Food

I bought half a cow. Here’s what happened next…

September 13, 2019

Have you ever considered buying beef directly from a rancher, rather than at the grocery store?

Well, MALT’s Director of Operations Ray Fort did exactly that two years ago. What he learned is both helpful and entertaining. Read on…

Buying Beef Directly from a Rancher

In 2017, I took the plunge. Rather than buying my beef from the local grocery store, I decided to buy it directly from one of the many cattle ranches that MALT helps protect.

I wanted to buy beef directly from a rancher for a number of reasons:

First, I placed a call to Stemple Creek Ranch to order half a cow.

In my mind, Stemple Creek Ranch’s meat is the highest quality and I really appreciate Lisa and Loren Poncia’s commitment to the principles by which they run their ranch. Stemple Creek Ranch beef is raised on land that has been protected by MALT since 1992. Additionally, the Poncias have been leaders in the carbon farming movement and, as someone who is concerned about the impacts of climate change, I wanted my dollars to support people working to make a difference.

Buying beef directly from a rancher means you get to know the rancher and their practices.
Loren Poncia understands the importance of carbon farming.

I had imagined that I would place the order and immediately the meat would be ready for pick up, just like at the grocery store. Instead, Stemple Creek Ranch let me know that they’d call me when my cow was ready and that I should expect a call from Bud’s Meats in Penngrove to discuss how I wanted it butchered.

As I hung up, I realized that it would probably be a month before I’d be sinking my teeth into a delicious burger. But I knew that it would be worth the wait.

Lesson learned: When buying beef directly from a rancher, you don’t get a cow overnight.

How Did I Want the Beef Cut?

A couple weeks later Bud’s called me and asked how I wanted the cow butchered and wrapped. Good question.

While I already knew most cuts casually by name, it quickly dawned on me that I didn’t have any idea which cuts might preclude others. For example, if I get a Tomahawk instead of a Ribeye, where does that extra rib come from?

Luckily, Bud’s was very patient with me, guiding me through the process and giving me a number of different options. In the end, I mostly chose the standard cuts.

Bud’s can further process the meat (smoking, corning, and even making sausage). I also elected to get the offal (organ meat), even though I did not know what to do with it at the time.

Bud’s then gives you the option to either shrink wrap your meat or package it in butcher paper. While butcher paper seems cooler to me for some reason, I think shrink wrapping might have kept my meat preserved for longer.

Lesson learned:  When buying beef directly from a rancher, one should study the cuts in advance. Here’s a nice guide to understanding the cuts.

Picking Up the Order

A few weeks later, Bud’s left a message on my voicemail letting me know that my meat was ready to pick up.

As fate would have it, this was in October of 2017, when the catastrophic Tubbs Fire was burning in Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties. The smoke was thick in Point Reyes Station, out by the coast, and I realized that Bud’s Meats would likely need to evacuate their offices. I quickly called back to see if they were even open and they said they were but to hurry. So I headed out from the MALT office in Point Reyes Station as fast as I could. 

When I arrived 30 minutes later, Bud’s staff was in the midst of evacuating. Since all their computers had been packed up and removed, my purchase details weren’t readily available. After some quick clarifying conversations, we found my order in one of their walk-in freezers. With smoke menacingly visible over the nearby hills, I quickly loaded 200 pounds of meat into my car and took off. (Thankfully, Bud’s survived the fires totally intact.)

Enjoying the Beef

I split the bounty with a good friend of mine, Rocky. With the cut list from Bud’s in hand, we did a snake draft, which you may be familiar with if you participate in fantasy sports. Since we both prefer braising meats to steaks, the snake draft allowed us to alternate who got to pick first for each round. I had first pick in the first round and took the brisket. Rocky went second and third, taking a package of short ribs and one filet mignon. I selected the same, and then we kept picking until only the neck bones and liver were left.

Even after splitting the order with my friend, my new freezer was packed full!

Lesson learned:  200 pounds of beef is a lot of food. Be sure to have a meat freezer.

I mostly enjoy slow cooking the less expensive, tougher cuts. I love when meat falls off the bone. With a family and a long commute, I appreciate being able to throw a cut in a crockpot before I leave for work and to come home to a house filled with the aromas of braised short ribs.

Of course, that’s not to say I don’t also love to throw burgers or steaks on the grill. 

My favorite thing I’ve learned after buying beef directly from a rancher has been how to corn a brisket. Homemade corn beef is incredibly tasty. I recommend Michael Ruhlman’s recipe.

Lesson learned:  There are many amazing dishes you can prepare and share.

So two years after buying beef directly from a rancher, what’s the takeaway?

Over the past two years, I’ve perfected my braising capabilities and eaten many a juicy burger and mouth-watering steak. It’s been an incredible value, convenience and dining experience.

It also took a while. During a year-long stint with a vegetarian au pair living with us, our beef consumption slowed dramatically. I also discovered my New Zealand-born wife isn’t a fan of Chicken Fried Steak, and what else can do you with Swiss steak? And there’s definitely still some liver left in the freezer. But now, two years later, that once-packed freezer is nearly empty. So patience is required.

During this time, I suspect I’ve inspired some dinner guests to consider buying a cow directly from a rancher. I’ve educated family and friends about sustainable agriculture and the great things happening on MALT-protected ranches in West Marin. And I’ve deepened my family’s connection to where our food comes from, and that alone feels really good.

Final lesson learned: It was an amazing experience and I’m ready for another half cow. Who’s game?

Want to buy food from MALT-protected farms and ranches?