Picture a meat eating, bone sucking, finger-licking carnivore — not exactly the face of an environmentalist, right?

But a new crop of meat eaters are greening their eating habits by demanding to know the face of their food in a quest for better quality meat that not only tastes better, but also comes from humanely treated animals.

Known as cowpoolers, these people band together to buy beef in bulk directly from their local farmers and ranchers. And since the average size of one cow runs at about 700 pounds, there’s plenty of meat to go around.

According to many estimates, a pound of strip steak purchased through cowpooling costs between $3 and $5 -- compared to the equivalent $16 slab of meat at Whole Foods. So not only is cowpooling is better for the environment (its local), better tasting (say its adherents), but it's also better for your bottom line.

Though the term “cowpooling” has only recently become trendy, the idea of splitting cows among a group of people is a well-known concept, especially among rural folks like PJ Nikolic, a union carpenter based in Momence, Ill. “My family and I have been buying whole cows directly from farmers since I was little,” Nikolic says. “The quality of the meat is 100 times better than the kind in the store. Plus, you’re helping to support local farmers.”


Though Nikolic wouldn’t exactly call himself an environmentalist, he says that doesn’t mean he wants to eat cows that have been given steroids or hormones.

“I like that the cow is what the cow is, there’s no growth hormones added,” he says. “Plus, naturally grown meat is so much more tender. It creates an overall better product in the long run.”

Beth Osmund, who owns Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm in Ottawa, Ill., along with her husband, Jody, says she recommends cowpooling to large families or groups of people who have a lot of freezer space as an economical way to buy high-quality meat.

“A whole cow will usually yield about 550 pounds of usable meat, which will easily last at least a year in the freezer,” she says. “Plus, as compared to retail prices and to our CSA prices, it’s considerably less per pound, so it’s more economical to buy the whole cow.”

Though Osmund doesn’t have any hard data on how much cowpooling has helped increase her sales, she says that overall the business has been doing pretty well this year, despite the economic times, or maybe because of it.

I think more people are eating out less, they are nesting more or focusing inward on food,” she says. “Also, people are increasingly concerned about the health and well-being of animals as well as their own well-being.”

Buying an entire cow, or any whole animal for that matter, can be intimidating for most of us who were raised on meat that comes in neat little shapes and packages. But farms like the Osmunds’ make the process easier by walking their customers through all the steps, like advising them on what cuts of meat to expect (such as round steak, New York Strip, or ground beef), and going over jargon like “hanging weight,” which is the weight of the animal before slaughter.

“People are a little intimidated by talking to the butcher for their cutting instructions, but we have the advantage of working with a really terrific butcher that will talk people through the process and ask all the questions,” Osmund says. “It’s really a pretty simple process.”

Finding enough people to share an entire animal is another challenge, especially for city dwellers who don’t know the names of their next-door neighbor, much less whether they want to split a cow with them.

To fill this gap, websites are slowly cropping up that provide online forums where people can hook up to buy meat, rather than just hook up.

Tamar Adler, co-founder of The Bay Area Meat CSA in San Francisco, created her site after coming across people looking to get local meat.

“I wanted to create a virtual community where people could find their neighbors and do for themselves what I had been helping them do, which is go in on a whole animal,” she says.

The result is a site that’s centered on the idea of community-supported agriculture, Facebook-style, which also contains tips like how to split a cow among 20 people.

People interested in sharing a whole animal can first look on the site to see if one of the 27 groups listed is in their area, or, if not, start their own group. They can then write on the group’s message board to seek out people interested in purchasing meat together.

“The overall goal is to use whatever open-source technology is available to help people build the kind of real world communities that are so hard to find right now and use that community mindset and all the benefits of a community to develop a relationship with the people who grow their food,” Adler says.

Ranchers can also use the site to promote their products as long as the meat is “good, clean and fair.” Though Adler admits that she doesn’t inspect the ranches, she does talk with each rancher to discuss his/her practices to make sure that they meet the site’s standards.

“Not a day goes by without a rancher contacting me to talk about their product,” says Adler, who’s hoping the site will branch out to other areas of the country like New York and Georgia.

The site’s users aren’t just limiting themselves to cows, however.

Sally Sweetser, a commercial real estate appraiser in Martinez, Calif., recently went in with seven other local residents to buy a Berkshire hog from Wind Dancer Ranch, a small family farm in Northern California that humanely raises heritage livestock.

She said she’s become more conscious of where her food comes from and how it’s processed in part after seeing the documentary Food, Inc., which takes an inside look at the industrial food system.

“I didn’t want to become a vegetarian, so I figured that if we’re going to eat the animals, at least they could be treated well,” Sweetser says.

**Note: Those not fortunate enough to be living in the San Francisco Bay Area should check out localharvest.org to find local meat and vegetable options in their area.

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