Category Archives: Sticky

How we choose what to carry in the store

I’ve mentioned that with the store expansion, we are looking at new products for the store. Lots of new products. It may surprise you to find out that there has been quite some conversation about what to carry. It’s not as simple as all of the previous 11 farmers we’ve carried before.

In the past, I’ve reached out to farmers directly. They were always small family farms. Someone who was doing what we do, but with a different product than we carry. For instance, our poultry farmer, Brittany Ridge Farm (Hi Kevin and Christy!) supplies our chicken, turkey, pheasant, rabbit and eggs. At the time we partnered with them, we had our own chickens and eggs but with the quality of their product I was able to get out of the chicken business and let the experts do it. Yes, Lucy has chickens again and we have eggs from our farm. But you don’t see me bent over a processing table cutting up chickens once a week, and I tell Christy every time I see her how much I appreciate all her and Kevin’s hard work. We have 11 stories like that. A farmer doing a great job, who we develop a personal relationship with. We go to the farm or meet half way and pick up their products once a week, twice a month, once a month, etc.

But at some point, you can only do so much. I can’t continue to add products and go pick them up from the individual farms every week. I’d need a full time truck driver just going up and down the road. That adds cost of time and money, both in short supply on a farm. So we started looking for farmers and producers who had products we could deliver, or get delivered UPS, or who work through a distributor, or who have employees who live near us, or a customer already in Raleigh where we can meet them to pick up our order. I hoped we’d find 4-5. So far we are sitting at around 40! Not all will survive taste testing and final selection but right now it’s looking awesome for what is to come.

As we have discovered and evaluated different products, it’s called into question just what is our goal? What is our criteria? What is our, God I hate to say it, our mission statement? What kind of store are we going to be? Is it farmer direct only? Are we a farmer’s market? Is it eco, hippie, natural only? After much discussing, some arguments both heated and most simply debated, we’ve arrived at this conclusion.

The store is first and foremost, a reflection of our family. What that means is, if you find it in the store, you find it in our pantry. Period. As I’ve said many times before, my number 1 customer sleeps beside me every night.

So what does that mean to our selection process? It means that almost everything will be natural. It will almost always be from North Carolina, or at least from the South if not. It means if we can help out a small operator, we will do it over purchasing from a larger, more established operator, even if it costs more. It means if we know the people and like them, vs ordering out of a catalog, we are more likely to carry their product. It means if the label is risque or vulgar, we won’t carry it. It means if the label is funny, especially darkly funny, it will have a good chance of making it to the shelf. It means if it’s something we buy routinely, we’ll stock it in the store. Mustard? Pickles? Salsa? Hot sauce? Yep, we buy all of those all the time. It means that we may stock something that you can find at Lowes Foods or Whole Foods. Are we trying to compete with them? Nope. We’re trying to make it convenient, first to SWMBO, but also to you our customer. When you buy a pork chop from us and we hand you a recipe to go along with it, the ingredients are in the store to make that recipe. That means no additional stops on the way home.

But most importantly to all of the above. If we really like the product. We really like the people. We really like the story. We will break all of the rules above in order to carry it. I’m on the hunt for olive oil right now. I don’t think I’ll find a local, NC based, olive oil farmer with distribution to Raleigh. But we use olive oil literally by the gallon in our kitchen. When I find one I like, it’s going in the store. Will that fit in with our “theme?” That has been the source of the debate. Our theme, nay, our mission statement is:

We are foodies, parents, and farmers. We cook 2.75 meals per day on average, 365 days per year. We want the best food we can get that is wholesome, flavorful, local, and practical. Usually in that order but not always. It may not be the cheapest, it may not be the greenest, but given all variables, it is the best we can do.  If you are in our store, then you are standing in our home and in our pantry. Enjoy.

Why that sounds like it should be crafted into a poster. Hmm, give me a minute. Ninja Cow Farm store mission statement

How much meat you are actually getting from a whole pig?

Understanding how an animal breaks down is confusing, even for farmers. Live weight vs hot hanging weight vs cut weight. We buy a pound of pork chops, but we sell a whole hog by the hanging weight, but we deliver a live animal to the processor. One animal, three different weights and three different prices.

And not everyone wants a cut price. Some people want half of an animal, but they want to buy it at the live weight price and receive the cut weight, not understanding the differences between them. How to explain it?

Once again, Walter at Sugar Mountain Farms does an excellent job of explaining something and making it make sense. Better than I ever could. To see how to understand all these different weights, read his short article here. 

Then call me and tell me what you want. I’ll back my way into the pricing based on what you are asking for.

Why our pork is different

If you’ve been here before, you know that produce is what makes our pigs different. We don’t feed commercial bag feed to our animals.

Pig eating corn from a self feeder
This is how a pig is typically fed, even on a hippie or Organic farm

Above you see a normal way to feed pigs. Once a week, once a month, whatever, you dump bags of feed into the top of the feeder and then you basically walk away from the pigs and ignore them.  If you are certified Organic, the only difference is that you dump Organic feed in instead of Tractor Supply feed. No really, that’s what Organic means. Different feed. The pigs generally eat what you see in this picture, corn. If they are Organic then its Organic corn. Corn is the animal equivalent of this.

Hostess Ho hos
Not the healthiest of options

Corn is calorie dense, but nutrient deficient. Of course people may feed a grain mix, or a prepared pellet like this.

Pig pellet food
Yummy, yummy pellets. Looks tasty does it not?

The grain companies will tell you all the nutrition the pig needs is in this pellet. Probably is. Of course they are telling you that your pig will gain at a maximum rate for the minimum cost to produce the biggest pig possible in the shortest amount of time possible. They aren’t promising the pig will live a long healthy life since that pig will be slaughtered at 6 months of age. It is not like the pig will get heart disease, joint problems, etc in only 6 months. But the pig will get the results of this kind of diet in the meat in 6 months. The same meat you will be putting into your body. I’m assuming you’re planning on living longer than 6 months.

Fed with a self feeder, when pigs want to eat, they walk over to the feeder, nose it open, and munch on the grain inside. After they eat their fill, they go lay back down and don’t do much else the rest of the day. We’ve bought pigs fed this way before. They are extremely fat and lazy to the point of it being funny. I actually loaded some large pigs one time from a farmer. Usually loading pigs is kinda upsetting to them. They are going into a strange new place and are locked in. The doors slam and people yell and poke. They can get upset. We closed the trailer door behind them and started chatting for a minute while I wrote the check. About 2 minutes after loading, I heard snoring and looked in to see one of the pigs passed out asleep and already snoring. Folks, that’s not calm, that’s fat and lazy!

When those pigs would get to our farm (we no longer buy pigs), we would melt about 25% of their body weight off in a couple on months. It was like starting a gym membership and weight loss program all at once. Suddenly they had to work to get their food, and their food wasn’t high calorie, nutrient poor corn. The pigs became active and spent their days rooting and looking for additional food besides the produce we fed them. Once they lost their blubber, they grew at a normal pace and finished out nicely. What they weren’t able to be anymore was this.

Couch potato
What your typical pig is on a grain diet

So what do think makes for a healthier meat for you and your family, the couch potato above, or this?

Man feeding adult pig produce
Michael giving one of our expectant mothers some breakfast

Oh, and did I mention there is NO COMPARISON in the taste? Try our pork chops or Boston butts and see what real pork tastes like. There is no comparison.

Cooking matters

Nobody has cooked, or eaten, as much of our product as we have. We’ve grilled, baked, broiled, sauteed, and crock potted our meats. Heck, we’ve even eaten it raw (steak tartare anyone?) Having had our products every way that you can, I can say that cooking method definitely matter. I usually try and catch new customers before they leave and explain to them how they should cook their new purchase, especially the beef. Grass fed, grass finished beef cooks differently than store bought beef. (I don’t subscribe to all the tips on that link, btw. But most are good). Since I can’t catch everyone, I thought I’d type up my suggestions.

The first thing to know is what kind of meat are you buying. With only so many ribeyes to go around, odds are you’ll be buying a cut of meat you don’t normally get. You need to understand that “eating high on the hog” means that you’re getting the more tender cuts of meat. It also means they are less flavorful. That’s why tenderloin, an expensive and almost flavorless cut of tender meat, is always wrapped in bacon, or marinated in Italian dressing. Recipes are trying to add flavor to the flavorless, tender meat. On the other side of the tenderness scale, the French have perfected the art of taking the cheap cuts of meat and turning them into delicacies. And finding, along of the way, that these less expensive cuts of meat hold the best potential for amazing flavor. Shanks, jowls, brisket. These are all cuts that many American cooks fear but as any Texan will tell you about brisket, they are often the best part of the animal.

Beef cut chart
Where all the cuts of beef come from

Basically, the higher up the animal, the more expensive and the more tender the cut. That’s because the less the animal uses the muscle, the more tender and the more bland. That’s part of the reason that feedlot beef is more tender. The animals sit around and eat and do little else. By knowing where on the animal your cut comes from, you can have an idea of how to cook it. Tough cuts need a braise (like a crock pot) or some other method of preserving tenderness.

For steaks, I recommend hot and fast, just like our pork chop recipe. Just delete the sauce at the end of the recipe for beef. Or another way to cook them is Alton Brown’s method, which he uses for skirt steak. Notice he only cooks the entire steak 30-45 seconds per side TOTAL. I cook every steak, from ribeyes to chuck steaks the same way, hot and fast. They all come out awesome.

I don’t actually cook on coals like Alton. I very rarely grill anything. However, for our bratwurst and kielbasa sausage, the grill is the best place. You actually “cook” the sausages on the cooktop, in a pan filled with water for kielbasa or beer for bratwurst. All you are doing on the grill is browning them and adding flavor via the mallaird reaction. You can brown them on the stove if you want, but it’s not as good as when they are grilled.

For roasts, generally the crock pot is my friend. SWMBO does most of the cooking and she uses our various roasts interchangeably from one recipe to the next. If it’s a big four pound roast, she has no qualms about trimming it down or cutting it up to make it into what she wants. Not the most cost effective method but the meals are awesome so I’m not complaining. For roasts, just follow your usual recipe. If you are cooking them in the oven, remember that grass fed, grass finished beef is going to cook faster than you expect.

Osso Bucco is one of my favorite cuts. Technically it’s beef shank, sliced into 1″ thick slices. It costs the same as hamburger per pound and it’s wonderful in the crock pot. All that connective tissue breaks down and makes beef broth, which your vegetables soak up as it percolates all day in the crock pot. Just sear the osso bucco on both sides before you start, (remember the mallaird reaction from earlier, it’s your friend.) The meat shreds after cooking easily because of the way the cut is made. You pop out the one bone for Fido and serve. A $10 meal including vegetables that feeds the entire family.

For hamburger, I have to give a nod to our resident chef Drew. His hamburger recipe makes for a stellar hamburger. If you don’t want to do all that he suggests, make patties with room temperature burger meat. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and garlic and grill. Simple burgers that taste awesome.

For Boston Butt, I again turn to Drew’s recipe. If you are in our store, you can also pick up SWMBO’s crock pot recipe to accomplish the same thing. Her BBQ is no muss, no fuss, and tastes awesome.

Lastly, I need to tell you about sous vide cooking. Drew turned me onto it after about a year of harassing me to try it, finally just loaning me his unit and shooing me away to go cook. After one meal, I had one on order from Amazon. It’s pretty much impossible to overcook using sous vide and I can really dial in the doneness that I want, down to the single degree.

Sous vide cooking
Our meat aquarium

After a swim in our meat aquarium (what we call it) I simply sear the meat (mallaird again) and serve. Cook times can vary by hours with no change in doneness which really makes this more like crock pot cooking. This means that I can still get my work done and pop into the kitchen at the end of the day to finish up and serve a great meal, looking every bit the hero that I am.

What do you mean you don’t have ribeye steaks?!

A lot of times new customers come in the store and they have one thing on their mind.

“Blah, blah, whatever. Where are the ribeye steaks?”

When we tell them we are sold out, they sometimes seem incredulous that we could be out of something as basic as ribeye steaks. Sometimes they even seem offended that we’d be so poorly managed that we’d run out of ribeyes. I think they view the cut chart of a cow, you know, this one.

Beef cut chart
Where all the cuts of beef come from

The way Texans view a map of the US.

Texan's view of the US
Texan’s view of the US

Except they think that ribeyes are the part that is Texas in this map. I guess hamburger and cube steak are the other bits?

What people think a cow is made of
What people think a cow is made of.

I don’t blame them for not knowing the break down of an animal but despite what they may think, the reality is quite different.

The last cow we took to the processor weighed about 1050 pounds when he left the farm.

Once he was processed, he weighed 636 pounds. That’s the hot hanging weight. Out of that 636 pounds of beef, this is what we get in ribeye steaks.

12 packs of ribeye steaks
Ribeye steaks, an entire cows worth

Twelve packages of ribeyes, two per pack. Twenty four ribeye steaks total. That’s about 21 pounds of ribeyes out of 636 pounds of beef or about 3% of the total beef.

We aren’t a grocery store that orders our beef in by the truckload. We are a small farm that truly does this nose to tail. That means we utilize the bones, the liver, the lesser known steaks, the ribs, the roasts, all of it. And before we can restock with another cow, we need to utilize all of this animal we cared for for over two years and that gave its life for us.

We do get ribeyes in, every single time. But they are generally spoken for by our regulars before they ever show up. We’d love for you to be a regular too and get your ribeye steaks. In the meantime, maybe you could try a cut of beef that you don’t normally get, like osso bucco, or bottom round roast. You might find that it’s better than you realized.

Is beef bad for you, or is it corn-fed beef?

I ran across this post on, of all places, a financial website. I haven’t verified the data myself but a large chunk of it aligns with the data I heard from Dr. Anibal Pordomingo when I was at a grazers school years ago. The Omega 3 vs 6 ratio is real, documentable, and repeatable. You can measure the health decline in the cattle as they are fed a non-natural diet. You can also recover the animals health by putting them back on pasture where they are supposed to be. An unhealthy animal being consumed cannot result in a healthy person.

Link to the post on grass vs. corn-fed cattle.

Cows barely visible in the grass

I think there is a misstatement in the beginning about cattle going from 4-5 years to finish down to 13 months. What is actually correct is that cattle used to be raised to that age before slaughter as they were fully fleshed out and the meat had a more robust quality to it. But they weighed 1100 pounds at 24 months and 1200 pounds at 48 months. They aren’t much bigger years later. Now cows can finish in as little as 13 months in aggressive programs like he references but 24 months is plenty long for our American palate without any outside additions or weird genetics. We routinely finish cattle at 24 months on our farm with no issues and 100% natural. We certainly don’t have any special genetics. Also, after the mad cow BS of years past, we now cannot normally process cattle older than 30 months due to federal regulations so 24 months is going to be the norm regardless.

The post I’m promoting is not an overly long post and it has some good data in it. It’s not a peer reviewed publication, but they aren’t all they are cracked up to be either. To see what I mean, take a listen to this NPR Planet Money podcast about peer reviewed science. I have a distrust of science anyway, especially nutritional science, but wow! I didn’t know it was this bad.

Make sure you pay attention to the last line in the article. What is true for corn-fed cows is true for any corn-fed animal. Are you having tilapia tonight?

So you want a BBQ pig…

Walter Jeffries at Sugar Mountain Farm is one of my mentors (although he doesn’t know me) when it comes to farming and blogging. He has a following that makes mine look like I’m a kid wearing dad’s clothes. Walter has a similar writing style and belief system to me in that he shares the belief that you show what is really happening on the farm, both the good and the bad. By doing that, your customer is educated on the reality of farming and therefore comfortable with you and your product.

Since Walter is much further down the path than I am, he often has done some of the work for me saving me the trouble. One of the things he’s recently posted is an entire page on buying roaster/BBQ pigs. When I get a call from a customer needed a pig for an event, it is a struggle both for the customer and for me to say how big of a pig you need for your BBQ. How many people? How many adults vs. children. Is pork the main protein or an addition? How does the process work? Can I have the pig the same day I call you for the first time (that one is easy, No.)

We will sell a BBQ pig infrequently so when the request comes in, we can’t just rattle off the answer to help the customer know all the details he/she should know. Thankfully, in Walter’s post he has taken the time to answer more than I could ever. If you are looking to have a BBQ, then give Walter’s page a look over, then give me a call and we’ll get you the pig you need ready to go over the coals.