“The challenge is that it’s expensive. And because as a country we don’t have a clue as to what our true food costs are, people find the prices very difficult to wrap their head around.”
- Adam Parks, Tara Firma Farms & Victorian Farmstead
The United States spends less on food than any other country. According to the USDA, in 2012 U.S. residents spent an average of $2,723 or 6.4% of their spending on food in a single year. Part of this is because the U.S. also has the lowest costing food of any industrialized country in the world—and yet, food to many still seems overly priced. Sustainably raised foods—organic, grass-fed, cage-free, the list goes on—are especially seen as untouchable luxuries for some.
But why does sustainable food cost “so much?”
Adam Parks of Tara Firma Farms and Victorian Farmstead takes no shortcuts in raising his meat. His cage-free eggs are truly so; there is no coop for the chickens to be well, cooped-up. His beef is pastured and grass-fed and his pigs live outside with plenty of space and feed.
It’s the old McDonald sing-along come to life and boy, is it pricey.
In any farm operation, there are dozens and dozens of factors that determine whether or not a pound of meat makes it to market, but with sustainable farming the factors get more expensive because
- It takes more land. Farmers commonly abide by the rule of one cow, one acre. Parks says he, himself grows a mere 500 meat birds where factory farms could grow 5000.
- Less volume. Because animals take up more land, farmers cannot afford to raise a large number of animals at once. To sell cheap and make up for it in volume isn’t an option.
There are, of course, several other hidden costs behind a shrink wrapped, chopped-up slab of beef at a supermarket (that wrapping and chopping adds cost, too) which we consumers don’t see . Putting up fences, paying farmhands, purchasing calves, transportation, equipment, organic certification, marketing, veterinary medicine, feed, feed, and more feed—when it comes to raising sustainable meat this is the so-called “tip of the iceberg lettuce."
In his 2013 article, “Why I can’t raise a $1 Cheeseburger,” author Forrest Pritchard gives us a glimpse into the world behind raising a single cow:
“To raise one grass-finished steer requires two full years. It starts with a momma cow, who has a calf. My cost (spread over land taxes, salaries, hay, etc.) to keep a momma cow is $350 annually. Keeping a bull is also $350. And it costs -- you guessed it -- $350 to raise the calf. That's $1,050 dollars for year one.
In year two, it takes an additional $350 to raise the steer. Come harvest time, it costs $50 to haul to the butcher, $300 in butchering fees, another $50 to get the meat home. It takes another $50 in refrigeration to keep the product cold. By the time I drive to farmers markets, pay for gasoline, tolls and market fees, another $50 gets tacked on. Add in modest advertising, vehicle depreciation, and salaries for helpers at farmers' market, and the total works out to a nice, round $2,000.
We're not finished yet. An 1,100 pound steer yields roughly 38 percent of its body weight in product, which leaves about 420 pounds of meat. Because nearly 40 percent of this comes in the form of ground beef, the numbers are heavily skewed towards a lower-priced products. By contrast, highly-prized filet mignon only comprises one percent of the animal. In order to break even, my minimum average price must be $4.78 per pound ($2,000 divided by 420 lbs). To add a modest profit of 10 percent (my family's paycheck), the number rises to $5.25/lb. Suffice to say, there are dozens of economic variables priced into a single pound of grass-fed ground beef.”
But even Pritchard’s estimates are more generous than most. In 2005, the University of California Davis released a report on the costs behind running a 50-head Organic Cow operation in Mendocino County. According to the report, a farmer who sells his beef for an average of $9.25/lb makes -$645.09 per cow after total operating and cash costs. And yes, that’s a negative.
With the inflation rate calculated, a farmer today would have to sell an approximate 26,000 pounds of beef at $11.26/lb to simply keep his head above water. But 26,000 pounds is a lot and, as we touched upon earlier, cows take up land and when you have an limited supply of land, you have a limited supply of cows.
As Pritchard writes, “This information isn't intended to persuade consumer buying habits. Instead, it leads us to a greater question: how can we really know what's 'expensive' or 'cheap' until we recognize that grass-fed and grain-fed beef are distinctly different products?”
Beef is not just beef. Behind every cow there is a farmer and there is a story; there is a lifetime behind that cow and depending on how that farmer decided to raise his animals, that lifetime might be a longer, happier, and, of course, more expensive one.
Adam Parks, who often gets frustrated with just how pricey it can be, says, “The fact is [meat is] always going to be more expensive our way. And it’s always going to be better.”
Who's growing your food?
It may be expensive to get sustainable food but the good news is you can waive some of the extraneous fees by going straight to the farmer. Join a local CSA (community supported agriculture) and get your food straight from the people who grow the vegetables and raise the animals. You can even visit Adam Parks’ own Tara Firma Farms or Victorian Farmstead for a subscription!