From animals grazing in the field to those hanging in the meat locker, a group of University of Arizona agriculture students are getting the full livestock experience.
A cadre of graduate and independent study collegians are learning first-hand about the life of a rancher by getting real mud on their boots at the UA’s Meat Sciences Lab where they get involved in management of cattle herds. And because the lab is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a harvester and processor of all meat animal species, the students staff what is believed to be the only weekly student-run sale of meat products in the U.S.
The store is open for just three hours each Friday afternoon on the UA farm on North Campbell Avenue.
“While students work alongside experienced meat cutters in preparation of product, I developed the program to allow them to gain business experience,” says Meat Scientist John Marchello.
Calling it a win-win-win — for students, consumers, and the laboratory — Marchello says, “We’ve seen a tremendous growth in sales over the past three years. This weekly event helps us move product in volume and pretty much whatever we put in the freezer case on Friday sells out. There’s usually no leftovers.”
During a recent Friday afternoon visit, ox tail was the specialty item of the day although packaged products range from both grain-fed and grass-fed beef in all cuts to deer, elk, buffalo, pork, and sometimes, emu.
“We have a large inventory of every retail cut you’d find in a grocery store as well as some you might not see as often,” says student meat sale manager Kevin Whitehurst. “Although we always sell a lot of hamburger, our biggest seller is New York strip and rib eye steaks — we generally run out of those every week.”
Whitehurst says the students like the experience, which explains why they’re almost always smiling.
“Another thing that makes us cool is we regularly carry 100 percent naturally organic free-range Arizona grass-fed beef that is not often found in grocery meat markets.”
Marchello says the 50 to 75 customers who come by the sales buy between $1,500 and $3,000 worth of product every week.
“Our sales increased 200 percent last year,” adds Whitehurst.
He explains that everything is done in-house. “When we sell grass-fed beef, we bring the animal in and own it from the start to the end. Everything is done within 24 hours prior to the sale so our steaks are fresh cut and vacuum packaged. While grocery stores use CO2 in their packaging to keep the meats natural color, ours is still fresh and will last longer in the refrigerator at home.”
Michael McKisson, who described himself as a semi-regular customer, said, “I’m not so sure I want to see an article about the meat sale because I don’t want to stand in line longer. I want this to be my little secret.”
Among first-time customers were Barbara and Don Thomas, a couple visiting from Canada. “We plan to eat well tomorrow,” Barbara said.
Tucsonan Constance Singleton and her two daughters were also new. “We always see the sale sign on the way to the mall, but we haven’t stopped before. Today we’ll take home a pork roast and stick it in the oven so it’s ready to eat when we come home from church.”
Availability of all cuts is not guaranteed each week, but when the freezers are full customers can find just about everything from bone-in to boneless steaks, oven-ready rib roasts, barbecue chuck ribs, whole brisket, and an olio of porterhouse, T-bone, New York Strip, sirloin tip, tri-tip and flank steak.
“If you want something to put in the oven or on the grill for supper, better get there early when the doors open at 3 p.m. because these animal science students are really becoming adroit at selling to the public and we tend to run out of product before we run out of public,” Marchello says.