Ask somebody in your chain grocery store’s meat department the history behind the T-bone you’re about to purchase and you’ll probably get a blank stare, if there’s even anybody behind the counter.
Ask Farm Bureau member Mike Belleville about the meat in his Wood County store and you’ll get a lesson on not only how it was produced, but also creative suggestions on how to have it cut, stored, prepared and cooked.
Along with his brother Jamie, nephew Bruce, and son Ivan, the fourth-generation meat processor owns and operates Belleville Brothers Market, a fixture in the Bowling Green community since 1912.
The Bellevilles represent a rare breed.
By working with local meat processors such as the Bellevilles, consumers have access to people who can provide knowledge, choice and confidence about the products they are selling. Many processors even go beyond the big three meat sources of beef, pork and poultry, if requested.
“We control the product from the time it’s four to six months old to the time it’s on the plate,” said Ivan, who operates the family’s meat processing facility in nearby North Baltimore, where Belleville-raised beef is readied for sale. (Note: Since this story was published, the brothers have closed their meat processing facility.
On a contracted basis, a broker in southern Ohio delivers 80 to 140 calves to the 900-acre Belleville farm, where the family raises each in the same manner. “We feed our own corn, mixed with soybean meal we get from a local farmers’ co-op,” Ivan said.
“We still pick ear corn, put it in corn cribs and then grind the corn cob right in there. It’s kind of the old-fashioned way of doing it,” Mike said.
It’s that old-fashioned mindset that has third- and fourth-generation customers thanking the Bellevilles for their consistent product.
“People know what they’re getting (when they buy from us) and it gives them peace of mind,” Ivan said.
First-time visitors to a local meat shop may be surprised to learn they actually have choices.
“The bigger stores will tell you these are the cuts we have or it’s nothing at all,” Mike said. “We try to give people what they’re asking for and what they want, not necessarily what we have to offer them.”
A unique option, available at most local processors, allows consumers to avoid weekly stops at the meat section by offering bulk quantities. Known as “freezer meat,” because it normally takes a chest freezer to store all the meat, a quarter, half or even whole animal is purchased as a unit and processed to the buyer’s specification. Some families can knock out an entire year’s supply of meat through this process.
At Belleville Brothers, a side of beef consists of approximately 350 pounds of meat and can be broken down into different cuts including, but not limited to, roasts, steaks, filets and ground beef, and can even include nontraditional cuts for ethnic cuisines.
“A lot of times parents will purchase a whole beef and divvy it up quarter by quarter with their kids,” Ivan said. “It makes for a nice gift.” Some processors will even provide the option to rent storage space in their freezer, a concept known as a meat locker, for those who don’t have adequate space.
For an even more local taste, the Bellevilles, along with numerous other processors, offer custom processing, whereby customers may have their own animals processed for their own consumption.
Some producers, including Madison County Farm Bureau member Brent Hostetler, even raise animals to sell for custom processing. Hostetler annually feeds out 15 to 30 cattle and sells them in quarters and halves to his customers. Word of mouth has built a business that sends him a few new customers each year, including Plain City resident Sherri Moore.
When Moore learned Hostetler sold freezer beef, she said she wanted to sign up immediately. “I probably drove him crazy with phone calls to get on his list,” she said. Moore wanted to know more about where her family’s beef came from, so working with Hostetler offered her that peace of mind.
She said working with Hostetler was simple and he even helped her decide how to have the beef cut.
“Having the meat right there in the freezer is a great convenience,” Moore said, adding she would definitely recommend consumers work with local producers to purchase their meat. “The quality of the meat and knowing where it came from is worth it.”
Still, freezer beef isn’t for everybody. Hostetler said some customers won’t use the entire supply of meat. Once, while delivering meat to a customer, he realized she still had most of the supply she had purchased the year before and wanted him to dispose of it. “I found a family who needed it and told my customer she was better off buying meat at the supermarket,” he said.
Besides the traditional meats, the Bellevilles also custom process about 200 deer each season, as well as a handful of lambs. A new trend has also seen a few producers have livestock custom processed to sell at local farmers’ markets.
“We schedule a time for the animals to come in, then we’ll sit down with the customer and go over the order, and figure out how many individuals might be splitting it, how they like their steaks cut, how they want them wrapped and what size packages they like,” Ivan said. The beef is then aged (see side story, pg. 17) seven days to 14 days based upon what is requested, then frozen and packaged when it’s ready to be picked up. Usually the whole process takes about two weeks, but can be longer during the busy summer.
Although Hostetler offered to deliver meat to Moore, she picked it up at the processor herself, where she learned a great deal about the facility. “They informed me of how they are certified by state inspectors and how everything has to be kept clean,” she said. “They couldn’t have been any nicer and they gave me even more comfort (with the buying decision).”
The Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) and, on an interstate level, the United States Department of Agriculture, have strict licensing and inspection guidelines processing facilities must follow.
“We have (ODA) inspectors here on a daily basis,” Ivan said, of the Bellevilles’ state-inspected facilities. “On harvesting days they are here all day, and on processing days they come in unannounced. They could be here an hour, four hours or an entire shift.”
All packages leaving the processing facility are labeled with the state-approved insignia and the processing plant number, so meat can be traced back to its source. Processors are required to include the wholesale cut, retail cut and species on the label.
Belleville’s processing facility in North Baltimore sells 75 percent of its meat in sides and quarters, but also sells retail cuts. For a larger selection, consumers should check out the market in Bowling Green, where, in addition to Belleville beef, Ohio-raised pork, poultry and a whole line of accessory foods may be purchased.
Also for purchase is the regional favorite porkalean, a 100 percent whole-pork sausage patty, created around 30 years ago to help producers promote pork at the Wood County Fair. More than 12,000 porkaleans are supplied by the Bellevilles and sold at the fair every year. An annual porkalean-a-thon, a 15-minute porkalean-eating challenge, where contestants raise money via pledges for each sandwich eaten, generates proceeds that support fair exhibitor premiums and sales.
Mike said his customers alone give him enough evidence that the family business is making a difference. “People tell me all the time that they’re just glad we’re still here,” he said.
Want to Visit?
Belleville Brothers Market
239 S. Main Street
Bowling Green, OH 43402
Why’s meat aged?
There is such a thing as meat that is too fresh. According to the Bellevilles, the meat they sell is normally aged about 10 days before leaving their facility. Aging is a process where enzymes tenderize meat, since meat becomes hardened during the slaughtering process.
Ohio State University Extension Meat Specialist Dan Frobose said it takes about seven days of aging for meat to return to the level of tenderness it was at the time it was harvested. It then takes 10 to 28 days of aging to improve upon that tenderness, which is why many restaurants advertise their steaks as being aged 28 days.
Mike Belleville’s rule of thumb for keeping meat in a freezer is one year for beef, six months for pork and three months for poultry. If frost is gathering on the meat, or if there is a gray or greenish tint around the edges of the package, it may be best to discard the product.
The Bellevilles suggest visiting a local appliance dealer if a chest freezer is needed for freezer beef. Most will probably know what it takes to fit bulk meat products and at what temperatures to keep them frozen.
Cooking your Cuts
Ohio State University Extension Meat Specialist Dan Frobose said consumers can learn a great deal from local meat producers, especially when it comes to advice for cooking cuts of meat. “Consumers can get a really positive eating experience out of a lower price cut of beef if they know how to cook it,” he said.
Frobose said meats from the middle of the cow (mainly steaks) will normally be cheaper from a local processor, while ground meats will be more expensive because all the meat is from one animal. He said many fast-food hamburgers are comprised of a “recipe” of meats from multiple sources. “Be assured that when you buy locally, you are getting the meat from one animal that it is of a superior eating quality and at a fair price,” he said.