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Meatshare Founder Melissa McEwan

Melissa McEwan, a former vegetarian turned dedicated carnivore, is an innovator.  Finding prices at the relatively few high-end butcher shops in Brooklyn that specialize in naturally-raised, pasture-fed meats  too high to sustain her ravenous appetite, she decided she’d find a more affordable  way to bring the type of sustainably-produced meat she craves to other budget-minded urban carnivores. She started by picking up the phone and calling a farmer.

The result? Meatshare, an online group that works directly with local farmers to procure large orders of good meat at lower prices. The twist? The only real way to make it all work is to order whole animals.

We met with Melissa at a coffee shop near her Park Slope home to find out how it all works.

Hi Melissa, so Meatshare sounds pretty innovative how did you come up with the idea?

Well, it came up quite selfishly. I wanted to eat more meat! And very specifically, local pasture-raised, grass-fed, all natural meat. It’s a little surprising how hard it can be to find that sort of meat in the city. I think the fact that we sell out each of our Meatshares is indicative of the fact that there’s more demand than supply for that sort of meat.

There are only a couple of butcher shops in the city that focus on good, local, natural, grass-fed meats. In Brooklyn, it’s The Meat Hook and Marlow & Sons. In Manhattan it’s Dicksons. That’s sort of it, and if you eat a lot of meat like I do, and you’re on a budget like I am, the prices can become prohibitive. I was in a butcher shop in Queens recently and I asked about grass-fed meat and they had never heard of it! They didn’t know what I was talking about!

So I wanted to find a more affordable way to get good meat in the city, and I realized…maybe I should just call a farmer! That’s what I did, and I found that they’d totally be willing to work directly with me if I could purchase enough meat to make it worth their while to deliver to Brooklyn. So I created Meatshare as a way for people who are interested to group together online, place wholesale-sized meat orders  directly from a farmer, and get it at a much lower cost than you can at retail.

So how does it actually work? Who places the order with the farmers? Who does the distribution? Who collects the money from the people participating in an order?

I do most of it, which is tough because I have a full time job. I’ve got a few people helping now, but I could use more help collecting payments, hosting drop-off sites and just coordinating with everyone.

It can be complicated. We have to ask for deposits for each order, and sometimes the order ends up being a little more or a little less than expected, so we have to give money back or collect more from everyone. Sometimes people cancel after the order has been placed…but it’s always worked out. I’ve always had other people step in to take those orders and we’ve always sold out.

In terms or ordering, sometimes I’ll contact one of our farmers and sometimes they’ll approach me. Recently, they’ve been approaching me, which makes things a little easier. It’s just been interesting – they all have different pricing and practices.

Some farmers will just call up out of the blue and say, “Hey, we have some animals. Do you want some?”  Others will approach months in advance and say, “In 4 months we’ll be slaughtering 20 lambs. Would you like to reserve some?”

Sometimes people assume we have it all scheduled out a year in advance and I’ll tell them, “It doesn’t work that way! It’s anarchy!”

Sometimes people also assume we actually are ordering whole un-butchered animals. We don’t. We purchase whole animals from the farmers, and the animals are then butchered into all the various cuts and sent to us. We get all the meat from the animals we order, but we get it butchered.

One of the farms we deal with, Spring Lake Farms, is really easy. They’ll just call up and say, “We have animals!” I’ll send a message out to the group asking who wants in, then I’ll place the order and we’ll get it a couple of days later. The drawback with them is that you don’t get to specify any custom cuts. They butcher the animal, package it up and it’ll be ready a few days later.

Another farm we use is B&Y Farm. They usually approach us several months in advance. I’ll look at the order sheet, email the group, and we’ll tell them exactly what we want…we can tell them we want some of the ground meat for this kind of sausage or that kind of sausage, or we want specific cuts to be done in a specific way, and their slaughterhouse will do that for us.

What types of meat do you have access to?

We’ve gotten larger animals like beef and pork, but I’ve been pushing lamb recently because it’s just easier to manage. We’ll keep doing beef and pork, but lamb is just easy!

With the bigger animals, it’s more complicated. We get all these different cuts from different parts of the animal, and some people always just want this cut or that cut. I’m not a butcher and I just don’t have time to manage all kinds requests for specific cuts! With lamb, everyone just gets a whole butchered lamb. It’s so much easier. If people don’t want a whole lamb, they can use the Meatshare message board to find people to share with.

In the future I’d like to get goat, duck, goose…The problem with duck and goose is that there aren’t a lot of slaughterhouses out there that will butcher them for you.

We’re going to be getting an elk in April for the first time.  There’s a farmer John Fazio, who raises ducks and sells them at the local Greenmarkets, who is raising some free-range elk.

A lot of people assume ‘game’ meat like venison or elk is all free-range. In reality it’s almost all corn-fed.

I didn’t even realize that elk or venison were farmed!

Yeah – it’s illegal to sell wild game in the United States. So if you’re eating venison at a restaurant it’s farmed.

How much meat does a Meatshare member have to buy as part of an order?

It varies. Sometimes lambs are 20 pounds and sometimes they’re 60 pounds. There’s a little more flexibility with the larger animals – members use the message board to find people to share with so they can get the amount that’s right for them.

But you know, people think larger orders of meat take up a lot more room than they really do. The first time I ordered an animal directly from a farmer, I ordered a 50 pound lamb. I was really worried that it was just going to be way too much meat. I got ten friends to split the order, and it worked out to be a tiny little package of meat for each person!

I eat a lot of meat, so I actually bought a meat freezer. It’s a lot smaller than you’d think. I don’t have a lot of room! It’s probably five cubic feet, and it only cost $160 with free shipping from Home Depot. I encourage people to consider them – they’re really convenient. Instead of shopping three times a week I can shop once a week now! That said, the average refrigerator freezer can hold a good 30-40 pounds of meat, so that’s probably more than enough for most people.

Have you always been a meat lover?

No. I was actually a vegetarian for a long time. There’s just really great, sustainably, naturally produced meat out there. You just couldn’t find that anywhere a few years ago.

At first I had no idea how to cook meat. It’s been a long, slow education. The thing that’s great about buying whole animals – it forces you to expand your horizons and learn about new cuts of meat. Each cut has different properties and different nutritional content and needs to be cooked in a particular way. And it’s also a lot cheaper than buying specific cuts at retail prices!

What’s next for Meatshare?

Well, we have about 180 members, and the only thing keeping us from growing is that I have a full-time job! I’m not promoting it or pushing it. But I do have some people who are helping now who are looking into ways to expand it.

For more on Meatshare, or to get in on the next share, check out their website.

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