Search for local food brings people to packing houses

By Burton Speakman

The area’s packing houses are getting busier with more people purchasing beef directly from the farmer.

David Horst, owner of Horst Packing in Columbiana, said he has seen business increase four or five times what it was since he started in the business in 1981.

People want options in their food. Some look for grass-fed beef, while others are looking for grain-fed, he said. The customer can choose how the meat will be cut. The meat Horst sells in bulk comes from area farms, while the steaks and other meat in the freezer are purchased commercially.

“The cuts are then hung two to three weeks to dry age,” Horst said. “The cooler where they age is kept between 33 and 34 degrees.”

Dry aging allows moisture to escape from the meat and intensifies its flavor, he said. Typically, meat sold at a grocery store is wet aged and has soaked in its juices. Dry-aged meat also loses weight as fluid escapes from the meat. Dry aging is typical at local processing facilities.

Typically, Horst does custom work four days a week, while saving one day a week to prepare meat for commercial customers, Horst said.

The packing facility is “seasonally busy” with business slowing for a few months and then picking up around the time of the Canfield Fair and lasting until February, he said.

“If you call us in August or September for processing, it might be January or February before we can kill it,” Horst said.

There are more people who come specifically to purchase local products. His customers also are asking more questions beyond where the meat came from, said Terry Jones, owner of Jones Processing in Hartford. They also want to know what the beef was fed and if it received hormones or antibiotics.

“It makes people feel better to know where their meat is coming from,” he said.

Unlike Horst, most of the meat that Jones sells by the quarter or half comes from his own farm.

In addition to selling by the quarter and half, Jones also has a frozen-meat case with steaks, hot dogs and some other items, he said.

One of the issues with purchasing beef by the half or quarter is it can be cost prohibitive for many people, said Eric Barrett, extension educator for Mahoning County.

“It’s hard for a lot of people to afford that kind of money all at once,” he said. “It’s very different than going to a store and just picking up some steaks.”

The issue is that many of the local farmers who sell beef don’t have any sort of retail component where they can sell individual cuts of meat, Barrett said.

An example of the price difference can be shown in the price of purchasing half a cow. At Horst Packing, a half of beef that is cut, processed and wrapped costs $2.59 a pound, and a half typically weighs between 350 to 400 pounds, Horst said. This adds up to an initial cost of more than $900.

The half will include steaks, roasts and ground beef.

“Overall, the cost per pound is probably a little cheaper than what you would pay in a grocery store,” he said.

For those who think a half is cost prohibitive but still want to buy a larger order, Jones said he offers a quarter, with part of the front quarter and part of the hind quarters.

It takes roughly 4 square feet of freezer space to hold a quarter of beef compared to about 8 cubic feet for a half, Jones said. Crystal Carlson, from Pasture Perfect Beef in Grove City, Pa., said she had a lot of customers who would complain about the cost of purchasing these large cuts of beef or say they didn’t have enough freezer space.

So they set out to provide another option, she said.

Economically, buying in that kind of bulk doesn’t make sense when “a lot of people are living paycheck to paycheck,” she said. So Pasture Perfect went through the paperwork and inspections required by the state and attained a retail license in 2011.

“We now sell beef by the cut just like a grocery store,” Carlson said. “It makes a little more sense for most people.”

Selling smaller packages has boosted business “quite a bit,” she said. Pasture Perfect sells meat that is raised only on their own farm.

“We invite people to come out to our farm and tour it to see what we do,” Carlson said.

By seeing the operation, it gives people more confidence in the farmer and in what they’re going to eat, she said.

“There’s absolutely a huge local food movement right now,” Carlson said.

In addition to their location in Grove City, Pasture Perfect also sells its products at the Northside Farmers Market each week in Youngstown.

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