While we’ve been admiring the locally-sourced foodstuffs—and admiring
ourselves for it—we were overlooking a big chunk of our diet. Where’s the beef? Thanks to a health-conscious mom in Philly, it’s on the way. By Scott Edwards
How often do you eat beef?
“Once a week. That’s it,” says Jessica Moore, a petite woman who’s about a week away from the due date for her fourth child, which makes her look like a petite woman holding a beanbag chair.
Really? That’s disappointing. Not much of an endorsement.
“I know,” Moore says with a laugh.
She is the founder and owner of Philly CowShare (www.phillycowshare.com), a nearly three-year-old company that delivers local, humanely-raised, grass-fed beef in bulk to its subscribers’ doorsteps. Moore and Megan Bucknum, her right hand and lone employee, are hosting me at CowShare headquarters, a single-room office with towering ceilings and a fireplace located on the second floor of Moore’s University City rowhome.
“My family goes through a quarter cow a year,” Moore says. “And we run out of ground beef probably halfway through the year because of the spaghettis, and meatloafs and chilis. Ground beef is a way that I can get, like, a pretty good lean protein into my child.”
CowShare portions range from an eighth (43 pounds; $410) to a full cow (344 pounds; $2,788). The quarter runs 86 pounds for $779. All of the beef in the package comes from the same cow. And the cuts are shared evenly, so every portion includes steaks, roasts, ground beef, beef patties, chipsteak, cubed beef and soup bones.
If 43 pounds sounds like a lot of beef—and it did to me—it’s nowhere near what you’re likely imagining it to be. Moore grabs her laptop and pulls up an image of two cardboard boxes stacked on a kitchen counter next to a bottle of wine. Each box is as wide as the bottle is long and together they’re about the same height as the bottle. That’s the size of an eighth share, or 43 pounds.
Moore ticks off a range of reasons why CowShare makes sense from the consumer’s perspective: source transparency (a quality that’s lacking in the beef industry) and the heightened nutritional value of grass-fed beef (versus grain-fed, or worse). It’s also an easy avenue to support the regional economy. All but one of the farms that Moore pulls from is located within 150 miles of Center City. The lone exception resides 350 miles away, and it moved north to a larger property after CowShare began working with the farm. It also couldn’t be any more convenient. A click or two, a credit card number entered and then, a few weeks later, your package shows up. For the next several months, your freezer’s stocked and your conscience is clean.
Bucknum adds another. She’s in her twenties and just four years removed from graduate school, but she’s already spent time on every frontier of the ever-evolving sustainable food movement. She earned a master’s in urban planning, “and I focused on food systems planning, as much as a person can do that.” She worked on farms and community gardens. She taught environmental education to low-income families. She participated in a Washington think tank on regional food and distribution. She helped found a local produce aggregation distribution center in Virginia.
A job with Fair Food Philadelphia, a farm to school initiative, brought Bucknum back to Philadelphia in November 2010. A year later, she started working part-time for Moore and then full-time last February.
Basically, I’m inclined to believe her when she offers up a chewy morsel such as this: The typical four-ounce hamburger can contain over a thousand different strains of DNA. “So I’m pretty good with one strain,” Bucknum says.
So you want to buy a cow
We’re all about supporting our local farms these days. Produce, herbs, cheese—it all seems to taste a little bit better when you’re taking it from the hand of the man responsible for it. (One of them, at least.)
All the more enticing, it’s responsible and fashionable. Spend a morning drifting from stand to stand at an open-air market and it becomes apparent from the first mason jar of raw honey that the shopping is a fraction of the whole experience. There are stories to be told, scents to be savored, people to be seen by. It’s all very different from supermarket shopping, where the goal is to get in and out as quickly as possible, more often than not in clothes that should never meet the public eye.
But noticeably lacking at those markets, and in our Great Food Reawakening, for that matter, is the beef farmer. Part of it’s because beef interferes with the experience. You can’t very well walk around with a bag of frozen T-bones and still look vaguely disinterested, the standard hipster expression, let alone practical. Another part is sticker shock. Grass-fed ain’t cheap, and it feels even less so when it’s sold in small batches outside of much of a context.
“You go to a farmers market and see that apples are two ninety-nine a pound and ground beef is eight dollars a pound, it’s hard to understand that, even though it’s not necessarily mispriced,” Moore says. She and Bucknum participated in a bunch of farmers markets last year to get a beat on our hang-ups over buying beef at them. But, it wasn’t just the customers who had issues, they realized. The farmer, too, is handcuffed by the inflexibility of his product.
“One minute you have an animal and the next you have 400 pounds of beef that you have to make a decision on,” Moore says. If a produce farmer doesn’t sell out, there’s likely another market the next day. That’s little consolation, though, to the beef farmer.
“And so our solution to that is the farmer gets the most money”—half of the CowShare retail dollar goes to the farmer—“and the system is the most efficient and the customer gets the most convenience and flexibility in cooking if you distribute that whole animal at the time that it comes out of the meat processor,” Moore says.
Ignore that for a moment and imagine that you wanted to find your own grass-fed cow for whatever reason. Maybe you’re about to be a new mother and you need to feel better about what you’re going to feed your child. How hard could it be?
You’ll do as much research as you can online to, first, figure out what’s available. Grass-fed’s only one characteristic, albeit an important one. Others to be taken into consideration: naturally-raised, no added growth hormones, no antibiotics. Then, you’ll narrow the field. Keep in mind, beef farms typically don’t work with individuals or even court them. So plan to visit the farms in person and talk to the farmers about what they’re doing and why to ensure it’s a good fit. Expect some confused looks and some overly-technical jargon. (They’ll be feeling you out, too.)
Assuming you find your farm and establish a relationship and, just as importantly, a fair price, the next step is finding a processor. There’s not much of a selection, so this shouldn’t take long. Once you have one, you’ll need to work out when your cow can come through and, when it does, how you’ll want it to be packaged.
Last, though preferably before you pick up your cuts, you’ll want to find some others to go in on this with you because you’re going to be stuck otherwise with about 350 pounds more beef than your family could possibly hope to consume over the next 12 months.
Moore traced that path just before the birth of her first child, though it wasn’t entirely foreign to her. She grew up in southern Indiana, where “freezer beef,” as she calls it, is commonplace. She bought a cow a year for five years, unknowingly, at least through the early years, conducting market research for the operation she had yet to envision. But one thing was clear from the start: The interest was there. She had no trouble unloading the extra beef.
Up to that point in her career, Moore built large Internet-based consumer products. The passion for food was always there, but it was relegated to her personal life until she began conceiving the infrastructure for CowShare. Moore launched the company in March 2010, sold a cow in June, as she describes it, but didn’t begin marketing in earnest until October because she gave birth to her third child in August.
She sold 55 cows in 2011, her first true year of operation. With a month to go, Moore estimated that she’d sell between 120 and 140 in 2012.
Chew on that
The average American consumes about 60 pounds of beef a year. That number has been steadily declining since peaking in the mid-seventies at around 95 pounds. Still, we eat a lot of beef, and we do so in the face of much ambiguity. The beef industry tends to be less than forthcoming about where your porterhouse comes from and how that cow was raised. Though, it’s become a poorly-guarded secret in recent years that animal cruelty is running rampant and the cattle’s diet is measured for speed, not nutrition.
By comparison, Moore holds her farmers to near-utopian standards. For starters, the cows must be naturally-raised (no antibiotics or growth hormones), free-range and entirely grass-fed. There’s even recommended reading: Grassfed to Finish: A Production Guide to Gourmet Grass-Finished Beef, by Allan Nation. Total source transparency reinforces the system. You’ll know not only the farm that your beef comes from but the cow itself. Every cut is labeled with its identification number.
As with most involved in fostering the sustainable food movement, Moore believes there’s an educational component to CowShare. It’s encouraging more conscious eating, she says, forcing its subscribers to consider—and discuss—why something like raising cattle using rotational grazing should matter.
Moore and Bucknum began testing the market with pigs using a similar model last year. As with the cows, they’re proceeding slowly, selling 10 at a time, so that they can dictate the production standards rather than simply try to improve upon the existing—and largely industrialized—ways of doing things. Moore expects the operation to be full-fledged later this year, soon after she rebounds from delivering her fourth child. Picking up on the pattern?