In September 2006 I complained to then-San Francisco Chronicle reporter Carol Ness that there were plenty of veggie Community Supported Agriculture programs in the Bay Area, but none that would give you a selection of chicken, beef, pork, and eggs every month. She quoted me as saying I thought someone should start a meat-centric CSA. Strangers started emailing me at the blog that very morning expressing interest in joining one if I found any. (On a sad note for her food-pol fans, Carol left the Chronicle last month, and now works for my former employer, UC Berkeley's Public Affairs office.)
I decided that day, more or less on a whim, What the hell, I'll just start one myself. I put out a call. Thus began the Bay Area Meat CSA — clunkily known as Bam-skuh.
For me it was a crash course in just exactly how complicated it is to get pastured meat from small farms and into the hands of Bay Area families. The USDA slaughterhouses are few and far between here, except for a small beef processor in Petaluma that's about to close. Most farmers around here thus harvest and process their own chickens on farm (very labor intensive), and prefer to sell pork as whole or half hogs, which the USDA allows a harvester to slaughter on the farm as a courtesy to the buyer. But then the buyer has to pay the harvester's fee, and tell the butcher how you want it cut and wrapped ... and then pick up hundreds of pounds of frozen meat and drive it 90 minutes home in your husband's photography-business minivan. (Helloooo, food safety officials!)
So many times along the way I found myself thinking, Why didn't I realize that if this were easy, someone would have done it already?
Did I mention I am a former vegetarian who had only been eating flesh for less than four years, mostly in (sustainable-meat-serving) restaurants? I couldn't tell a beef tenderloin from a tri-tip roast. I had no idea what a "fresh ham" was. Which turns out to be rather important when you are giving instructions to butchers — "How many ribs do you want per package?" … "Um, how many ribs do people normally eat?" — and attempting to divide up cuts fairly among 40 or so bags in the back of your live/work warehouse.
A brief history of BAMCSA
BAMCSA's first delivery was Operation Beef, completed in December 2006. You can read about it here. We did a bulk order from Marin Sun Farms just over the bridge, because rancher David Evans made it super easy for me by giving me an order form and delivering. It was mainly a test run, and me and several Beef Elves had fun. We learned the first rule of Meat Club: Something will ALWAYS go wrong. (That time it was tongues frozen two to a package.)
Next I ordered a couple of hogs from my friends Liz & Dan at Clark Summit. That's them and their animals up above; I'm still in the process of building out their website. The hogs were really really hard to do logistically, because I made the mistake of letting people state preferences like, "I want trotters!" or "Under no circumstances do I want liver." Then there is the small problem that about 50 pounds of a hog's hung weight is fat and skin, and who wants that? Well a few people do, but not too many. (I still have some of the lard I rendered from it left.) After staring at my 1964 "Joy of Cooking" butchering diagrams and my "Field Guide to Meat" (indispensable) for hours, then trying to make the spreadsheet add up to two 350-pound hogs divided among just under 40 people, I finally got a huge piece of foamcore and turned those hogs into a collection of Post-its representing pork chops and kidneys, etc., that I could assign to various people.
Anyway. BAMCSA soon became so popular, with 250 people on the email list and about 50-60 families ordering every month, that I frankly couldn't deal with it anymore. Back then I had a full-time job, ran this site as almost another full-time job, freelanced on the side, and felt like I spent every waking hour fielding emails about meat. I was burning out big-time. Help arrived in the form of Slow Food Berkeley, which had done a cow share for members a few times. The awesome Sarah Weiner, Sylvan Brackett, and Anya Fernald offered to take BAMCSA under Slow Food's wing, with funding and volunteers. Tamar Adler, then a newcomer to the Bay Area and now co-leader of Slow Food Berkeley, said she'd help run it. Tamar is also a cook at Chez Panisse, and the former chef at Farm 255 in Athens, Georgia, a farm-to-table restaurant where she'd sourced half-steers and whole hogs and butchered them in kitchen. She's one of the most energetic people I have ever met, and she can guess weights to within a few ounces, a priceless gift. That's her at right with Brock Fullmer of Black Sheep Farm on one of our delivery days.
Thus began BAMCSA Phase II, where I slowly handed over the reins to Tamar and stepped back over the course of last year. My last time serving as a pickup site is in just a week or so. I'd be sad, but …
The Clark Summit Meat Club
… because I clearly have not learned my lesson, I'm involved with a brand-new CSA that I am really excited about: helping Liz and Dan from Clark Summit in Tomales, CA, get theirs off the ground. Clark Summit should be the poster farm of the sustainable-agriculture movement. They do things right — 100% grassfed beef, including Scottish highland, piglets and chickens running free all over the farm. Hanging out with them and their animals is both inspiring and rejuvenating. I (heart) Liz and Dan bigtime.
We'll be using the BAMCSA model that Tamar really fine-tuned. There are three share sizes: Boar (15 lbs each of 3 mos), Gilt (10 lbs each of 3 mos), and Piglet (10 lbs, 2 out of 3 mos). Each month's share will usually comprise a whole chicken, a selection of grilling and braising cuts of beef and/or pork, including some ground beef and/or pork, and a dozen of Liz & Dan's amazing yellow-yolked pastured eggs. The exact mix will be different depending on what is seasonally available. Extra things like trotters, fat (for lard), and stewing hens will be available on an a la carte basis for meat-club members. Deliveries will be mid-month, starting in mid-May, to central pickup sites at my house in Emeryville, one in San Francisco, and a Marin County location TBD.
We're capping the initial three-month share at 50 people. There are still slots available. For prices and information how to join, e-mail me at meat...@clarksummitfarm.com. The signup period will be closing May 3, and if you miss this one, you'll get another chance in July.
Meat CSAs in the Bay Area today
Update: Meat CSAs elsewhere in the U.S.! I've made a nationwide Meat CSA Resources page for the Ethicurean that we can update with listings as we get them.