The simple answer to why you can’t choose what comes in your share is that we don’t let you. The reason we don’t let you choose is because the farmer doesn’t let us choose.
As one cattle farmer said to me many years ago, “I don’t grow striploins”. Our cattle are about 800 lbs once they’ve been slaughtered and hung. Once they’re cut in half, each side weighs about 400 lbs. Every two weeks, and hopefully soon every week, we bring in one side of beef from our farmer and portion it up for West Side Beef customers. You can’t customize your bin because we can’t tell the farmer we would like more or less of specific parts of the steer. We buy the whole animal, and what you’re buying when you buy West Side Beef is a share in that animal.
I think it’s important that meat eaters take some responsibility for how much meat they eat, what quality of meat they eat, and in turn how they choose to purchase and consume their meat. WSB was built, in part, to address this issue and I think we’ve had a lot of success connecting urban consumers to rural producers. We’ve had luck connecting a market in need of a supply chain with a great product. But more importantly, along the way, we’ve been able to communicate the responsibilities of each participant in the exchange and build a system that continues to work.
It may seem odd to say that farmers have a responsibility to us. Often we can give farmers a pass on their obligations: we imagine rural life to be early mornings, late nights, tough winters, and tightly tuned family budgets. This hard life should deserve our thanks, so we pass up the opportunity to communicate what we need as urban consumers for fear of seeming unsympathetic. The farmers I’ve met in the last decade want to hear from us city folk. They want to know what to grow, how much of it, and how best to get it to us. Never has this been a sales pitch or an offer to exploit their land. Instead, these conversations have always struck me as a desire to build a mutually beneficial relationship: a sustainable model.
As an urban dweller I look to farmers to protect the land that feeds all our communities. I rely on them to protect the water table, nurture the soil, and provide food for my family and friends to eat. I also look to farmers as the standard bearers for sustainability. Sure, the crops look healthy this year and the yields are good. But at what cost to next year’s crop? Are this year’s inputs negligent of the nitrogen levels? Is there still an ecosystem out there? The best farmers look at their soil as an asset and work to have that asset appreciate over time. The soil should gain health and produce nutritious food each season. Our farmers are the frugal managers of soil.
So what is our responsibility to the farmer? If they are to uphold their part of the bargain in our social contract, what pressures can we fairly apply on them before their responsibilities to us cannot be fairly met?
Firstly, I think we cannot ask for more food to be produced than the land can naturally sustain on an annual basis. There are only so many cucumbers one hoop house can yield, only so many steer one pasture can nourish, and only so many tomatoes our heat units can ripen.
Secondly, if we want more food than our surroundings can grow, we might have to ask farmers what else there is to eat. What other crops can they grow that will be additive to the soil, that will keep us all sustained? What is that food and how can we help buy it, cook it, and eat it.
Asking farmers how we should eat is not that crazy, nor is it all that new. At Richmond Station, and certainly in the canon of western cooking, we have cherished recipes that have roots in farmstead cooking. We salt pork belly and smoke it over a cold flame to make bacon. We pasteurize tough cuts of poultry by slowly cooking them in their own fat. We pickle vegetables that arrive in abundance. We preserve ripe fruits that seem to show up altogether at once; more than we can eat fresh that afternoon, that day, that week. We already look to farmers for the best ways to cook.
We can find answers for how best to consume meat from livestock farmers, too. My grandfather was a steer farmer and one of his solutions was to always have slowly roasted ox tongue for dinner when his grandchildren came to visit. The farmers I’ve met as a butcher and restaurant owner over the last decade have consistently articulated the strain that our meat consumption can put on their farms. And it’s not that we eat meat. Indeed, livestock farmers rely on us to eat meat. The health of their soil is maintained by the natural fertilizer produced by the animals, and the animals should be sold at an older age to make room for younger animals. The farmers I’ve met want us to eat meat, even the vegetable farmers.
The type of consumption that put stress on livestock farmers is the intensive consumption of but only a few select cuts of meat. Tenderloin, striploin, and ribeye are disproportionately consumed across the province by home cooks and restaurants alike. We seek out these cuts because they are the most tender. Tender cuts take less time to cook and we live fast paced days where getting dinner on the table quickly takes precedence over the flavour of what we eat. And the sustainability of that product, well it may factor in well after we’ve considered the flavour.
At WSB we want to prioritize these choices differently. We want to start by asking the livestock farmer how we should eat meat. And the farmers I’ve gotten to know have all asked that we diversify the cuts of meat we rely on for mealtime. “I don’t grow striploins”, Dennis told me one many years ago. I’ll never forget that.
The reason you can’t choose what comes in your share is that the farmer can’t choose what comes in the steer. A pig, any pig, each and every pig that I’ve ever broken down: they all have the same number of ribs, racks, hams and haunches. To meet our commitment to the farmer we need to learn to cook and enjoy a variety of different cuts of meat: shoulder, shank, flat iron and flank. We need to adopt additional cooking techniques like braising, pot roasting, and preserving.
If you check out the Shop page you’ll notice that our product is not organized by type but rather by date. WSB doesn’t sell units of product so much as opportunities to commit to buying. On the dates listed we’ve arranged to buy a pig, a steer or some chickens from our local farms. We’ve committed to buying that food and selling it whole. We don’t order striploins from our beef farmers or bellies from our pork farmers. To be a customer of WSB and make good use of the program you must first wear your commitment to agriculture and agree to challenge your home cooking.
When you finally receive your share there may be cuts of meat you’ve never eaten before, or heard of before. This means you’ve probably never cooked them before. New cuts of meat shouldn’t cause you so much anxiety that you fear cooking. And a fear of cooking shouldn’t never dictate your grocery shopping. We hope you will relish the opportunity to cook something new so we’ve provided recipes and cooking instructions on our website. Plus, WSB is a community. Not only are people sharing the meat but they are sharing their cooking experiences online. WSB is an online meat share buts its also a place to get inspired about food and find ways to get better meals on the table for you and your family.