Cash cows.
Reuters/Jim Young
Cash cows.
THEY'RE ON GRASS

A crowdfunding startup is working with ranchers to let people become “steakholders” in individual cows

By Chase Purdy

The sharing economy already allows people unfettered access to cars, apartments, and pets. Why not add grass-fed beef cattle to the list?

That’s exactly what Crowd Cow is doing. By working with seven beef ranchers along the West Coast, the company allows earnest foodies to pool their money and purchase a cow together, pick the cuts of meat they want, and have that meat delivered to their doorsteps. The service operates as a conduit for beef-hungry consumers and independent farmers, cutting out intermediaries like local supermarkets, where knowing the source of the beef can be difficult to determine. Crowd Cow markets itself as a fully transparent service, where there is no confusion over where beef came from because its customers are a single degree of separation removed from the farm.

The cattle are marketed as part of a sustainable agricultural model that treats its animals humanely. In fact, in a self-deprecating nod to foodie culture, the management at Crowd Cow links from the company website to a satirical clip from the comedy “Portlandia,” in which a couple in a restaurant agonize over the humane treatment of the chicken they’re about to order.

As absurdist as the clip may be, it strikes at the growing interest among American consumers in the grass-fed beef market. According to the Los Angeles Times, in the 1990s the US had only about 100 grass-fed beef producers. That number has since ballooned to more than 2,000. And people are willing to pay more for it, according to the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service: Recent government data show consumers are spending, on average, $8.75 per pound (pdf) for grass-fed chuck roast versus $4.96 per pound for typical grain-fed chuck roast beef. Annual retail sales of grass-fed beef have grown from about $2-3 million in the 1990s to more than $2.5 billion today, according to the LA Times.

Screenshot of Crowd Cow.

Crowd Cow users purchase shares of a cow, and in doing so become official “steakholders.” Once enough shares are purchased, the cow “tips,” and goes off the market. After the cow tipping, steakholders usually receive their beef within a week. For now, Crowd Cow only ships overnight to 15 states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington state, and Wyoming. Similar companies, including monthly subscription service ButcherBox, have cropped up to feed the rising demand for grass-fed beef, offering alternatives to commercial cuts.

Most of America’s meat comes from large-scale factory farms, as opposed to smaller independent operations. And for people who have been interested in buying grass-fed beef from independent farms, it can be a complicated process that requires finding a good rancher, and then purchasing—often up front—a year’s worth of beef at once.