As buying local becomes more popular, some people are starting to look for local meat, but one thing often gets in the way. They need to buy a whole or half pig or beef, and they don't like frozen meat, because they think it is inferior to fresh. In fact, one year, when we decided to process our turkeys early than usual, several regular customers said they didn't want one because it would have to be frozen.
When meat is properly wrapped and frozen, there is no difference in quality or taste. The main reason I prefer getting our meat custom processed is because they have the equipment to properly wrap and freeze it. When we have our meat done professionally, it will last in the freezer a loooong time! We found some two-year-old pork in our freezer one time, and it tasted fine. If we butcher and freeze meat, it only lasts about a month before it gets freezer burn, and then it's blech!
I suspect that this bias against frozen meat developed a long time ago when they didn't do such a good job of wrapping and freezing, and it just gets passed on from generation to generation. Also, marketers in this country know that people view fresh as higher quality, so the cheapest quality meat is sold frozen because it will last longer (and can be sold more cheaply), and the better quality is sold fresh, which perpetuates the myth that fresh tastes better. There is a lot that goes into the taste of meat, and most of it goes back to the way the animals were raised and what they were fed, as well as the breed and age of the animal. It always makes me smile when people have turkey at our house in the middle of summer and "just know it's fresh because it tastes so good!" We only butcher turkeys in November -- the Saturday before Thanksgiving, so everyone can have their fresh turkeys.
Lockers who do custom processing of beef, pork, etc., (versus poultry) typically give you the meat frozen, and this is a good thing. If you stack 150 pounds of meat in a home freezer, it's going to take forever to freeze. The quality of a commercial freezer is a lot better than a home freezer, so the meat is frozen quickly and thoroughly. It's in wire trays, so there is air circulation around the meat. The meat is so solidly frozen that it doesn't even begin to defrost on the drive home, which for me is half an hour. If you tap it on the counter, it sounds like a hammer.
Our poultry processor gives us the meat chilled, rather than frozen, but it's a one-day process. We drop off chickens or turkeys in the morning and pick up packages of meat in the afternoon. I've heard that freezing meat the day it's butchered can make it tough, so we always wait about three days before freezing it. Freezing birds in our freezer is a fairly even process, because the birds are not flat, so air can circulate around them -- rather than flat packages of steaks and roasts, which would just be a giant cube of meat that would take forever to freeze in a home freezer.
I suspect that some people do not want to buy frozen meat because they don't know how old it is. However, when you buy meat directly from the farmer, you know how old it is. The animal will not be delivered to the locker for processing until it is sold, because it can't be frozen until it is cut up and packaged, and they need your directions before doing that.
When you buy a whole or half pig or beef, you call the locker and tell them exactly what you want -- how many pounds of ground, any patties or sausage, how many roasts, and what cuts of steak you want. If, for example, you don't want pork chops, they'll just add that to your ground or they can cut it up as stew meat. If you don't want something -- like tongue -- just tell them that you don't want it. Although we don't eat tongue, our dogs do, so we get it for them. We get everything -- we even ask the butcher for the bones, so we can give them to the dogs. Raw bones can be digested and don't cause the problems that cooked bones do, such as perforating the stomach. They can also smoke bacon and hams.
If you are accustomed to buying meat in one pound packages, the idea of having 150 pounds of pork could be daunting, but it is not as much as it sounds like. That will fit in two or three picnic coolers, so you would only need a small deep freezer. At only 25 to 50 pounds, a lamb will fit in most refrigerator freezers.
Once you get a freezer full of meat, you get kind of spoiled, because it is really convenient. The other nice thing about buying directly from a farmer is that you can go to the farm and see how the animals live, and you can ask about things that are important to you, like drug use and feeding practices. So, if you know a small farmer who sells whole pork, beef, goat, or lamb, give it a try. If you don't know anyone, check out Local Harvest or Market Maker to find a farm near you. And be sure to contact them sooner rather than later, because many sell out months in advance. All of our 2010 pigs were reserved in March, and they were not processed until November, so it may also require some planning ahead.