Share-a-cow initiative finds success in Flanders

Summary

With his "crowdbutchering" initiative, pilot-cum-meat seller David De Keyser harkened back to an old Flemish tradition, gave it a snazzy 3.0 update and is receiving overwhelming response from customers

The good cow life

Pilot David De Keyser often flies cargo planes out of Brussels on long-haul flights. On those trips, with no announcements to make and no cabin crew to chat up, he had plenty of time to muse to himself. Such as days gone by, when meat was the thing that put food on his family’s table, so to speak.

The inventor of “crowdbutchering” in Flanders and the brains behind the website Deeleenkoe.be, or Share a Cow, he has continued that old family tradition in a quintessentially 21st-century way.

“My grandfather had a few butcher shops in Ghent, and my father had a meat company, dealing with pork,” he explains from his home in East Flanders, in the midst of preparing for a flight to Hong Kong. “When I was 18 years old, I saw this business changing from something artisanal to something that was purely industrial, and I didn’t like it very much.”

When De Keyser (pictured) turned 18, he went to flight school and became a pilot. “But there was always something at the back of my time telling me: ‘Hey, you should still have something to do with meat.’”

That something became deeleenkoe.be, a website that allows customers to buy a maximum of two shares in a cow, or more precisely, the usable meat after the cow has been slaughtered.

This seemingly 3.0 initiative has ancient roots. It’s long been the practice in Flanders for whole families or neighbours in a village to buy a share of a cow. The group pays the farmer to rear the animal and send it for slaughter when the time is right, while the proceeds are divided among the shareholders. Deeleenkoe.be offers city dwellers the same kind of arrangement; the only difference is that the cow is shared by total strangers.

“Sharing a cow is something that was done for ages,” De Keyser says. “My grandfather did it. It’s a traditional and a way to get pure, quality meat. But you end up with 80 to 100 kilos of meat in your freezer, and not everybody can handle that. We thought by using the internet we could share the cow in more pieces because we can attract more people to buy a share.” 

Cow economics

The size of the cows varies, but the economics look roughly like this: One cow weighs about 700 kilos, which means about 450 kilos of meat. Such of that is bone-in meat, so 350 to 400 kilos of pure meat is left. 

I’ve been overwhelmed by the response

- Deeleenkoe.be founder David De Keyser

Each package contains about 10 kilos, which a shareholder gets for €132.95, or about €13 a kilo, delivered to your door. The package consists of roasting beef, rump steak, entrecôte, stewing steak, hamburger, mince, Américain, shin, and chuck or shoulder steak, of first and second quality – all in packs of one kilo each.

“Everybody gets the good parts and also the less good parts – I wouldn’t call them the bad parts,” De Keyser says.

The only parts that are sold separately are the offal – tripe, heart, tongue, liver and so on – and the filet pur, reckoned to be the best piece, but not big enough to share among 35 customers. “If you want that, you can buy it separately,” explains De Keyser. “To my surprise, this is quite popular. So far, we’ve been able to sell all the additional parts as well.”

The business started on 1 May, with the idea of selling a cow a week. Just six weeks later, 22 cows have been sold. “I’ve been overwhelmed by the response,” De Keyser says. “I started this because even for me, as the son of a butcher, it’s not easy to find good meat nowadays. You really have to make an effort and drive an hour each way to find a good butcher.” 

Short food chains

Farmers selling meat to members of the public with only one intermediary is an example of what the Flemish government calls the korte keten, or short food chain, which has been a major platform of the outgoing administration’s farming strategy since they took office in 2009. 

Among the “quick win” initiatives that have received government support are efforts to encourage farm shops, which reduce the number of middlemen involved in a food transaction and encourage consumers to eat fresh, local and seasonal products.

According to a count taken at the beginning of 2013, there were 1,184 farm shops in Flanders, three times as many as in 2010, when the korte keten strategy was still finding its feet.

“The efforts we have made, such as the short-chain action plan, have clearly borne fruit,” agricultural minister Kris Peeters said at the time. “I’m delighted that more and more farmers are responding to the growing demand from consumers for local products by taking steps towards the processing and marketing of their own products.”

When it launched, Deeleenkoe.be attracted much media attention, something that rankles a few other farmers doing the same thing.

Kurt Sannen is an organic farmer in Diest, Flemish Brabant, who’s also president of Bio-Forum, which represents organic farmers. His grandfather and uncle also have a cow-sharing initiative. “There’s nothing new under the sun,” he says. “The people from Deeleenkoe.be have received a lot of publicity and a lot of attention because they have an attractive website. But there are farmers all over Flanders who have been doing the same sort of thing for more than 10 years. They just don’t have such attractive marketing. I think those initiatives also deserve some attention.”

He gives two examples, both in Limburg. “I’m thinking of Jos Declercq’s Natland farm in Sint-Truiden, which works with limousin cattle, a really beautiful breed. Then there’s the Herkenrode Boer in Hasselt; Pieter Coopmans is behind that, and he keeps Hereford cattle. Those are just two examples.”

Real meat

De Keyser says his initiative was based on one founding principle. “I wanted to do it in such a way that the cows would have a good life, with no antibiotics, no water injected into the meat to make it heavier. This way you can show customers: This is what meat really looks like. What you buy in the supermarket is no longer anything like the meat we were eating 50 or 60 years ago when they didn’t use all these tricks.” 

Farmers all over Flanders have been doing the same sort of thing for more than 10 years

- Bio-Forum president Kurt Sannen

That led to his choice of a dairy farmer in Ruislede, West Flanders. “What we were looking for initially was a farmer who had the same values, meaning the animals were raised in a normal way –  outside, with clean stables when they have to be inside, and eating natural food.”

De Keyser says supermarket meat typically comes from bull calves of two years or younger. For him, this is poor meat because the bulls are brought up too fast and they’re butchered too early. “We let the cows grow naturally, and they’re slaughtered at between four and six years of age,” he explains. “All females, and preferably they’ve calved at least once because that gives an extra something to the meat.”

Admirable sentiments, says Sannen from Bio-Forum, but the farmers he singled out are “truly sustainable. They have the Bio label, an independent sign of sustainability,” he says. “If you’re not good enough, you don’t get it.” 

Too fat

Sannen also criticises the Deeleenkoe.be choice of breed, the witblauw, or Belgian Blue, known for its ability to turn feed into lean muscle. The animal has “double-muscling”, which means it has more muscle fibres than other breeds, a condition known as hyperplasia. 

“The white-blue can’t be used in organic farming in Belgium because they can’t calve naturally,” Sannen says. “More than 90% of the calves of that breed are born by C-section because the cows are too fat and the birth canal is too small. And in the organic world we’re not just concerned about the environment but also for the animals. Performing a C-section at every birth is not responsible, we think." 

That’s why De Keyser hopes to expand the offer of cattle breeds in the next months. “We’re now working with Belgian white-blue, but you have so many more good cow breeds, like the West-Vlaamse rood and bleu d’Acquitaine. Of course, that will be more expensive. “We won’t be selling a cow a day with the new breeds, but we might sell one a week. But it’s not the idea to become a multinational.”

Photo by Filip Claus

With his crowdbutchering initiative, pilot-cum-meat seller David De Keyser harkened back to an old Flemish tradition, gave it a snazzy 3.0 update and receiving overwhelming response from customers.

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Flemish agriculture and horticulture

Flanders is an important global food exporter. The main agricultural activities differ from region to region – with pig, cow, vegetable and dairy-farming the most important. In recent years, the sector has been heavily affected by the economic downturn and falling global food prices.
Green - Organic farming accounts for just a fraction of Flemish agriculture, but the sector has slowly been growing in recent years.
Greenhouse - Flanders has been a trailblazer in mapping the carbon footprint of agriculture.
Forgotten - Flemish horticulture’s “Bel’Orta” label aims to promote lesser-known vegetables like parsnip, parsley root and kohlrabi.
90

percent of Belgium’s fruit harvest comes from Flanders

25 982

agriculture businesses in Flanders in 2011

51 530

people employed in Flemish agriculture and horticulture in 2011