Developing a close relationship with farmers takes time and proximity, two things that are frustratingly hard to come by, especially for urban dwellers. While CSAs and farmer's markets have certainly made it easier to access great produce, the consumer-farmer link remains hazy when it comes to sustainable meat. Luckily, CrowdCow is here to change all that: the online platform serves as a means to easily connect consumers with transparent producers of sustainable meat.
For CrowdCow founders Joe Heitzeberg and Ethan Lowry, the idea of starting a crowdsourcing platform for meat stemmed from a fantasy: one where folks living in urban centers would have the same access to farmers as people who lived right next door to them.
Heitzeberg recounts how a former colleague unknowingly provided him with the idea that would spawn his business.
“He’d come to work one day, and he was all excited, saying, ‘I’m getting my cow on Friday!’”
When pressed for details, the employee recounted how every year, he went to a farm to purchase an entire cow’s worth of beef, splitting it with a few neighbors.
“I was intrigued on so many levels,” says Heitzeberg. He loved the idea of transparency with regards to meat, but when he looked into developing the same sort of relationship with a farmer as his colleague had, he encountered busy farmers with long wait lists. It was no surprise to Heitzeberg that so few people could take the time to participate in such a model, even if they liked the idea: many people can't even take the time to regularly attend the farmer's market, much less contact and coordinate with a farmer.
“They want that community, that direct connection," he says. "But it's very difficult to get that in today's world.”
Instead, he and Lowry began brainstorming the idea of “crowdfunding” a cow: retaining the transparency and sustainability that comes with buying meat directly from the producer, but developing a system that would take the heavy-lifting out of it for the consumer. An online platform would reinforce the direct connection with farmers without forcing busy consumers out of their homes.
CrowdCow was born.
“We did our first event and we sold it in 24 hours - the whole cow,” says Heitzeberg. “And just sort of snowballed from there over the last two years.”
How CrowdCow Works
A user looking for sustainable meat has an easy time of it with CrowdCow: users simply enter their zip code and are taken to the auction page of one or several nearby cows, which have been purchased directly from the farmer by CrowdCow, one cow at a time.
Each page features a variety of cuts or packages that can be purchased: users can buy as little as a pound of ground beef or a few steaks or as much as a hundred-dollar share with a combination of bone-in ribeyes, short ribs, and burger patties.
When all of the major cuts have been sold, the cow is “tipped,” slaughter is coordinated with the farmer, and the cow is sent to a processor, where the meat is dry-aged, broken down into cuts, boxed on dry ice, and shipped via ground service directly to the consumer.
The system combines the best of the slow food movement and modern industrialization.
“Industrialization scale is great for all the stuff after the animal's dead and processed,” says Heitzeberg, noting that combining this ease and scale with a slow-food philosophy applied to the important steps – raising, feeding, and slaughtering the animal – CrowdCow has made quality meat more widely accessible.
“You don't come to us because it's funny to buy a cow on the Internet," he says. "You may come to us for that at first, but you'll stick around because we're going to show you beef worthy of your attention.”
Flexibility, Transparency, Quality
One major benefit of CrowdCow over a meat CSA is that consumers can choose exactly the cuts and the quantity they want: with the latter model, singles often find themselves with more meat than they know what to do with, and folks who love steaks but don't have the time to cook up a long braise waste money on cuts they won't cook.
But while there's certainly more choice with CrowdCow, the platform also encourages consumers to step out of their comfort zones to learn more about different cuts, different breeds, or different raising methods which, Heitzeberg notes, "really make a difference in terms of the animal and what you'll get out of it and the flavors.”
CrowdCow also offers cuts that many others don’t, including organ meats. Some meat CSAs include these, but more often than not, farmers know that liver and oxtail are acquired tastes and will either sell them locally, feed them to pets, or, unfortunately, sometimes throw them away.
For CrowdCow, however, things are slightly different.
“We're buying the whole animal, harvesting and selling the whole animal," says Heitzeberg. "So we've always, from day one, sold the heart and the tongue and the kidney. All the stuff that we can.”
While there’s no obligation to take these cuts, Heitzeberg notes that many people who are interested in cooking offal choose to procure it from CrowdCow, thanks to the transparency it offers – a key element of its model.
CrowdCow takes the time to vet each individual farm, visiting sites across the country and even tasting the meat before it's sold on the site. The team also helps farmers explain their methods to consumers via the cow's individual auction page: not only can consumers see the exact GPS coordinates of the farm and see images of the animals, but they'll discover whether farmers have sought out third-party verifications such as the organic certification, what they feed their cattle, and above all, why they do things the way they do them.
“Our idea is to shine the spotlight on the farmer," says Heitzeberg. "Empower the consumer. But we're not going to tell farmers what to do, and we're not going to tell consumers what to eat.”
The CrowdCow model is working – today, the team has hundreds of ranchers who are signed up on a waiting list in hopes that they’ll be able to put one of their cows up for auction and help bring sustainable meat to even more consumers across the country.
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