With the proper research and planning buying local meat in bulk can be a good option for your family. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

This story was originally published in September 2020.

Although most people purchase meat from the grocery store, farms and farmers markets are a good source of locally grown, humanely raised beef. And with a little smart planning, you can stock up at a discount with a bulk purchase.

For those who have never considered it, there are several good reasons to buy a side of beef or pork from a local farmer. For one, local farmers raise far fewer animals at a time than large factory farms. That means local meat animals get a lot of personal attention and care from the farmer from the moment they are born to the day they go to slaughter. It also can make good economic sense to buy more. Many farmers charge less per pound when selling meat in bulk — such as by the side, half-side or quarter-side.

Where do I find bulk meat for sale?

To find a farmer raising and selling bulk meat Donna Coffin, professor with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service, suggests searching The Maine Farm and Seafood Products Directory online. And don’t wait too long. There is a finite amount of locally raised meat out there for fall slaughter and once it is spoken for, it’s gone for the season.

“Sooner is better than later to reach out to a farmer,” Coffin said. “Even now you may run into farmers who have all their products spoken for.”

How much is enough?

Before ordering your side of beef or half-pig, take some time to calculate how much meat your family actually eats over the course of six months. 

“Really look at how many eaters you have in your home and how many of those actually eat meat,” Coffin said. “Your best bet is really to start small with a quarter of beef or side of a pig and see how that goes.”

To help calculate how much is enough, Coffin said on average one person consumes 56 pounds of beef, 47 pound of pork, 82 pounds of chicken and 15 pounds of pork for a total of around 215 pounds of meat every year.

But she cautions that not every person is going to eat every meat-based meal at home. So it’s important to factor in how many meals are eaten out on average during the course of the year.

“If you’ve never done it before maybe start with a quarter of beef or of a pig and see how it goes,” Coffin said. “If you like it and use up all the cuts you can always get more next year.”

How will I store it?

The safest way to store meat in bulk is by freezing, according to Kathy Savoie, educator and master food preserver with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. And that means having a reliable home freezer.

“If you have not plugged in your freezer for a while, you want to plug it in at least 24 hours before you will use it,” Savoie said. “Put a container of water in the freezer to make sure it can actually freeze things.”

How much freezer you need depends on how much meat you plan to store. A quarter of a cow, for example, cut and wrapped requires four-cubic-feet of freezer space. Freezers have been hard to come by since the start of the pandemic, so you want to make sure you have one before buying meat in bulk. 

“That’s about the amount of space in the freezer section of a side-by-side refrigerator,” Coffin said. “So you’d have room for your beef, but not much else.”

Your meat should arrive already frozen in clearly marked packages by cut and weight and from the butcher or slaughter house, Savoie said, and should be immediately placed in your freezer.

The ideal way to store your meat is to freeze it in a stand alone freezer set to zero-degrees Fahrenheit. If you are unsure of how cold your freezer is at a given setting, Savoie recommends placing a thermometer inside for 24 hours and then checking the temperature. 

You can also store meat in your refrigerator freezer, but it might impact the quality. With a frequently opened door, it has more temperature fluctuations than in the stand alone freezer. Frequent opening and closing of any freezer door can cause your meat to lose its flavor faster. 

“When it comes to how long meat is in your freezer, it can last indefinitely if it’s frozen and be safe to eat,” Savoie said. “But after a few months the taste will suffer.”

Stored at a steady zero degrees, ground beef retains its flavor for around four months while larger cuts like roasts, steaks and chops remain tasty for up to a year. 

It’s also important to think about how often you lose power and how long the power is off when it does go out, Coffin said.

“There’s a real danger if you have a 15-cubic-foot freezer full of meat and you lose power for more than a week it will warm up and spoil,” Coffin said. “If you don’t want to take that risk, think about having an alternate power source like a generator when the power goes out.”

Not opening the freezer door during a power outage also keeps the cold in the unit and will keep things frozen for a few days, Coffin said.

It’s not all ribeye and loin chops

A cow or a pig will produce many different cuts of meat and there may be some you have never cooked before. 

“When buying your side or quarter of beef or pig, if you enjoy ribeye steaks or pork chops you have to remember the whole animal is not ribeye or pork chops,” Coffin said. “You can work with your butcher on how to have your animal cut, but remember a 500 pound cow is not going to give you 500 pounds of sirloin steak.”

In addition to prime steaks and chops, you are going to get roasts, ribs, stew meat and ground meat. You may also find yourself getting large soup bones, internal organs and even steaks that are not familiar.

“You are going to need to get creative and turn to cookbooks to learn how to use some of those cuts,” Savoie said. “Do your homework and find out if a specific stake is best for grilling or braising because ultimately every cut of meat lends itself to certain types of cooking and if you do it the wrong way you won’t be happy with it.”

Savoie advises people to make a list of their cuts of meat when they arrive and keep a running inventory going as they use it so they know what is in the freezer at all times.

“This lets you keep track of how many units of hamburger or how many roasts you have at any one time,” Savoie said. “I also encourage people to sort their meat when they put it in the freezer so all of your hamburger is in one spot, your steaks in another and so on so your storage is as efficient as possible and it’s easy to find things.”

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.