Once the provenance of farm-fresh produce, local community-supported agriculture programs are beefing up their shares.
Two Jackson County ranches plan to launch meat CSAs this winter, pledging to provide subscribers with monthly deliveries of organic and sustainably raised beef, pork, lamb, goat and chicken. The model helps farmers financially weather the slow season while offering options to customers who don't have the funds or freezer space to purchase whole or half animals.
"You kind of get a balanced mix," says Tim Franklin, manager of Yale Creek Ranch near Jacksonville. "You have something different every month."
Yale Creek and Willow-Witt Ranch outside Ashland are the area's first meat CSAs, says Wendy Siporen, executive director of THRIVE, a nonprofit advocacy group for Rogue Valley food producers. A farming concept that has existed locally for about 15 years, a CSA signs shareholders who contribute to the farm's yearly operating budget by purchasing a portion of the season's harvest in advance.
While CSAs typically operate during the summer and fall, Yale Creek and Willow-Witt purposely planned theirs when most farms lie fallow. The meat comes packaged and frozen in monthly deliveries.
"It also gives us income in the winter," says Suzanne Willow, co-owner of Willow-Witt, which sells sausage and eggs at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market in Ashland.
The demand for Willow-Witt meat has only grown over the ranch's 25-year history since Willow's daughter raised her first hog for 4-H. Willow, 63, and partner Lanita Witt, 59, soon added meat goats and chickens to the mix. To comply with government regulations for retail sale, the ranchers last year started processing their pigs and meat goats, also called chevon, at a Springfield facility certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Taylor's Sausage in Central Point makes the ranch's sausage to Willow's specifications. Male goats that aren't suited as pack animals come to that end, as well as sows past their prime for breeding. Goat milk and roasting or frying chickens also can be purchased on the 440-acre ranch off Shale City Road.
"Our goal is to really use every animal to its absolute, ultimate use," Willow says.
CSA members should adopt the same approach, experts say, both to maximize their investment and to sustain local agriculture. Like CSA produce boxes that contain unfamiliar vegetables, meat CSAs will yield a number of lesser cuts, such as shanks and shoulders. Chefs agree these more muscular, tougher parts have the most flavor, but many home cooks need to reacquaint themselves with slow cooking using low heat to bring out the meat's tenderness.
Meat CSAs also contain "premium" cuts like loins, chops and steaks that are suited to the type of quick cooking most Americans prefer. Instead of being assessed by the cut, prices are fixed and apply to the entire share. Both Willow-Witt and Yale Creek charge $10 per pound for 5-pound shares.
Their price not only reflects wholesome husbandry, ranchers say, but quality and flavor. Yale Creek is certified USDA organic, and Willow anticipates the USDA will grant her ranch its organic certification this spring following a two-year process. Livestock at both properties are raised on pasture.
"The taste is kind of really incomparable," Willow says, adding that her Berkshire and "blue butt" pigs develop more marbling, put on more fat and yield pink, tender meat.
"It's not red, and it's not the other white meat," she says. "It's a night-and-day difference."
Kicking off its CSA this week with a Saturday "open-barn" and farm tour for members, Willow-Witt sells exclusive shares of pork or goat, or a combination of the two. For an additional $10 per month, the ranch will include pork and goat sausages.
Also raising pork and goat, Yale Creek includes beef, lamb and chicken in its CSA. Beef-only shares can be purchased for $8 to $7 per pound. Beef wieners and salami cost an additional $7.50 per month.
Both ranches require six-month subscriptions that buy 50 total pounds of meat. Supplying 100-pound shares, too, Yale Creek starts its CSA in January.
"We'd like to do it year-round," Franklin says.
For more information, visit the Web sites www.willowwittranch.com and www.yalecreekranch.com. Call Willow at 890-1998 or Franklin at 899-1974.
Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail email@example.com.