Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Where's the Beef?

Or more correctly...where is our beef going to be coming from?

I've been doing a lot of work trying to figure out the best source for our family's meat. Sounds like fun, doesn't it? We've decided to forgo meat from typical grocery store and are going to start buying farmer direct. And as long as we were taking that plunge we thought we'd give grass-fed, no grain, no hormones or antibiotics beef a whirl. Our thought is that we'll do this first. Buy the very best that we could imagine and see how it stacks up. If it turns out that we have access to a grain finished animal next then we'll evaluate how they compared in the way the animal was treated, the taste, the cost and figure out which is going to work for us. So I've been on-line trying to track down a farmer.

It sounds pretty easy to do and really if we had no budgetary constraints we would be in great shape. There are farmers that have 1/4s ready right now and some that will be coming up. Most grass fed beef does get butchered in the fall in order to have had the maximum time on pasture without the expense of hay all winter for the farmer. In SE Wisconsin you quickly find that grass fed beef is not cheap. As in so not cheap that I could EASILY spend my entire grocery budget for last year just buying a 1/4 or 1/2 from a farmer right now. There are some that charge upwards of $8/lb for their beef. No judgement, but that is so seriously expensive protein!

I'm starting to find farmer's that are more in the $4/lb range and may even have a lead on one in SW Wisconsin that may be closer to $3/lb when all is said and done. This is still a huge new pill for me to swallow, but it is one that I think is important for my family and for my conscious. We'll continue to take baby steps in other areas and I'm hopeful that I'll keep other costs down, but the chances of spending $1300 for groceries for the year are pretty low. (That's been our total the last two years, but now we are splurging on our meat and our family is's the grocery bill!)

As of now we haven't been big beef eaters. Mostly due to the higher cost of beef at the store. I'd often find great deals on chicken, turkey and pork, but beef deals (other than ground beef) were few and far between. I know my husband will like the new change to our diet and I'm confident that I'll be a good steward with the freezer full of beef. In many ways it will be like eating when I was a child. We always raised a steer when the freezer got low. He would run with the horses and was typically a big pet for a while. Then he'd get really big, get pretty unfriendly and our freezer would get bare. The next step was his first taste of grain as we got him used to coming to the barn. After a few treats there would come a day when he'd come to get a pan of grain and while his head was down there would be one shot to end it all. My friend's dad had a butcher shop and he would take the steer away to process, although we'd go on the day the meat all got packaged and help wrap the meat and tube the ground beef.

I know some would consider it crazy to have kids that involved in their food, but really I think we were lucky. We knew what it meant to have meat on our plate. We knew our steers were treated well (as were the neighbor chickens whose eggs we ate and dairy cows across the road who often provided our milk). We knew their lives ended quickly, humanely, and while they were doing something they enjoyed. I never really realized how unusual it was to have that close of a connection to our food, but as an adult I've never known the animal or even the person who raised the animal. Our family is changing that. We cannot raise our own animals right now (and Mike would prefer we didn't ever raise pigs or steers), but we can know the person who raised it.

Wish me luck as I find a farmer who is doing good work! And help me remember that it is right to pay a fair wage to them for raising the food that feeds my babies, and my husband and me :) Our budget will be okay...right?


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Valentine's Day traditions

The big, lovey-dovey, Hallmark holiday is coming! How do you celebrate?

I used to like Valentine's day when I was a kid. There were valentines for the class, maybe a treat and some hearts from our teacher. Pretty low key and kind of fun after a month of snow with no break in sight. Then I got to Jr. High and High school. Oh, how things change! There was the drama of wanting to have a Valentine. There were flower sales and candy-grams and balloon deliveries and sometimes even the occasional huge bouquet from the professional florist in town delivered to the office. This brought about the endless longing to be one of the people getting all of these things. Or anyone of these deliveries. Or just some acknowledgement by someone that you were special!

My friends and I tended to send things to each other, but we often spent the day dressed in black to protest all the red. Mature it wasn't, but when you have no boyfriend it is a way to get through it all. College was pretty much the same deal. Unless you had a guy who was into the spoiling you factor Valentine's day became a day to spend with your best girlfriends. We complained, we whined, we protested and we us crazy.

Now I'm married and I enjoy the thought behind the holiday (really I always have), but I do not want it to be about huge amounts of money or overly showy expressions of feelings that should be expressed everyday. Luckily my hubby and I set things up well when we were dating. Our first Valentine's day was the first time Mike cooked for me. He was going to cook dinner, but I ended up helping him along. Cooking dinner for a girl may not be a big deal to some men, but at the time my husband was living at home. His mom always did all the cooking and Mike had never made anything other than a bowl of cereal. Really, he had never cooked at all. That week he had his mom teach him how to make mac 'n cheese (the kind in a box) for the first time.

So, our valentines day menu consisted of mac 'n cheese, some boxed garlic bread, a salad, root beer, and he brought me a frosted big cookie. Fancy it was not, but sweet and meaningful it was! We've made it our tradition to have almost the same menu every year. Now I do the cooking and it is all homemade. I love the fact that it is pretty simple (although I have made some pretty awesome mac 'n cheese and salad) and that it is frugal and that it is meaningful to us. It is a meal that will be fun to share with our kids every year and they'll probably hate hearing the story over and over again, but that is just too bad! Family stories are what make holidays fun :)

This year I think I'm going to make Pioneer Woman's Fancy Macaroni. Mike LOVES bacon and this dish will probably become a new favorite for him. I still need to get some salad ingredients and make some fresh bread, but the A&W is already in the fridge, the mugs are in the freezer and I've got the ingredients to make a hot fudge cake which he really loves. We don't really do gifts, but I did get a big Hershey's kiss (a red one) after Christmas for 75% off and that will be waiting at his place come breakfast time. I'm thinking that lunch may even be a heart shaped homemade pizza. We love our pizza and lots of places are advertising heart shaped ones...if they can do it so can I!

What are your traditions? Any fun gifts happening this year? Any other great food ideas for me for Sunday? And last, but most importantly, does anyone have Mrs. Field's Original Cookie recipe? It is Mike's favorite bought dessert and they do not make them like they used would blow his mind if I made one of those sometime!

Happy Valentine's Day,

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What's Up?

I figure it is time to spend a moment with my poor little neglected blog! When even my sister e-mails me to mention that I haven't posted in a long time I know I've been MIA. I still make the time to read many of my favorites every few days, I just haven't made the time to do much writing for myself. I want this blog to be a place where I share ideas and chronicle things in my family's life and I need to remember to spend some time doing that. Of course, I'm also 22 weeks pregnant, have an 18 month old, a husband, a job, a home, and a few meals and loads of laundry that also like my attention. I do not claim to be superwoman and am learning over time that often low expectations are called for in certain circumstances. However, I do want to keep blogging!

So what have I been doing? See above.

Actually, I have also been doing a lot more learning about a subject that is important to me. Over the last couple of years I've really wanted to move towards being more self sustaining. We do not have the land to really grow a lot of our own food (someday!), but I still want to have a more active in roll in knowing where our food comes from, how it was grown/raised, and in having stored food that allows us some control over our diet. I'm really proud of the canning I did last year and cannot wait to do even more this summer. (Did I mention I got a pressure canner for Christmas? I DID! And I can't wait to try canning vegetables that aren't pickles or tomatoes.) The last two years I've been a regular at our farmer's market and we are still eating potatoes and cabbages and squashes that I bought the last Thursday they were open. This last week I've spent a bunch of time learning things that make me realize that my baby steps have been on the correct path. And that it is time to really take things to the next level. We have been pricing beef and pork that is grass fed and those that are corn finished here and from a locker we love in South Dakota. (I consider that locker to be 'local' for us because we visit the tiny town when we see my grandparents. They do not have grass fed beef, but they actually know the name of the farmer who supplies all their animals...shocking in today's market place.) I've vowed not to buy any more meat from the grocery store and we are eating through some of our freezer stash as we decide when and where we will get our meat in the future.

As a VERY frugal person this is probably going to be the biggest jump for us. I've found the farmer's market to be incredibly frugal in providing near organic food for a great price. I buy what is in season, I compare vendors, I buy seconds at times and I'll buy in bulk. For instance I bought 50 pounds of potatoes from a farmer who uses no sprays on her potatoes. She isn't certified organic, that is fine with me. Potatoes are on the 'dirty dozen' list and hers are not showered in pesticides and such. The best price I've seen on organic potatoes in the grocery store was 10 pounds for $3.89. For 50 pounds I paid $11 to a local farmer. Call me crazy, but that is pretty frugal. I've bought a bushel of green peppers for $2, two bushels of squash (acorn, delicata, spaghetti, and butternut) for $10, a peck of sweet onions for $4, and on and on. Basically the farmer's market gets me great, local, near organic produce for prices that equal or beat the price on most conventionally grown items.

However, with meat that will not be the case. I buy meat when it is a loss leader. I've paid $.29/lb for chicken quarters, $.89/lb pork shoulder, $.99/ham, $.79/lb hamburger and such throughout the last two years. It is not always that cheap, but it is often close to those prices due to shopping sales and marked for quick sale items. When buying a 1/2 pig or a 1/4 or 1/2 cow we will be spending much, much more per pound. Grass fed beef in this area often gets $3.59/lb for a quarter (often processing is in addition to that price). We can get a 1/4 for about $2/lb from the little locker, but that cow will not be grass fed. (We do not know yet if the cow is just corn finished or if it is a feed lot cow.) And if we go with the South Dakota locker we would have to wait until we go to South Dakota to get meat. And I'd have to make sure they didn't add MSG to the sausage, which the package I bought in January says is added. ugg.

There are lots of questions to answer and details to work out, but this is what I know. CAFO beef is not okay with me anymore. I do not want to support conventionally grown poultry, swine or beef operations. I want farmer's to be paid a fair wage for the work they do in raising my family's food. I want to opt out of a factory farming system. I know we will not be able to do so 100% of the time. We travel, we eat at other family's homes, we eat at restaurants from time to time. However, the vast majority of our meals are made here in our home. I want them to feature meat that is not laden with antibiotics, growth hormones, non-food chemicals, and such. I want the animals to have had a decent life and a swift death. I want the workers who took care of both aspects to have held their jobs with some respect and not be victims of an over industrialized system themselves. I just want to know what is going on when it comes to the food I give my children.

I'm sure I'll have more to say about this as it is an ongoing process of learning. I'm not saying any of this to make anyone else feel bad about their food choices. Goodness knows we are all doing the best we can. I feel about this kind of how I did about how birth is dealt with in this country. I had no idea what I knew and what I didn't know. I started asking questions and I started learning and the more I learned, the more I asked (and am still asking) and the more I asked the more I was sure that things should be more transparent and that I should be more knowledgeable than I am. Than I thought I was.

I had no idea how lucky I was to know the names of the cows we ate growing up. I want my kids to have at least some of that same experience. If that means a dramatic rise in our grocery budget than so be it. Our health is worth it, our responsibility is worth it.

Wish me luck!