You grow much of your own produce , visit your local farmers’ markets  for the foods that you can’t grow yourself and have even started participating in a food co-op , but you’re still left high and dry when it comes to purchasing a decent steak.
Enter Cowpooling, the latest buzz term for the practice under which a group of neighbors team up to purchase a whole cow from a local farm. The cow is then butchered to order and the various cuts divvied up among the neighbors (who presumably aren’t going to argue over who gets the last T-bone!)
But, beyond the nifty name (seriously, cowpooling? Genius!) how exactly is it any different to good ol’ fashioned cow-sharing? Well, typically when you sign up for a cow-share, you’re signing up to have access to the cow’s fresh raw milk as opposed to, well, the actual cow. In addition, when you’re participating in a cowshare, you generally have to pay for a portion of the cow’s upkeep, usually in the form of a holding fee to the farmer.
So, now that we’ve got the “what” down, lets take a look at the who, why and, most importantly, how of this whole cowpooling thing!
Currently, the practice is gaining popularity with “locavores,” that is, those who choose to practice food sustainability by eating only food from local farms. However, essentially anyone with a few family members of friends (or the ability to find some!) can participate. Another criteria for participation in cowpooling? You really have to like – and more importantly, eat – a lot of meat and have the capacity to store it. Now, we’re not talking about having access to a full-scale meat locker, but if you’re living in a cramped city apartment with nothing more than a fridge-freezer combo, cowpooling probably isn’t going to work out for you.
There are a couple of reasons you might want to consider cowpooling:
- Buying Local: There certainly is something to be said for buying locally. Not only do you support your local farmer, but you also support your local butcher and your local meat packer. Not bad, ey?
- Keeping Control: Want to avoid purchasing hormone-laden, corn-fed beef or make sure that the beef you’re buying comes from a happy cow? Cowpooling allows you to shop around for a local farmer that can accommodate your request.
- Health Helper: You’ve heard the horror stories about people ingesting contaminated beef, but purchasing a side of beef – as opposed to the composites of meat sold in grocery stores – significantly reduces the risk of cross-contamination.
- Wallet-friendly: Ok, we’ll be honest here – sometimes it is more expensive to cowpool than it is to purchase meat from your supermarket, especially if you’re a whiz at clipping coupons and shopping the sale section! However, in today’s economy, where the cost of food can fluctuate so drastically, it is nice to purchase enough meat to last you a few months at a flat rate.
So, you have the storage space and you sure like meat, but how exactly do you get involved in a cowpool?
The first step is to ask around – ask friends and family if they know of any local cowpool groups (because recommendations from a friend are always the best!). If you’re hitting a dead end, however, there’s no harm in asking your local butcher or even a neighborhood grocery store if they have any recommendations. Still coming up empty handed? Head down to your local farmers’ market – they might know of a farm who might be interested in starting a cowpool up. Another great resource? Hit the Internet! You’d be surprised what a simple Google search will show up!
The next step is to consider how much meat you want to purchase. Cowpooling doesn’t have to necessarily mean that you buy the whole cow. Rather, your cowpool can choose to purchase a side (or half a cow in laymans terms!) or even a quarter and then split it up among your fellow poolers. Essentially, you’ve got to look at your storage capacity, examine your own meat eating needs and then work with your group to come up with a purchasing situation that will suit everyone.
The third step? Get cookin’!
If you’d like to learn more about cowpooling, these resources are particularly helpful:
- The Oklahoma Extension Service offers tips  (PDF) about purchasing beef in bulk and how to best store it (plus a nifty little survey to help you figure out whether buying bulk beef is a good choice for you!)
- Want to know how much meat a typical cow will yield? Ask the Meatman .
- J.D. at Get Rich Slowly details his experience of buying a side of beef .
- Jason Krause at Chow.com shares a similar experience .