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Meat CSAs catching on

| Monday, June 9, 2008

Krista McGuigan was a vegetarian for more than a decade, until a taste of sauteed, grass-fed ground beef turned her around.

The Troy Hill financial analyst said she had stopped eating meat out of concern about factory farming, with its reliance on antibiotics and synthetic growth hormones on animals raised in cramped quarters. But finding meat that was carefully raised changed the equation.

"It tastes fabulous," said McGuigan, 37, as she and her husband picked up two shopping bags of $100 in ground pork, ribs, sausage and ham steaks at the Farmers@Firehouse market in the Strip District. "Factory-farm meat just doesn't have a lot of flavor. I didn't feel like I was giving up much. This is different."

The McGuigans purchased a quarter-pig at about $3 a pound through Laptop Butcher Shop, a local initiative connecting city dwellers directly with producers. It's part of a growing trend called community supported agriculture. CSA members pay in advance to pick up weekly shares of whatever farmers have harvested.

Although such arrangements traditionally centered on produce, consumers increasingly are seeking to buy beef, pork and poultry through such arrangements. Concerns about industrial-farmed meat are driving the demand, advocates say, as is the desire to support local farmers

"The meat CSAs are really taking off," said Kate Evanishyn, spokeswoman for Slow Food USA, a nonprofit educational group with 170 chapters nationwide. "They're not going to be as large as vegetable CSAs, but people want to take control of the meat-buying process, and of what they're putting into their bellies."

Susan Barclay of Point Breeze, a longtime member of Slow Food Pittsburgh, helped to found Laptop Butcher Shop in 2004. Farmers pledge to raise animals without pesticides, herbicides or synthetic hormones and to avoid genetically modified feed wherever possible. Consumers are asked to buy in larger volume than they typically would at a grocery store.

"(Producers are) saying, 'If you buy steaks or pork loins or beef tenderloins, then you've got to help me out and buy a couple of roasts at the same time, and a couple of pounds of ground meat,' " Barclay said. "Once people understand this isn't an industrial meat factory where you just get all the chicken breasts and all the steaks, they say, 'I can deal with this.' "

About 50 to 100 people are ordering through Laptop Butcher Shop, which means several thousand dollars in sales for each producer, Barclay said. Chicken, lamb and beef will be available later in the season.

The 30-sow Wil-Den Family Farms in Mercer County was the first producer Barclay persuaded. Co-owner Denise Brownlee said orders have grown from six that first season to 43 in March, with 30 orders distributed Saturday. Educating would-be cooks has become an unanticipated part of her job.

"I will have first-time customers who want to order half a pig because they like the price breakdown, but they'll call me and say, 'I've never done this before. Walk me through it,' " she said.

For customers wanting less of a commitment, Wil-Den requires a 10-pound minimum purchase, either a sausage sampler or a la carte cuts.

"I've had an occasion where a customer will order five tenderloins. I've had to e-mail them and nicely say, 'I can't do that,' " she said. "I can't just give all my high-priced cuts to one customer."

Additional Information:

About CSA

Community supported agriculture, or CSA, allows consumers to sign up for weekly shares of local farmers' harvests for a few hundred dollars per season.

Although selection is less varied than at a supermarket, advocates say the produce is fresher and tastier, and pumps money into the regional economy rather than to distant factory farms.

Nationally there are 1,000 CSA groups, up from about 50 in 1990. The 19 counties of Western Pennsylvania have 25 such groups.

Source: Slow Food USA; Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture

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