By Peter Duffin
The biggest problem I have with farmers market meats is that quality and consistency can be all over the map.
What you are purchasing at the market has been federally or provincially inspected, or at least it should have been, but it doesn't hurt to ask the vendor, "Who does your meat packing, and where are they are located?". If the vendor has no idea, then walk away. Better still, report your findings to the market manager.
Is the product sold on a satisfaction guaranteed basis?
In the past I've purchased elk minute-steaks and rib-eye bison steaks that were both problematic. The elk minute-steaks I bought were so tough you would have trouble putting a nail through them. The bison rib-eyes were unevenly cut with 3/4 inch on one side tapering off to 1/4 inch on the other. You couldn't exactly tell there was a problem from looking at them in the package because they were frozen and overlapping one another. Grilling an unevenly cut steak can be a complete disaster.
I got replacement meat from the elk vendor, who claimed he had been the victim of some sloppy meat cutting practices, but the bison vendor didn't seem to understand why I would be complaining about the rib-eye. Cutting was something he said he did not have much control over. 'I should learn to live with it' was the message I was getting. Guess which of the two got my future business?
This leads me to two other issues…
Just about all meat available in today's markets, farmers or otherwise, has been cut by meat cutters, line workers who are not butchers. Butchers know how to cut an animal down from nose to tail. They know about proper dry aging techniques. From meat colour, fat marbling, and meat firmness they can tell how the animal was fed and whether it was 100% pasture raised or finished on grain. Determining whether an animal is young or old is something else they are qualified to do. Younger animals = great steaks, older = hamburger. Don't let anyone try to tell you otherwise!
Unfortunately, for the sake of profit, major corporations have 'dumbed down' the trade. They don't need or want butchers, just cheaply paid workers who can cut meat up in a hurry. This sort of dumbing down has been going on in the industry since the early '60s. Regrettably it is the kind of service that most small independent meat farmers are stuck with.
Want to be assured the best quality meat for your dollar? Then buy from a shop that employs in-house butchers. That way you know a quality animal has been butchered properly to provide you, the consumer, with quality meat. My Toronto fav is The Healthy Butcher.
The second major problem I have is that for the most part farmers aren't the greatest of cooks. Farming takes up most of their day. Very few have any time to develop culinary skills. Next to none know how to cook all parts of an animal. Turn it into a burger, grill it, or throw it into a crock pot are not the answers today's consumers are looking for. If farmers do not have reliable recipe information at their booths, or can't refer you to a website or a cookbook that will guide you through it all successfully, then again I would walk away. Providing proven preparation guidelines is an integral part of successful meat selling. I contend that those farmers who feel otherwise are just in it for the money, and to my mind really don't care that much about your eating enjoyment.
You should be able to visit the farm. Most legit farmer vendors will not discourage your interest in a visit. Personally, some of my farm visits have given me a few unexpected surprises. Being an advocate of 100% grass feeding, too often I have visited Mr. Nice Guy Farmer only to find out he's feeding his animals grain most every day. Well, strike that guy off the list.
Stick with a reputable butcher shop, or go to the farm and buy direct from a farmer you can trust.