Is There Such as Thing as Seasonal Meat?

As a proud member of the Ploughshare Farms CSA, I've gotten the hang of eating seasonally to some degree -- beet time still feels like a challenge, for example, and I always run out of preserved summer vegetables long before the last snow shoveling round. But lately, as I've been boosting the number of  backyard barbecues, I've been wondering about a different type of seasonal eating. I began wondering: does meat have a season, too? Here's what I discovered in talking to farmers and a co-op manager: the answer is yes, but also no.

Tackling that "no" first, it seems that in the B.F. era -- before freezers -- meat in an area like Minnesota had to be more seasonal by necessity, but as nifty inventions like in-barn heating and freezers appeared, farming changed. Turkeys that used to be eaten in November because that's when they matured could now be raised all year, and lamb could still be a spring delicacy, but also enjoyed in the other three seasons as well.

Meat used to be very seasonal because a herd was raised in the same way as a crop and they all went to market at the same time, says Charli Mills, marketing manager Valley Natural Foods in Burnsville. Now, they can stagger the lifecycles to provide meat year-round.

To eat meat close to its "season" now would be a distinct challenge, unless you have a close enough relationship with a farmer to know when that farm's chickens, cattle, pigs, and other livestock mature, and are processed. In some ways, the only really seasonal meat these days is wild game, and figuring out those seasons is as simple as glancing at the hunting regulations for each state.

With that said, there is a "yes" to the seasonal question, too: basically, if you want to eat meat that's at its peak and is grass-fed, make room in the freezer right now. When an animal eats grass, it stores omega-3s in its system, says Mike Noble of Farm on Wheels in Kenyon, Minnesota, and when they eat dry hay in the winter, they only get about a fourth of those nutrients. The farm raises chickens, cows, pigs, lamb, ducks, turkey, and geese, and Noble notes that if someone sticks to the nutrient-dense, grass-fed animals year round, they'd need to eat much less meat in general to get what they need. So: eat seasonally, in order to eat less and get more.

"In the height of summer, we've been consuming lots of fresh vegetables, so our bodies are in balance," says Noble. "What we need to do is take that into the winter so you have the right mix of nutrients, and grass-fed meat can do that."

The commercial meat industry is built on selling tender, juicy meat -- particularly beef -- and having it available every day of the year, says Noble. That's what's led to grain feeding and confinement lots that don't allow animals to build up any ligaments in their muscles. No ligaments means more fat, and that leads to a juicy steak, but at a pretty high cost, Noble thinks. "We've lost so much with the industrial model. Not only is there so much saturated fat, but now the timing of getting a carcass from the butcher to the grocery store can be almost two months."

At Farm on Wheels, they freeze the meat three days after processing, and encourage people to buy deep chest freezers rather than rely on side-by-side freezers next to the refrigerator. The self-defrosting mechanism in those freezers creates temperature variations that can damage the meat, Noble says.

With all the talk about the high nutritional value of grass-fed meats and the need to store them up now, suddenly I'm planning a freezer shopping trip and envisioning grilling in the winter. But all this thinking about the seasonality of meat has created a more subtle change too: I'm really looking at what's on the grill, and trying to think beyond just buying locally. I'm also pondering when the animal might have lived, how it was raised, and the way it got from the pasture to my plate.

Simply building more awareness of when an animal lived can create a connection between us and what's being eaten, believes Elizabeth O'Sullivan, of Auntie Annie's Fields near Faribault. Putting aside the grass-fed vs. grain-fed issues and question of freezer suitability, there's a deeper cause at play here, a movement toward more deliberate eating when it comes to meat.

O'Sullivan says, "When you're consciously eating meat in season, you're no longer thinking of meat as if it were produced on an assembly line. You're acknowledging the life of that animal and the rhythms of our seasons. That feeds your mind and spirit, as well as the body."


Elizabeth Millard
is an avid foodie and an even more passionate advocate of local and sustainable eating. Her writing has been featured in Mpls. St. Paul Magazine, CNN Online, StarTribune, and Northwest Airlines Magazine – back when it existed. She’s also often written a food column for the local edition of The Onion, and interviewed chefs for Twin Cities Luxury & Fashion.