A MOO-vable feast

Aimee Lyons, owner of a CrossFit gym, gets her delivery from Jessica Moore of PhillyCowShare: A cow and a half for gym members who signed up immediately when they learned of the deal.
Aimee Lyons, owner of a CrossFit gym, gets her delivery from Jessica Moore of PhillyCowShare: A cow and a half for gym members who signed up immediately when they learned of the deal. (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer)

PhillyCowShare has a meaty business: Delivering farm-raised, grass-fed beef to city folks.

Posted: March 03, 2011

PhillyCarShare members get wheels when they want them, without the hassle of car repairs and parking.

Members of the similar-sounding but dramatically different PhillyCowShare get farm-raised, grass-fed beef delivered to their doorsteps.

Both companies were founded by (different) University of Pennsylvania alumni, CarShare in 2002 and CowShare in 2010, but that's where the similarities end.

There is no riding around on cows.

Jessica Moore, who came to the city for a graduate degree in computer science and stayed to work and raise a family, was aware of CarShare when she started CowShare. But her idea had roots in southern Indiana.

"I grew up in Evansville, which is surrounded by farmland, and my family always had a deep freezer stocked with beef from cows we would buy from people we knew."

She missed that experience of eating close to the land.

So, when Moore was pregnant with her third child and planning a leave of absence from her full-time job, she explored home-based business ideas, hoping to do something with local food. And that family freezer came to mind.

Moore's one-year-old CowShare and 6-month-old daughter, Ruth, have grown exponentially. She started the company with orders from four friends and now has 50 to 75 customers.

Moore, 36, buys primarily from third-generation family farmer Larry Herr at Cressbrook Farm in Lowville, N.Y. He delivers the cattle live to Smucker's Meats, a family-run butcher in Mount Joy (in Lancaster County), where they are butchered and the meat is aged. Moore has the meat cut into roasts, steaks, chops, and hamburger, and frozen; each customer gets a variety of cuts from one particular cow.

Moore does the deliveries, giving small families the unusual opportunity to buy as little as one-eighth of a cow (40 pounds for $400), helping to keep small cattle farmers and butchers in business and to rebuild the link between the city and the surrounding land.

"There have been shares of vegetable-growing operations for a while now," says Herr. "But the idea of a share is just now coming to beef.

"Jessica is the first person I've worked with in a share," he says. "She's unique in that she goes into the urban market.

"It felt like a fad when we first started, but I've not been able to keep up with demand. I would never have predicted this. Working with Jessica, I could double my business, except that I don't have enough cows to do that."

It takes two to three years to increase a herd, Herr says.

He grew up on his family's 60 acres in Lancaster County and learned farming from his grandfather Clarence Herr.

"In the 1940s, my grandfather milked by hand and sold at local farmers markets. As a child of the Depression, he never wanted to borrow any money. But in the 1950s and '60s, we were told you have to get big, expand, do volume.

"The '70s were the time of the big feedlots in the West, 40,000 or more head in one location. That was the beginning of the end for us in the East to be competitive.

"So we went to a controlled-environment livestock model, in which we had layers [chickens laying eggs] in cages.

"But it didn't feel right. We knew there was too much manure for the amount of land we had. And we were bringing in grain from out of state to do it."

Herr's children were small when the time came to rethink the future.

"That's when we looked at Upstate New York," he says.

Now he raises Irish Black cattle, a quasi-heritage breed, on 500 acres, and hosts a wind-turbine tower there that is part of the largest wind farm on the East Coast, providing green energy for more than 200,000 homes in New York state.

Moore came to him late last summer and now, at 61, Herr is beginning to think his grandfather's way of living may be possible again.

Like Moore's family back in Indiana, the Smuckers grew up buying beef directly from a local farmer. But it was an option only if you knew a farmer.

There was no one in the middle, like Moore, to link farmers and butchers with city dwellers who are increasingly passionate about sourcing their food.

"Interest in grass-fed beef continues to increase, though I don't know numbers and percentages," says J. Michael Smucker, who is in charge of food safety for the family business.

Most of Moore's customers are families, but she also delivers to CrossFit gyms, which preach functional fitness achieved through a Paleolithic diet of 30 percent lean protein.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, she delivered a cow and a half to the CrossFit gym in King of Prussia for pickup later that day by like-minded gym members.

"I posted a blurb on our blog and 12 people signed up immediately," said gym owner Aimee Lyons.

CowShare members can buy a whole cow, which is 320 pounds of meat, for $2,240; a half, a quarter, or an eighth, which fills the freezer section of the typical home refrigerator.

Moore figures a family that eats about two pounds of beef a week would finish an eighth of a cow in about six months. But it could keep for a year in a deep freezer.

Grass-fed beef is has less fat than the conventionally raised kind, Moore tells customers, so it doesn't have to cook as long, and shouldn't be salted before cooking.

Shawn Markovich, 36, a stay-at-home mom with two young sons, says she "jumped into it whole hog, pardon my expression, with a quarter of a cow."

"I thought there was no way I would use that much, but sure enough I did - in three months. I just ordered another quarter."

"This is meat the way it was supposed to be raised," Markovich says, "and everyone notices."

For information: www.phillycowshare.com.

Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder.


comments powered by Disqus