jowl is huge, several pounds, cured, and tender beyond my expectation. I frequently buy guanciale, an Italian specialty bacon, but use very little at a time. A jowl this big encourages thicker slices. Although not at all cured like guanciale, the taste it adds to foods is phenomenal. I cut it into smaller chunks and placed it in the freezer.
Everyone received certain cuts, but then we haggled over what remained -the tenderloins, loin roasts, additional chops, bacon, and hocks. A breakdown of the 29.5 pounds of pork our house received:
-Shoulder roast of several pounds
-Fresh ham of several pounds
-Four 1.5 inch thick loin chops
-About three pounds of ribs
-One large shank
-Very large cured jowl
-Three pounds of cured, sliced bacon
-Five pounds of ground pork
I am quite happy with the quality and service I received from Lowland and I look forward to building a relationship with them. If you do not have a car, you can always visit NYC Greenmarket to find pasture raised meats. There are butchers in town who also carry pasture raised meats, including Harlem Shambles in, you guessed it, Harlem and Fleisher's in Park Slope. Undoubtedly there are others, too, and as always there are the local co-ops and organic meats at Whole Foods and other large stores. But, if you want to connect directly with a farm, see the animals, and save a few dollars, there's no better way than to buy straight off the farm.