When I tell people that I bought a half-pig share, I am looked at quizzically. What does that mean? How much meat will you get? How will you fit it all into your freezer? How do you know what you are getting? Do you save any money buying meat that way?
These Tamworth-Berkshire crosses enjoyed a diet of pasture and woodland forage, supplement with milk and non-GMO grain. Photo by Jessie Witscher.
The answers — and the whole process, really — is pretty simple: You start at a farmers’ market, talking to farmers who sell meat. Chances are, if they sell cuts of meat, they will also sell half and whole pigs —if you order in advance. Since there are a limited number of slaughterhouses that handle meat from small-scale farmers, the farmers must reserve slaughtering/butchering time well in advance. For the half-pig I reserved in August, the only slaughter dates still available were at end of December. That was fine with me, allowing me plenty of time to organize my freezer.
My decision of which farmer to buy from was based on my feelings of trust for the farmer first, and then on price, breed, the pig’s diet, and whether I could fill out my own cut sheet.
The price for this pig — in Vermont, where prices tend to be high — was $6.00 hanging weight. The hanging weight is after the carcass has been cleaned of the inedible parts: skin, blood, guts. What you actually get is about 75 percent of that, depending mainly on whether you ask for all the cuts or not.
In my recent purchase of a Tamworth-Berkshire half-pig that was slaughtered at 24 weeks and weighed about 250 pounds, the hanging weight for half was 100 pounds. I paid $600 and received about 75 pounds of meat, which included the leaf lard, back fat, half head, neck bones and trotters, and all of the chops and roasts were on the bone.
As a result, I actually paid $8.00 per pound, or $1 to $3 less per pound than I would have paid at the farmers market (depending on the cut), but at least four times more than I would have paid for supermarket pork (again, depending on the cut).
The 75 pounds of pork on my dining room table mostly fit onto two shelves in an upright freezer.
That I paid more per pound than I would have at the supermarket is okay by me, because supermarket pork is loaded with antibiotics, is potentially contaminated with all sorts of bacteria and other toxic substances, and was miserably raised on concrete and steel grates. By contrast, my pig was raised on pasture and forest forage, improving — not degrading — the land. Its diet was supplemented with milk (efficiently using leftovers from a nearby artisan butter-maker) and non-GMO grain. Besides being “cleaner” than supermarket pork, pasture-raised pork contains higher levels of vitamins D and E and healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
You can have your farmer or the butcher make choices about the cuts of meat you will get, or you can fill out a cut sheet. To understand a cut sheet, you must first understand that an animal is divided into primals, a term that refers to the largest subsections of the animal.
There are four pork primals: shoulder, loin, belly (side), and leg (ham). A cut sheet will go through each primal and let you decide which roasts you want and size of the roasts. Or you can choose chops from that same cut – generally roasts and chops are an either/or choice. You can ask for certain cuts to be ground or just specify having all the scraps ground.
The ground meat can be turned into fresh sausage, usually a choice of sweet or hot Italian or breakfast sausage. You can specify which cuts to be smoked, like the ham and/or the bacon. You can ask for lard, the tail, the heart, liver, tongue, and head.
Here’s what I got:
• 1/2 head
• 2 1/2 pounds neck bones (for stew)
• 2 (3-pound) Boston butt roasts (great for barbecue)
• 2 (3- to 4-pound) shoulder roasts (also great for barbecue)
• 1 (1-pound) tenderloin
• 11 (1/2-pound) pork chops cut 1-inch thick
• 2 small racks of ribs
• 4 (1-pound) country-style ribs
• 6 (3/4- to 1-pound) sirloin pork chops cut 1 inch thick
• 8 (1-pound) slabs fresh pork belly (I like to cure my own bacon and braise this cut)
• 2 split hams, smoked (4 to 5 pounds each)
• 2 smoked ham hocks (great addition to beans and bean soups)
• 4 trotters (I got 2 extra; also a great addition to beans)
• 3 (1-pound) packages leaf lard (to render for cooking and baking)
• 2 (1 1/2-pound) back fat (to cure for salt pork)
• 4 (1-pound) packages ground pork
All of this meat mostly fit onto two shelves of a standard upright freezer. I organized the smaller packages in jumbo zip-top bags to make it easier to retrieve the cuts I want to cook.
The lard will be rendered for baking and cooking and the back fat will be cured to make salt pork for cooking with.
You’ll make some mistakes (ones that you can live with) the first time you fill out a cut sheet. For example, I would have liked more ground pork and should have asked for the sirloin chops to be ground. But my cut sheet only offered grinding the shoulder, and I wasn’t about to give up my favorite barbecue cuts.
Also, my cut sheet didn’t offer the tail and I forgot to ask for it. You can avoid some mistakes by downloading the most detailed cut sheets you can find online. Sometimes a different cut sheet will point out some of the different choices you can make.
Pan-seared pork chop with sauteed bok choy and kale.
Bottom line: I have a freezer full of succulent, milk-fed pork, and I am enjoying every morsel of it.
Andrea Chesman has written more than 20 cookbooks, including The Pickled Pantry, Recipes from the Root Cellar, Serving Up the Harvest, and The Backyard Homestead Book of Kitchen Know-How. She teaches and does cooking demonstrations and classes at fairs, festivals, book events, and garden shows across the United States. She lives in Ripton, Vermont. Read all of Andrea's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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