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CONGER, Minn. — This tiny farm town near the Iowa border has lost the bank, cafe and hardware store through the years.

The bar remains, for obvious reasons, as does the local meat locker.

"We've grown every year since 2004," said Darcy Johnson, who co-owns Conger Meat Market with her husband, Jeremy.

That was the year they took helm of the shop from the family who'd run the place since 1935. The Johnsons possessed no meat-processing experience but bought the recipes along with the building.

The ye olde shop kept selling prized wieners, ring bologna, summer sausage and special dinner-plate cuts of meat until the pandemic "blew it up exponentially," Johnson said.

When grocery stores ran bare of bacon, the market's phone rang off the hook from farmers and customers alike well beyond Conger's 146-person population.

Almost four years later, there's still a brisk demand, as meat-eaters across America are looking for locally sourced options in a big-box world. That's especially true around the holidays, when families and friends gather for extravagant feasts and can pin down their argumentative uncle on the price of a quarter-beef.

If you're interested in buying meat in bulk to stock your freezer and save some money — or if you're just interested in eating more farm-to-table fare — here's advice on where to start from meat mavens:

Find your source

The rationale for choosing a local meat locker — like Conger Meat Market, which slaughters the animals in the back, or the St. Paul Meat Shop on Grand Avenue, which breaks down primal cuts — can vary as widely as flavors of smoked beef sticks.

Some came after the pandemic's supply-chain fragility. Others desire keeping dollars local. Still more want the wagyu beef grown 2 miles south of Conger behind a hoar-frosted fence-line.

Darcy Johnson said there are a few farmers a month that have cattle and pork ready all the time. She'll liaise with them to schedule animal deliveries as at the meat market; she's usually selling about a month ahead of time.

Butchers might crack jokes about PETA informants as they give you a tour, but lockers are slaughtering animals, and if they don't do so sanitarily, that's a big no-no. In Conger, an inspector with the U.S. Department of Agriculture watches animals pre- and post-mortem.

"There's a lot of trust involved," Jeremy Johnson said.

If folks want to skip the locker retail altogether, they can go straight to a farmer themselves. Many community supported agriculture (CSA) farms can sell cuts of meat — or that half-a-hog — straight from their website.

If folks don't know a CSA farmer, they can look up one in their region through the Minnesota Grown directory, which the Minnesota Department of Agriculture operates.

Choose an animal

Now that you know where you're placing your order, you need to consider what, as in, what animal, what cut and how much.

At Conger, aside from that one visit from yaks, two species are generally the focus: pigs and cattle. Pork is sweet, beef savory. But there's plenty of nuance in between, like Angus or wagyu — a Japanese breed of cattle rich in omega acids — that's akin to a sommelier detecting hints of oak in a chardonnay.

Same with hogs. Some places, like the Meat Shop, sell heritage-breed pigs such as red wattles, which are an entirely "different animal," said Nick Mangigian, the shop's retail operations director.

"If you just come in with the parameters of what you're trying to do, we can be the matchmakers," Mangigian said.

Spend time prowling the glass for options, too: duck, chicken, lamb or venison. This is the mighty Midwest, after all.

Pay for quality

The market price for Angus runs about $3 a pound at the moment. Conger adds another $1 for processing, aka, breaking it down into edible portions, from steaks to ground beef to soup bones. The market boxes up the meat for pick-up or delivery (even to the Twin Cities).

With a quarter-beef weighing around 250 pounds, that $1,000 might seem hefty. But 1 pound of meat generally feeds four people, so this food could last an average-size family into March Madness and beyond. But you can split the cost (and meat) with friends to ease the sticker-shock.

You also might want to consider buying another freezer if you don't already have one, as you'll have quite a lot of meat to keep fresh (unless you're interested in canning). That'll cost you at least $100.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's retail report, boneless rib roast at the supermarket ran generally below $20 a pound this past month. That cut was more expensive at the St. Paul and Conger shops.

But the independent butcher is not purchasing in bulk. Plus, the meat is hand-cut, often on-site. In Conger, the team breaks down about five to six animals a day. They all chip in, deboning, grinding or packaging.

On a Monday three weeks ago, Luverne Brune said he'd been grinding hamburger for a couple of decades.

"It's a lot easier now than in the old days," said Brune, hefting a blue tub of pink meat.

Take a cut

For cattle, flank steaks are the abdomen. Chuck is shoulder. In pork, there's spare ribs and back bacon. Jerky, for example, comes from the "round," or the hindquarters.

"Honestly, you can't do a lot else with it," Jeremy Johnson said. "It does most of the work."

Prime rib and rib-eye both come from the rib. But if you're thinking of the massive stack attached to Fred Flintstone's vehicle, that's probably a bone-in rib.

Mangigian rattles off the steer's anatomy, noting synonymous terms like the Americans' "sirloin cap" as the picanha in Brazil. Some customers ask for offal (organ meats) for stews.

"The chuck tender is not very tender," Mangigian said. "But the teres major is pretty tender, and it gets a lot more blood flow than a filet mignon."

Butchers will also smoke, age or season the meat. At Conger, they'll age the beef for 14 days. To demonstrate, Jeremy Johnson pushed back the thick door of the freezer, where pink carcasses dangled from harnesses.

"There's actually 40 beef hanging in the cooler," he said. "What we harvest today, we'll cut two weeks from today."

In Conger, there's a small ramp out back for the hogs and cattle dropped off during the day, plus the glistening retail center out front, where glass cases carry stacks of fat, red steaks and jerky.

Preparation for the holiday season involved roughly 1,000 pounds of aged prime rib.

"If you're looking to fill your freezer with locally raised beef and pork, a lot of them will call us," Darcy Johnson said. "I just reassure them: I only buy from farmers I know."

Larry Hegel, a retiree from nearby Emmons, said his own parents used to shop at the Conger market, which he and his wife now frequent.

Meat lockers aren't all the same, but they share a butcher's ethos in bridging a gap for the customer. Mangigian said he just wants to "facilitate that relationship" between farmers and consumers.

"More and more people don't have a connection to a farm anymore," Darcy Johnson said. "We're lucky in this area. We're surrounded by very successful cattle and pork producers."