I recently bought a couple of lambs from a farm in Eugene. It turned into a bit of a clusterfuck, mostly through personal error. Let my experience be a lesson to anyone else who might be interested in buying whole animals for the freezer.
I found Gamboling Goats Heritage Farm on Craigslist, not my preferred source of information on local ranches (that would be eatwild.com), but I was looking in late October which is pretty late in the season for pasture-raised animals. The price seemed pretty terrific: $100 for a whole St. Croix/Navarro Churro mixed breed lamb. They apparently run a little farm stand on Saturdays. Enchanting to a bloodthirsty gangster.
The ad says I can go right down and pick out my own two animals. Now I’m really excited since I look at little lambs all the time and, like the wolf in the cartoons, see nothing but roasted legs, barbecued shoulders, and crispy little loin chops sitting atop mounds of potatoes, smothered in braised leeks. Doesn’t that sound nice? So I call Rick, who turns out to be a real nice guy, and ask him if I can come down with my little girl. She really likes goats, although she has yet to taste their flesh. Rick is amenable to that, but he wants to know, why come all the way down to Eugene, don’t they have lambs up there near Portland? Good question Rick, I’m still working on an answer to that one.
So I packed up the Nona and we drove all the way down to Eugene, about 110 miles south. I don’t know if you’ve ever travelled with a 2-year-old, but it doesn’t go as fast as you would like.
The farm is quite pleasant. Rick raises a bunch of rare heritage breeds of livestock. He’s got rabbits, a few pigs, some tiny little cows whose breed I forget, laying chickens and ducks, and of course goats. Nona loves the lambs, goats and cows, and is terrified of the pigs (quite frankly, so am I). She gets to feed the ducks and hold a couple of baby bunnies. Adorable. I buy a couple of frozen rabbits and they really are quite delicious with chestnuts and matsutake. I also learn that raising rabbits on the ground isn’t really possible in our area because of a mosquito-born virus that kills them before they can reach slaughter weight. Since resigning himself to this reality, Rick has begun constructing roomier cages.
For some inexplicable reason, I don’t put down my deposit on the two beasts I want slaughtered: a couple of adorably chubby brown and white lambs. I tell him I’ll mail a check. A couple weeks go by before I actually get the check out. I mail it, then call: Rick, the check is on the way, you still got those lambs? No, you sold them already? Of course you did, it’s been a couple weeks. Well, I’ll just take the next two you got that are big. It’ll be a while, huh? Oh well, you got the check, just let me know when they’re ready. Not till January? Oh well, that’s fine. Just gimme a couple a weeks notice so I can make some time in my schedule.
Christmas comes and goes and I call Rick early in the second week of January: They’re ready right now? Or you’ll just have to send back my check? Alright, I’ll take them. Kinda small, huh? 45 or 50 pounds on the hoof? That’s kinda small but, oh well, your gonna knock the price down to $75? Awesome.
I call up the processor, Mohawk Valley Meats in Springfield: Yeah, I’m getting two lambs from Rick at Gamboling Goats. Yeah, Gangster of Food, that’s my name. Tell me now, will those have the sweetbreads? No? Okay. What organs can I get? Heart, liver and kidneys? Okay. What about the tongue? I’d really like the tongue. Do what you can? Fine. Yeah, I’ll call Rick and ask him to put it on the order sheet.
This not getting all the organs bullshit is some bullshit that all these processors pull. Under most arrangements, it’s my animal and I should be entitled to the whole thing. But what am I gonna do? Take away all my precious business? The three or four whole-carcass animals I might purchase in a year?
So, I pack the kid in the car again, call the processor again: Are these lambs gonna be bagged up, or just naked? No bags, huh?
Okay, now I’m going to Cash and Carry thinking they must have some large, clear, heavy duty, food-safe bags. But no, nothing but garbage bags. A box of 55 gallon drum liners is almost $15. Drive like the wind, but still have to stop for lunch with the two-year-old. You ever eat lunch with a two-year-old? Ever try to hand feed lima beans to a wet cat? Me neither, but I imagine the level of frustration is similar. Takes a long time, too.
It took about a tank of gas, 10 gallons in my car, to drive down to Springfield and back: $35. Lunch, half of which went straight into the garbage since the kid had already pigged out on so many snacks she didn’t even want any hamburger, took about an hour and $15. More snacks on the way home was another $6 or so.
I don’t want to include the first trip down, since that was more of an educational excursion than a necessary part of the lamb procurement process. We’re still up to $71 in related expenses. The two lambs cost $150 total. The slaughter was $70. Looks like, with related expenses, $291 for what turned out to be about 50 pounds of lamb, or about $5.82 a pound. Still not bad, but more than I expected.
Next day I go down to my friend’s commissary space where I dropped the lambs the evening before. I sharpen my knives, set up some cutting boards, pull the lambs out of the walk-in, open the cavity and… where are my fucking organs? It’s empty in there.
This really sucks because, as you may know, the organs of little baby animals are really an experience for the mouth. I was looking forward to searing up that liver and making a nice onion gravy. Skewered lambs’ kidneys wetted with mustard and butter on the barbecue and laid over sherry-sweetened lentils with grilled scallions could alter your worldview.
But here’s the thing: capitalism. The processor is paid by the each, so if it’s more work, they don’t want anything to do with it. Although in this case they had to actually cut the kidneys and liver out of the animal, so I’m a little confused about that. Maybe they just did it out of spite. The tongue thing though: they decapitate the lamb and they’d really rather just throw that head right into the rendering barrel. Myself, I’d like the brains if I could get ’em.
Likewise, Rick the rancher says he likes the lambs smaller. I’m sure he does too. But he sells the lambs by the each, so where’s his incentive to sit on them and feed them and get them nice and big like I want? That’s right, he has none.
If you buy a cow from a rancher and have it “custom” butchered, you get about 30% ground beef since you pay a flat rate per pound, whether it’s pounds of T -bones or pounds of 20% fat ground beef. My remedy for that particular situation is to have them keep all the “trim” aside. I have knives and a commercial quality meat grinder. Last cow we bought yielded lots of stew meat, steak tips, flatirons, hanger steaks, skirt steaks and so forth that the “custom cutters” were thinking of grinding. People complained there wasn’t enough ground beef. Meanwhile, at the meat counter, they’re deconstructing the animal all kinds of clever ways: mock tenderloins (better as ground beef) and Denver steaks (ditto) go for five, six, seven dollars a pound. They have every incentive to extract the maximum possible dollar value from each pound they buy. Of course this eventually leads to the “flatiron effect” wherein a previously underutilized cut becomes so sought after it begins to rival the traditionally expensive rib, loin and sirloin cuts in price.
This year is going to be meat-laden, I can feel it. But I’m not gonna get kicked around by these processors anymore. I’ve finally learned to get what I want, and here’s how it goes:
- Take on as much of the process yourself as possible. I’m still looking for a chance to slaughter my own pig or lamb.
- Plan far ahead and get those checks in early.
- Stay as local as you can, unless of course someone is willing to deliver.
- For the real work, leave the kid with a babysitter.
- Sweetly bitch at the processor until you get exactly what you want. These people are busy and disorganized and they need to remember your name.
- Bring alcohol and/or drugs, as well as your witty banter, to the butchering party to keep people engaged, otherwise they want to run out before the job’s half done.