Last week, Bob Comis contributed a piece to the Ethicurean on why he thinks prices for meat raised on small, local farms is too high.
The next day, I read Joel Salatin’s annual newsletter to his on farm customers. Then I sent Joel an email, asking him to do a guest post for me expanding on what he wrote. This is Joel’s take on why local food is more expensive:
Many local and real food advocates chafe under commonly higher prices, not realizing that in fact, much of this higher price does not end up in the farmer’s pocket. It is rather siphoned off as regulatory expense to comply with asinine government regulations that either do not scale down to smaller producers and producers, or are outright capricious and inapplicable.
Last year, here at Polyface we entered the mandatory Workman’s Compensation (WC) world when we passed our third employee. This is a state mandated program administered by a private company. I’m not sure about all the arrangements, but there’s virtually no competition. Which is why you should consider alternative . After our insurance agent from Insurance Partnership filled out all the paperwork he could, he set up a three-way phone interview so I could finish the loose ends. “Only 15 minutes,” he assured me. It took an hour and the questions were outrageous when applied to us.
Our interns and apprentices, who receive free room and board plus a modest stipend in return for their education, had to be treated like employees. On our farm, we integrate cattle, pigs, and poultry to such an extent that these different types of animals are in the same area and everyone handles chores for all of them. But in WC land, employees must be segregated between “Beef and Pork” or “Poultry.” They can’t mix. The risk actuarials are different so they must be separately categorized.
Of course, the risk to for cattle and hogs is bigger because they can hurt you, especially in a feedlot or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. We have neither. And poultry risk is assessed assuming a confinement fecal particulate fan whirring feed augering factory house. Ours are in little squatty pasture schooners, hand watered, hand fed, open air sunshine and dew-speckled pasture.
The real kicker was a delivery driver who takes frozen meat and eggs to the restaurants and home customers. Since we’re a farm, we can’t have such a delivery driver. The only delivery driver we can have is a live animal hauler–highest risk in the book. If we were a delivery service, we could have a low-risk delivery driver, but that’s impossible with a farm. Farms don’t have those kinds of employees.
Bottom line: our little farm operation is paying more than $10,000 a year for government-mandated Workman’s Comp using an assessment system written for Tyson and Cargill. It’s absurd. And immoral. Guess who pays that huge cost? The customer. In a thousand different ways, this scenario plays out across the local food movement, arbitrarily and capriciously prejudicing the price. And that, dear friends, is the main reason why local food is more expensive.
Loved Joel Salatin since reading about his life and Polyface in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Am now trying to integrate real food into our lives. I find that living in a high-rise condo adds additional difficulties. Really enjoy your blog!
thanks for that joel, and food renegade :). so sadly and irritatingly and shockingly true. ominvore/michael/joel have all lit the fire to get me out of bklyn and into some real dirt somewhere, though the wheels are turning slowly. wondering, can they regulate you like that if you’re all barter and no money changes hands?
Jendeis — I sympathize with you! Although, having a high rise condo suggests you are smack in the middle of a city. You probably have a farmer’s market nearby. Do you? I have to travel 30+ miles to get to one.
Bethany — I know how you feel. I’m about ready to rip out my front lawn with my bare hands. I did have a bit of $$ budgeted to put in a garden out front this year, but that got eaten up by other unexpected expenses. I have to wait for the next wave of cash….
Local Nourishment says
I have to confess I have been frustrated with the price of local food. I have really been rubbed wrong paying $10 for a couple lamb shanks I could pick up at my store on sale for $4. It makes me crazy to pay $3 for a single bell pepper, but I do it week in and week out.
Three things helped me make the transition, ideas that came from “In Defense of Food,” also by Michael Pollan.
First: When calculated as percentage of income, Americans commit less to food purchases than nearly every other industrialized nation, and enjoy an amazing variety. Even eating the best real food I can locate
I am also fed up with local food prices being so high! You would think since the economy is doing so poorly that they would somewhat lower the prices and make things more affordable.
Local Nourishment — No need to “confess.” I think it’s a frustration we all share! And I agree with Michael Pollan’s points. It’s roughly the same point Mark Bittman’s made in a couple of places: We used to spend 10% of our income on health care and 20% on food. Now we spend 10% of our income on food and 20% on healthcare. We’ve cheapened our food supply, but at what cost to our health?
Jessie — Actually, I expect that as the economy worsens, food prices will continue to rise. It’s the effect of inflation, or the weakening of our dollar. Every dollar we own is worth less each day. I’m not an economist, but I’ve heard that inflation in the last quarter was the highest it’s been since the late 70s/early 80s.
Ed Bruske says
Kristin, what a coincidence. There’s Joel Salatin in the flesh. Great you got him to post for you. His one example doesn’t really rise to the level of an expalnaton of local meat prices. And I think the “high” prices may vary from one area to the other, depending on the affluence of the local population. I’ve had farmers tell me privately that they will charge as much as the market will bear, which helps explain why a pork shoulder at the tony Dupont Circle farmers market here in the District of Columbia costs $28 a pound (when you remove the bone and extraneous fat) from one of the local vendors. It might also help explain why Joel Salatin’s friends at EcoFriendly Foods charge $5.30 a dozen for eggs, when you can get them for $1.30 less from almost any other farmer. It’s what the market will bear. And unfortunately, these kind of prices are a real barrier to more middle of the road Americans getting involved in the local food movement. I still think the “scaling up” argument makes a lot more sense than complaining about government regulations.
Another great post, pointing out how far we still have to go on the regulation side, and also in terms of educating consumers. We are fortunate that farmers like Joel Salatin do what they do, and can articulate where the money goes.
Hey! What a great blog!
I’ve seen few resources that affirm food security/sovereignty as a form of radical politics. Wonderful site & great content! Keep up the good work!
Joel is right on this one. There are not only lots of mandated costs that go into smaller, pasture-based farms like ours, but there are just more losses when you raise animals naturally. We write a lot about this on our blog and include videos, but the bottom line is that it translates into higher costs.
Of course, supermarket food is highly subsidized on many fronts, so the real cost of “fake” food is actually comparable to the real cost of “real” food.
Nature’s Harmony Farm
Kimi @ The Nourishing Gourmet says
Great guest post, Kristen!
It drives me crazy to read about it though! Talk about shooting ourselves in the foot with these kinds of regulations. Truthfully, a lot of the farmers I get meat from aren’t official “farmers”. They just raise a few cattle on the side and sell halves and quarters of them off to friends. And it’s not too expensive either. But I wish that it was more possible for people to actually make a LIVING off of small farms. One local farm has repeatedly almost gone out of business because of issues like this (they’ve been around forever, I hope they stick with it).
I also like what Local Nourishment had to say. We do often have the wrong focus in what we are willing to spend money on. Good food is undervalued in our eyes, so therefore we don’t want to spend much on it.
Kimi @ The Nourishing Gourmet
Jenny @ Nourished Kitchen says
Excellent post! In our area, some things are more expensive and others less expensive. But the bottom line is this: these prices reflect the TRUE cost of real food. The cheap prices of CAFO meat or industrially-grown produce do not truly reflect the costs of production. What we’re not paying is coming out elsewhere: unfair working conditions, miscarriages due to pesticide use, environmental damage etc. These are the hidden costs of cheap food.
Jenny @ Nourished Kitchen
Kimi — I think Joel is convinced you *can* make money doing it the sustainable way. Look at the titles of his books: “Pastured Poultry Profits,” “$alad Bar Beef.” Those and many others of his books are meant to show people how they can profitably run a small-scale farm, outproduce conventional agriculture given the same amount of acreage, *and* do it all while being humane to animals and friendly to the earth. If any of your friends are inspired to farm but don’t know how they could possibly make money doing it, please have them check out Joel’s books!
Tim & Jenny — I wholeheartedly agree with you. Supermarket food is subsidized to the degree that people don’t realize the true cost of what they’re buying. Nevertheless, it is still hard for many to buy more locally and sustainably when they can’t squeeze the extra pennies out of any other part of their budget.
Ed — I agree these kinds of prices are barriers. Fortunately, I’m a bargain hunter. So I found local sources of food that are comparable to supermarket prices. It really helps to buy in bulk (say a whole side of cattle) rather than individual cuts. If I tried to do that, there’d be no way I could feed my family the way I do!
That said, I still think Bob’s assessment came down a little on the impractical side. No need to rehash the arguments here, but I thought the comments at the Ethicurean post were quite telling.
Rob Smart says
The New York Times recently published an article titled
Rob Smart says
On a separate, but related, note, I also believe that we need to work a lot harder and more creative on the demand side of the equation. Currently retail options are mostly conventional and are tightly aligned with industrialized food.
What we need are retail options that bring the joy and satisfaction of experiencing food, rather than seeing what we eat as nutrients. Farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs are helping raise awareness, but the supply is currently insignificant in the big scheme of things.
Take a look at the link below to learn more about why I don’t think CSA is enough!
Another excellent post! It is so interesting (and sad and frustrating) to read Joel’s perspective. He quckly made it to my hero list after reading Omnivore’s Dilemma. So glad you were able to get this guest post. Very helpful and eye opening.
Rob — Sadly, though, I’m not sure how we can work on de-regulating things for the small-scale producer (or at least scaling down regulations). This will be an uphill political fight, one that not too many people are ready to enter into. What with all the food safety scares of late, people are demanding MORE regulation, not less.
On the other hand, given the huge groundswell of negative reaction to HR 875, perhaps we *could* start successfully arguing for exemptions for small-scale producers in addition to demanding that regulations be scale appropriate!
Lori — Glad you liked Joel’s post! I’m thankful he chose to share his thoughts with us as well. It is simply unjust and as he says “immoral” for the system to continue as it is. We must start fighting back against the status quo, and we begin with our food choices. What do we eat? How do we match that with what we believe?
Bob Comis says
Like KristenM, I don’t want to re-hash the points I made on the Ethicurean or the counterpoints made by commenters in the discussion.
However, I do want to point out — hopefully without starting a huge argument because to be perfectly honest I am still exhausted from the Ethicurean post — two things about Salatin’s argument in relation to my own.
First, as it relates to my own argument Salatin’s regulations burden argument, especially its focus on workmen’s comp is something of a red herring, and really reflects his libertarian (one really ought to say anarcho-capitalist) political agenda more than anything. Salatin’s farm exceeds by many many times the scale that I have recommended. According to this article ( http://tinyurl.com/SalatinVolume ), published in November 2008, Polyface Farm raises “24,000 broilers, 3,000 layers which produce about 100,000 dozen eggs, 300 cattle, 600 hogs, 500 turkeys and a whole lot of rabbits,” and according to Salatin in a recent Mother Earth News interview, they do so on 900 acres of pasture on a total of five farms, four of them leased ( http://tinyurl.com/SalatinAcreage ). Unlike at Salatin’s scale, at the scale of farm I propose, the *direct* regulatory burden on farms is minimal (I currently incur $0 in *direct* regulatory costs). Take the workmen’s comp example. On a family scale farm, hired labor is unnecessary, or it is only very part time (shearing, putting up hay, etc.), not to mention the enormous scale that Salatin was able to reach before finally needing to incur this burden. A better argument would be to point out that for farms of the size I have advocated the *indirect* regulatory burden placed on them for example by the heavy regulation of USDA slaughterhouses is more of a concern. USDA slaughterhouses generally charge higher fees to cover the regulatory costs they incur *and* there are fewer of them than there would be in a less regulated environment, so farmers often have to incur much higher mileage costs than they would otherwise. Note, however, that the mileage issue is very well mitigated by trailering ten hogs to the slaugtherhouse instead of two to four.
Second, I read recently — and this time I cannot provide a citation because I haven’t been able to pull it up on the internet; it might have been in a recent volume of Acres USA — that Polyface Farms is about to pass, or has passed already, $1,000,000 in gross sales. A $10,000 workmen’s comp burden therefore only represents 1% of gross income, a negligible amount by any measure. Furthermore, again in spite of the bureaucratic disaster that the assessment formula represents (and I have no qualms with his argument there), that workmen’s comp burden is clearly more than made up for by taking on the additional worker, otherwise he wouldn’t have done it.
To reiterate, Salatin is farming at a scale many times larger than I propose, and he exaggerates the regulatory burden he suffers as it only amounts to 1% of gross income and regardless is worth incurring because the additional labor more than makes up for it.
Hi Bob —
Thanks for commenting! Just to be clear, Joel was *not* responding to your post. I don’t even know if he knew it existed. I simply asked him to expand on the workman’s comp issue because that sort of regulatory burden infuriates me. It emboldens me to want to do something, and I was sure it would have the same effect on my readers.
I would say that you do pay a lot for regulatory burdens, albeit indirectly, and these prices do get passed on to consumers. Take, for example, your inability to legally slaughter your own hogs. You’ve got to pay to ship those hogs to a processing facility, pay to have them processed, then pay to have them shipped back — all because the government doesn’t think your small-scale, humane approach would be “safe.” In other words, USDA regulations are designed with giant feedlots and huge slaughtering volumes in mind. They don’t scale down to the artisan level, to the single man who only wants to slaughter 15 or so animals a day. So the small-scale processor hardly exists, or if he does it’s under a huge debt burden because of all the unnecessary equipment he had to buy to make a certified facility (much like the baker who’s required to have a commercial kitchen, even though he simply wants to bake part time for his local community).
I also want to be clear that I’m not arguing with your numbers or saying you’re wrong.
I’m just saying that there’s more to the picture than your post at the Ethicurean allowed — including the sort of thing Joel wrote about here: small-scale producers are constantly burdened by government regulations that don’t scale down to their level. (Another case in point: proposed NAIS legislation.)
Thanks again for commenting. I actually hope it does spark a bit of debate in the comboxes because I feel this is a subject worthy of discussion. That said, don’t take people’s comments too personally, and I hope you keep trying to make local, sustainably raised pork more affordable to your neighbors!
My husband received “You can Farm” for Christmas and, after he read it excitedly, I read it as well and became a fan of Joel Salatin! What a treat to read more of his work here on your blog! Reading his works allowed my husband to understand how we want to eat as a family, along with (hopefully!) giving us ideas for our own small farm in the future (the very far future, at this point!)
And, in regard to another commenter’s note above, why shouldn’t small farmers try to price their product at “whatever the market will bear?” Shouldn’t they be able to make a profit? They are NOT a not-for-profit organization, and generally aren’t subsidized the way that other, more processed foods and factory farms are, nor are they choosing the “cheap” food for their vegetables or animals and are generally using more resources (land, time) to create a better product. The product we want. Most of the time, I haven’t found that the prices are THAT far off, and if they are, I don’t buy them. I choose something else.
Anyway, thank you again and I look forward to reading more!
How neat that you got *him* to write a post! I just went to get some local Easter lamb and was definitely shocked to pay $60. (It will probably give us at least 4 family meals including lamb soup, but still). The lovely local vegetables (and gardening) have not been so expensive! We are eating less meat for this reason, but it is certainly a squeeze, and I’m sorry to see the reasons.
Bob Comis says
I knew that he wasn’t responding directly to my post, although I wish he had been because after I gave up trying to argue creationists out of creationism, I moved on to trying to argue anarcho-capitalists out of anarcho-capitalism. I am having as little luck with them as I did with creationists. (And they are having as little luck with me)
I think it is likely that on-farm slaughter would be cheaper than paying (for trucking and for the service) to have it done at a slaughterhouse. However, I think it might not be anywhere near as cheap as you suspect. In fact, I think if on-farm slaughter were made legal, most, but not all, of course, farmers would continue using slaughterhouses, both because the costs savings wouldn’t actually be that substantial (assuming they take the precautions they should take with on-farm slaughter if they are selling meat to the general public) and because the labor requirement is too burdensome. There would still be a lot of equipment to purchase. I would still need to have at a minimum a roof over my head. I would need hot and cold water under pressure. I would need cooler space to hang the pigs in. I would need to have a freezer to freeze the meat in. I would need a smoker. I would need non-porous, washable counters, etc. And I would still need to purchase supplies like butcher paper and tape. And then, the kicker, how do I take care of the farm if I am killing and/or butchering pigs all day? Unless I want to be hopping in and out of the shower all day, I can’t do both.
To use chickens as an example since we have real numbers for them because there is an on-farm slaughter exemption for them, I figured that I would have to slaughter just about 1,000 birds per season (the legal limit) before doing it on-farm penciled out, and even then the savings is so small compared to the labor investment that I would prefer to keep taking them to a facility. Slaughtering 1,000 birds per season (say in four batches of 250 or five of 200) is not fun — not for me anyway. You either minimize the daily requirement by slaughtering small batches often, or you commit a whole day and do a whole batch at once. I did three hundred in one day with a crew of four with awesome equipment a couple of years ago and that was a long long day. (The number of birds necessary to make it work out cost-wise would of course vary from farm to farm. What is the experience of others that are reading?)
Note, however, that beyond the simple cost issue there is the animal welfare issue (loading and trailering are stressful) and the quality issue (finding a facility that does a brilliant job is extremely difficult) that both recommend on-farm over off-farm slaughter. I, myself, however, given the sort of farm model that I am trying to promote, would continue to slaughter off-farm, or at least with hired labor on-farm, which together with the facility costs might eat up all of the cost savings.
Regardless of my argument above, I couldn’t agree with you more about the problem with one size fits all regulations. Requiring a HACCP plan for small and very small plants (I think small means less than five employees, or maybe that is very small) is an undue burden because it is almost impossible to write one without the help of a paid consultant, and small plants have a hard time covering that cost. HACCP plans are necessary for huge facilities, not small ones. NAIS is another good example, as you point out.
Michelle @ Find Your Balance says
Awesome read. It blows my mind thinking about how to fix this system. I’m so glad you are shedding light on it.
Michelle @ Find Your Balance
Sarah — I liked You Can Farm, too! So inspiring. I’m not sure I’m cut out to be a farmer, but while reading that book I sure WANTED to be one.
The Next Sarah — I bet that lamb price was in part due to Easter/Passover being right now. Greater demand means they can charge more. (Which, I might add, seems perfectly reasonable to me.)
Michelle — Me too!
Bob — Thanks once again for your thoughtful comment. You are in more of a position to know about farming costs than me, so I won’t dispute your logic. I only know that many of the farmers I’ve talked to cite the USDA slaughterhouse regulations as a source of supreme frustration. Again, it’s not that they don’t need equipment, etc. It’s just that laws written without small-scale operations in mind force the little guy to comply with stupid, unnecessary, (& often expensive to implement) completely inapplicable rules.
And the slaughtering facilities are just one example among a host of them. For example, what are you to make of having your children help out on the farm when it technically conflicts with child labor laws? Or what are you to do when you want to sell a value-added product to an end consumer (like a smoked or pre-baked ham), but you don’t want to pay for a commercial kitchen? The list of possible examples is endless.
For example, in Joel’s post above, it’s not so much the mandatory workmans comp (although I do think that’s an over-extension of government authority) that bothers me. It’s the way they incorrectly assess risk based on giant agribusiness standards, rendering insurance for Joel’s small crew stupidly expensive. The underwriters should actually look at the real risk posed by working at Polyface, rather than being forced to plug a round peg into a square whole thanks to government regulations written by industrial operations.
Again, it’s all about having laws be scale-appropriate. And, unfortunately, they just aren’t. I fear this climate is squeezing the entrepreneurial fervor out of the next generation of farmers (if there even is a next generation of farmers, given that the average age of the average Iowa farmer is 72!) I’m talking about entrepreneurial fervor like Joel’s — fervor that solves real problems in humane, profitable, and scalable ways. And it’s being lost.
Unless we do something about it. Right now. From the decisions we make when sourcing our food, to the level of activism we employ to sway our congressmen, to the active civil disobedience we practice when we buy a loaf of sourdough off our neighbor’s uncertified kitchen or raise hens in our backyard. We have to be the change we want to see in the world. Starting today.
Rob Smart says
This has been a very enlightening post, especially the comments. And while Kristen (Food Renegade) is right that changing policy will be difficult, I believe that as long as it doesn’t further tilt the balance of power toward large, industrial food companies, we will at least know what we are up against and can get to work finding opportunities out of the challenges.
For example, in Vermont and several other states, they have implemented mobile slaughterhouses that make it far easier and cheaper for small farms to process meat. I am also aware of one Vermont farm that is considering buying a small slaughterhouse and vertically integrating its operation. They have done the math and figured it will ultimately give them more control over their fate.
There are many more creative “work-arounds” throughout the land. What we need to do is bubble up the ones that are working, heavily promote them, and get more small farms on more stable ground.
Quote: “Leaders are visionaries with a poorly developed sense of fear and no concept of the odds against them.” -R. Jarvik
Sounds about right!
Carla Golden says
I like to think of organic and whole food prices as “normal” and lesser quality food as discounted in price for their substandard offerings. It will be nice when the people wise up and demand quality food to be affordable for everyone. It’s so much less expensive on society in the long run.
Be well, xo-Carla aka OneHealthyGirl.com
Local Nourishment stated it so well. We’ve moved food down our list of expense priorities and moved cable TV and lifestyle trappings up too high.
I’d also add that once I stopped shopping from from grocery store, I HAD more money to spend on high quality local foods, because I wasn’t spending my food budget on impulse items and un-nourishing stuff we didn’t need, like carbonated beverages, chips, processed breakfast cereals, and convenience foods.
Walter Jeffries says
It is true that the system is very slanted towards Big Ag and overly complex but Bob’s comments above demonstrate some serious miss-understandings about the complexity and purposes of HACCP & meat processing. I do agree that the process of establishing and operating a facility is overly complicated because the system is designed for the big operators. That is the same as how farm regulations in general, including NAIS, are almost all designed for the benefit of Big Ag. I would like to see many scales of slaughter and butchering available – each appropriately labeled – from on-farm/backyard to small custom to state inspected to USDA inspected. But that is a whole other discussion.
Some thoughts on the topic at hand:
1) The workman’s comp problem is one that faces a great many small businesses, not just farms. The system is designed for big business by big regulators at big government to benefit big insurance companies. This hurts all the small players on and off farm giving an unreasonable competitive edge to the big producers.
2) Don’t compare the super market on-sale manager’s special to locally produced, naturally grown, fresh meat. The $1.99 on-sale special is old and about to go out of date, was produced in a factory farm, processed at a mega-processor and is sold on sale at a ‘super’ market. It is the dredges of the food system. The left over lowest quality. It is like comparing plastic trinkets to hand crafted work. It’s like saying if we can get an old used Yugo for $500 we should be able to buy a brand new fully outfitted BMW for the same price. Absurd. Don’t fall into that mind trap.
2) Realize that pastured farmers are agents of ecological and knowledge conservation. Conventional CAFOs and such are abusing the environment. Small pastured based farms are conserving the forests, the pastures, the water and the landscape as well as preserving the knowledge for future generations.
3) Speaking as someone who is farming at the scale that Bob is talking about I can tell you that he is failing to take into account a lot of costs of farming so his article and numbers are very deceptive. I have years of experience and just re-wrote our farm’s business plan so I’m very familiar with this topic. It costs far more than his $225 (which Bog later raised to $240) to raise a pig. Bob is not accounting for capitalization (buying the farm), labor, health insurance (he gets it subsidized from his wife’s job), workman’s comp and the very real losses that do happen on a farm. If Bob ever gets sick and can’t care for his animals what will happen?
4) Bob makes the mistake of assuming that 100% of the livestock he raises will get to the consumer’s fork. Deaths happen. It is reality. Not every pig or sheep is going to make it even on the best farm with decades of experience. Using Bob’s numbers, small delays and losses will quickly make his costs exceed his income. It is a mistake to fail to account for risk and allow cushion for when times are tight. Riding the edge like that is a sure formula for failure. Nothing goes 100% right.
5) Small farms like ours are doing it all without getting the subsidies. Bob’s farm is subsidized by his wife’s job which provides a second income and health benefits. Big Ag is subsidized by the government – did you know that 96% of the subsidies go to Big Ag, not to small farms like ours? To top that off, I (and you) have to pay taxes to subsidize our competition and then compete with them in the market place on an unlevel playing field where they are able to maintain artificially low prices because they are subsidized and not held responsible for the ecological destruction they do. One more challenge for the small farmer. But we do it. The prices you see from small farms reflect the fact that we’re not subsidized and we do cover a lot of costs Big Ag ignores, like the environmental degradation. I would like to see how Bob fares over the next five, ten, fifteen years. Time will prove it out.
6) While being shocked at food prices, realize the farmer is only getting a very small portion of the price per pound. Retailers takes about 40% to 50%. So on a $10/lb pork chop the farmer is only gets $5/lb. If the farmer sells direct then that needs to go to the farmer to cover the costs of freezer space, retail licenses, marketing and handling the small sales since direct sales takes time. The processor (slaughter and butcher) takes about 30% to 40% of the farmers gross sales. This brings the farmer’s take down $3.25. The two processors we work with just raised their prices by 36% without any warning killing our profits for a month each. Imagine going to work for a month without any paycheck – your rent is still due, you still have to pay for food, gas and all those other expenses. Since the processors are so few they have an effective monopoly, and had our meat, so there is nothing we can do. Don’t even consider griping or they may cut you off and then you can’t get your livestock to market. Feed costs a lot if done with grain and makes up the bulk of the remaining costs. If pastured, like we do, then there are taxes and the initial cost of buying the land, fencing, etc. Either way there is still the high cost of transporting the livestock to market, going and picking up the meat at the butcher, insurance and a host of other expenses. At the end of the day the farmer gets a little bit of the price you paid – most of it goes to the retailer, butcher and government. You’ll notice the farmer’s not flying around in a Lear Jet, driving a BMW or buying gold toilets. The pay is low – good thing the life is so good.
7) Meat in particular is a highly nutritious, energy dense food. People, in general, need to eat less of meat. That might seem funny coming from a guy that raises pastured pigs for a living but it is the truth. Eat meat – in balance. It is part of a meal, not a huge hunkin’ haunch to gnawed on.
8) A big objection that a lot of people had to Bob’s posts was the name calling. Bob was labeling his competition extortionists. That’s political propaganda he is using for marketing edge and unnecessary name calling.
Sustainable farms are sustainable businesses. That means the farmer earns enough to keep farming year after year with out subsidies. Not everyone wants to get “Get Big or Get Out” so Bob’s idea that everyone should scale up or their extortionists is simply bizarre. It’s a free market. If one wants to stay small, stay small. If one wants to buy from a small producer, buy from a small producer. Vote with your pocket book and support your values.
Sugar Mountain Farm
Pastured Pigs and Sheep
in the mountains of Vermont
Rob — Those sorts of stories are very empowering. And “bubbling up” is actually getting easier and easier these days thanks to the prominence of the internet!
Carla — That’s an excellent point, and a good way to “reprogram” our minds to have the right expectations.
Anna — That’s been my experience too.
Walter — Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. You brought up a number of particularly valuable points!
Bob Comis says
As I mentioned above, I am not going to re-hash here the points that I made on the Ethicurean and have been making on my blog. However, Walter has pretty badly (nearly completely) misrepresented my points, and I think this is an important subject, so I would suggest to anyone that might have an interest in what I said that you should read my words not Walter’s misrepresentation of them. Unfortunately, at this point, my position and the counter positions of other people are spread over a number of blog posts and dozens of comments:
http://tinyurl.com/UnfairFare — The post on Ethicurean
http://tinyurl.com/AmishScale — A post on my blog addressing the scale issue
http://tinyurl.com/InflammatoryExtortion — A post on my blog acknowledging that using inflammatory language was a mistake, but then defending the use of the word extortion based on its definition
http://tinyurl.com/FullAccounting — A post on my blog where I give in to repeated requests for a full accounting of what it costs me to raise a pig, and where, as Walter stated above, I discovered that that number is $240 and not $225, a difference of 7%.
I would be more than happy to continue this discussion on my own blog, if you would like.
Heidi from Savory Tv says
From a strictly consumer point of view, it’s hard to buy local, it’s hard to buy organic. Walmart and other grocers tempt us with their super cheap, abnormally perfect looking huge produce and affordable meats. In small mountains towns in Colorado, we have great local beef available, sadly it is not often affordable to me.
My solution has been to eat local and CSA food when I can, and I have completely stopped eating at restaurants in order to justify this spending.
So, local farmers, I’m trying my best to support you!
Heidi from Savory Tv
Walter Jeffries says
Hmm… I didn’t distort any of Bob’s statements. Four points that I made about Bob:
1) Bob’s farm is subsidized by his wife’s income and job benefits (health insurance). He has admitted that when he said “The fact that my wife will continue to work full time is what makes it possible for me to have health insurance.” on the Ethicurean post at: http://www.ethicurean.com/2009/03/31/unfair-fare/ thus I did not distort or miss-represent that at all. The fact is Bob’s farm is subsidized by his wife and that is what makes it possible for him to farm the way he does. If he had to account for all the costs things would be different and his cost per pig would be much higher. I would like to see Bob offer a true cost accounting with his farming having to sustainably support the farm and him including purchase of the farm, equipment, insurance, health costs, labor, etc. These are all real costs that need to be accounted for.
2) Bob dismisses the 7% increase in his cost estimate yet a 7% cost increase can be the difference between profit and failure. Even his new cost estimate fails to cover a lot of important factors. Nationwide we saw a >100% increase in the cost of fuel in the last year. Grain prices also shot up by 30% to 50% – Bob feeds grain which is the largest part of his cost. Fortunately we don’t have that expense since pasture and hay are our primary feeds but we have a larger acreage, probably more fencing, etc. Hay prices went up 25% which did increase our winter feed costs and probably Bob’s too. Processing costs went up 24% for butchering and 36% for smoking this winter retrospectively without warning – that cost me a month’s profits. It’s like I worked for free but worse. The reality is one can’t raise one’s price instantly to respond to the increased costs. If cost goes up and your prices lacks sufficient margin you begin losing money, fast.
3) Bob assumes that 100% of his pigs will get to market at full weight with no slow growers and no deaths. Several commenters have disagreed with him about. The reality is that life does not work out 100% as planned. There are errors. Deaths happen. Some pigs will grow slower. There may be times you take a pig to market at a lower weight or it is unusually fat giving a lower yield. Some pigs might not be good enough to get full price. Bob’s number’s fail to take into account loss and risk factors. That will further increase his cost of production, or drive him out of business, unless he’s subsidized.
4) Bob’s repeated use of the word ‘extortion’ is inflammatory. This is an unfortunate approach. Sometimes reading his posts I get the feeling he purposefully does that. Other times I get the feeling he has anger control issues. Using language like that and applying it to his competition that sells at a higher price is an unnecessary mud-slinging marketing technique. The fact that he seems to apologize but then turns around and justifies himself simply exasperates the situation making him look less than sincere. I would suggest polite discourse rather than name calling.
Unlike Bob, who’s really just getting started, I do have a fair bit of experience with this topic of locally raised, pastured, naturally grown meat. Our farm is the size that Bob says farmers need to “scale up to.” My years of data and experience show Bob’s numbers to be falsely low. This is an important issue as he’s claiming to present a “Full Cost Accounting” that is convincing some consumers that they’re being over charged despite the fact that the farmer sees only a tiny portion of the final price.
Joel Salatin’s comments about the workmen’s comp issues are a prime example of the very real problems faced by farms his size (which is in the range Bob argued for) and small businesses in general. Bob’s dismissal of these issues and people that disagree with him is unfortunate. We need polite dialog so that we can improve things for business people, farmers and consumers.
I farm in order to produce food for my family. The fact that we are good at it allows us to sell to others and support our family. If I were to underprice our product then it would make our farm unsustainable. That is a classic business error. It is a free market and that in and of itself is of key importance as demonstrated by the debacle milk prices are experiencing.
Time will tell if Bob’s full cost accounting is sufficient to keep him sustainably farming. In the meantime we can all vote with our pocket books, discuss the issues politely and avoid name calling.
Sugar Mountain Farm
Pastured Pigs and Sheep
in the mountains of Vermont
I guess we are pretty fortunate in Canada because, even in Toronto, local produce at our farmers’ markets is much less expensive than in grocery stores. I’m assuming that is because there are no supply chain expenses passed on.
Currently I am happy to pay the extra price for organic and local. This may encourage more farmers to use Joel Salatin’s model. The cheap meat you buy at the grocery store isn’t all that cheap. The animals are fed with government subsidized corn and soy—you already paid for the feed with your taxes—it just looks cheap because you are not paying the full price up front. You also forget the expense at the back end with higher medical costs from decades of eating poor quality food.
This guy is one of my heroes. Thank you for your diligence in staying on top of these issues.
This issue forces Americans to face our unfettered consumerism. Over the last few decades many of us have come to believe we have an inalienable right to eat massive amounts of meat–including premium and boned cuts– at rock-bottom prices.
If we considered the work and sacrifice that goes into raising meat carefully and humanely, maybe the high prices wouldn’t seem so high. Maybe we’d choose to eat a variety of meat cuts–and less of them.
And maybe we’d demand advocacy for small farmers, change key labor and food laws and make it easier and less costly for small farmers to produce sustainable food.
Speaking strictly as a consumer, I’m glad to pay higher prices for meat raised humanely by a farmer I know and trust.
On a side note, regarding on-farm slaughter: One option might be advocacy for on-site mobile slaughter units like the ones available here in New York State.
The farmers at Sap Bush Hollow Farm, from whom I buy my grassfed meat, were instrumental in initiating NY’s mobile slaughter units a few years ago. I believe this is by far the most humane way to slaughter farm animals as it spares them the trauma of loading, transport and slaughter at distant meat packers.
Incidentally, Sap Bush Hollow recently went one better: Their farm is now certified as a slaughter house.
It CAN be done.
sigh in its become more about the doller going to the government due to these crazy regulations. not the food like it use to be
in the long run it all comes down sadly to the doller…
why couldnt the world run on the old systems of fair trade and barttering goods.
an not trade in paper and metals
bob ignores the reality of farming that like with any production there are losses. i plant 100 carrots but i will only harvest a fraction of that. worms wildlife disease drought weather stones and thinning get some. same with raising animals. some of them die. i see on bobs blog he has just gotten to experience this with both his lambs & his pigs. add to that the cost of vet and medicines and he is going to experience significant increases in his costs that he really needs to factor in to.
Earth Friendly Goodies says
After attending a very interesting seminar on environmental and household toxins in which they mentioned eating organic grass fed meats and produce was one of the best ways to cleanse those icky toxins I thought I would make the change… until I saw the price list for a local organic farm – 3x what I currently pay for meat!
It just doesn’t seam right that the consumers should be “punished” for making good for you decisions. At the time I wondered why the price was so high (other than supply and demand) since natural organic farmers don’t need to use extra chemicals and additives – and “back in the day” when all livestock was grass fed there wasn’t this overly high price to pay for our food. This post was a very informative read. I now have a better understanding on the why.. still it is sad that farmers who produce healthy good for you food have to suffer along with the rest of us consumers. Hopefully change is in the works since more and more people are being turned on to organic products.
Earth Friendly Goodies
Cathy Payne says
I always love to hear Joel Salatin articulate the constrictions on sustainable farms. He is a great advocate for the movement. His letter sparked a lively discussion, too. Thanks so much for posting it. Yes, I will be paying something like $5/pound for my Thanksgiving heritage turkey instead of $.79 /pound for a broad-breasted white meat machine that is unable to procreate and was raised in a facility where it was fed corn and soy all day long. But my turkey will have been humanely and lovingly raised on pasture in the sunshine. By purchasing, cooking, and serving it I will be providing a nutritious product with positive vibration for my family, helping to support a marvelous couple make a living, and voting with my dollar to support Georgia sustainable farmers. Same for our Christmas goose! We’ll cut corners elsewhere and stop expecting fast and cheap food while pushing our legislatures to even the playing field for small farmers.
.-= Cathy Payne
Paul Nehring says
When I first got into direct marketing grass-fed beef 10 years ago I was shocked at the prices some of the well-established grass-fed marketers were charging for beef, and other pastured products. I was sure that they were gouging their customers because they didn’t have competition. Years later I no longer believe that’s true, for the most part.
Yes, there are places where farmers can and do charge a fortune for their grass-fed organic products and still manage to sell them. Where I live, however, that just doesn’t fly. Our town is blue collar, and people are very price conscious. I have to keep my prices as low as I possibly can, which suites me just fine, as long as I can pencil out a sustainable profit in the long run.
I know how hard it can be to make ends meet, as I have never had a lot of money. I want folks like myself to be able to afford to eat well. Yet, that often means that they will have to make sacrifices like we do. Our wages from our farm, and outside work, are under the average for the area, yet we still manage to eat almost every meal made from local and/or organic ingredients. The key is we make all our own meals, and are very choosy about what we eat. We go out to eat maybe 3-4 times per year.
We avoid junk food, and soda pop. We eat very well, but it takes work.
As a farmer and direct marketer of grass-fed beef, I can now attest to the fact that you have to carefully include every cost you can think of into your cost of production and projections. It can become very complex, especially when direct marketing is included. I have given presentations to farmers about how I calculate costs, and their eyes invariably glaze over, because there is so much to it. I try to track every expense, including my time. If I don’t my natural tendency is to underprice my products, which could too easily drive me out of business. I would not be doing my customers any favors by selling meat too cheap, if I can’t afford to come back next year.
I fully agree with all of Walter’s comments about the costs of doing business and not undercutting yourself in price. As we scale up we can lower costs somewhat, but this takes years to do. It has taken Salatin 27 years of direct marketing and lots of noteriety to get to the scale he is at today. After seven years of operating our own farm, we still aren’t selling 50 steers/year.
Yes, if I could scale up to where I ship a truckload of steers to a large beef processor every week, I could literally save as much as $300 per steer in trucking and processing costs. But how many years will it take me to get there? I can quickly crank up the volume of what I produce. I just can’t crank up the customer base quickly. It takes lots of time and lots of talking to people, one on one education, at farm markets and other venues. I wish it were a faster process, but it isn’t.
Our beef is more expensive than grocery store beef, but only by 10-20%–except for the fire sale, loss leaders grocery stores do. Like Walter I try to encourage people to
people to east less meat, but choose better quality. Why do people need to eat a 1/2 lb burger, when a 1/4 lb will do? Why do they need a 16 oz steak, when 8 oz is plenty of nutrients for the average person? Instead of supersizing we should encourage superiorizing your food–OK, I made up that word. Eat better meat, less of it, and make up the difference with good vegetables and fruit.
Commit to buying as much good locally raised grass-fed and pastured meats that you can. Overall prices will come down somewhat in most regions as competition increases and as the scale increase, which will reduce costs. You will spend more for food, and less for medical care, as already noted above. Ask yourself where would you rather spend your money, at the pharmacy or farm market? Who would you rather support, the fat cats at Pfizer or your local farmer? Ultimately, you decide if you want to keep us in business or not.
Paul’s last post really hits on the crux of the matter. The infrastructure is simply not there to support pastured animals. Ideally, there would be multiple travelling slaughterhouses to choose from, public land areas designated for grazing, companies that specialize in aging meat, transporting meat, etc. and these companies would be doing enough business that they could keep costs low through economies of scale. Also, there is not enough of a premium on all the parts of a pastured animal — the intestines, the feet/hocks, the head, the brain/liver/heart, the marrow bones, the rendered fat, and so on. If all of those were reliably consumed at prices proportional to what they command in traditional food societies (e.g. Bolivia, Thailand, Ghana, etc.) there is more profit per carcass which allows the $/lb. for meat to be somewhat reduced.
Right now, what we have is the equivalent of a public transport system that is comprised of two buses. Two buses can only transport so many people, so to make a profit they have to raise prices, which in turn makes people less inclined to use it. Public transportation is only efficient when there is an initial huge investment and a willingness to gradually reduce that debt over decades in order to consistently expand their clientele. Small-scale farmers need to make a profit this year, not in 40 year’s time, so they have difficulty justifying taking a loss of income in order to slowly build an extensive customer base.
Another problem is the growing disparity in income within the U.S. Wages for 95% of Americans have stagnated for 37 years. Wages for the top 1% have skyrocketed during that time. In many urban areas, you have a coterie of consumers who are willing to pay outrageous prices for their favored food items; if a supplier raises his prices by 50% he will still benefit monetarily even if he loses 30% of his consumers. And even then, the most price-conscious consumers are likely to be buying less meat than the ultra-affluent consistent purchasers; chances are he could lose half his customers, still suffer a loss of only 25% in demand, and improve his income (at least in the short term). Some might call this unethical price-gouging, but most people would have trouble justifying making less income in order to serve a wider customer base. Farming is a business; the enjoyment and pride in a well-run operation are the perks.
A third issue is that many biodynamic/pasture-focused farmers are first-time land owners. It’s the same reason great California wines tend to be so much more expensive than great European wines — many of the European vintners are growing grapes on land that has been in the family for generations, while many California grape-producers are using leased land, purchased within the last few decades. With ranchers/pastoralists, there is also a lack of ‘commons’ available for grazing. In small communities in Europe (e.g. Pyrenees of Spain, Switzerland) there are mountainous highlands not owned by any single rancher which provide forage for ungulates from late spring through autumn. In essence this is free land. As far as I know, most American ranchers do not have access to public land for grazing (perhaps there are exceptions in underpopulated areas of the Mountain West?), so they either need to invest much more in land, or reduce production.
Right now part-time farming/ranching is probably the smartest way to go, both for producers and consumers. A successful meat purveyor in Arlington, VA (from Winchester) not only sells a wide variety of meat and offal, he also sells homemade pasta, homemade sauces, and operates a B&B advertised as being set in a pastoral paradise. With multiple income streams his liquidity situation is better (making him less worried about periodic losses in any one area) and he can afford to make less annual income off the meat sales.
In my area, we have a goat dairy farmer who sells goat cheese, goat-milk soap, some vegetables, and a wide variety of seafood. He also leads periodic paid tours of the farm. Again, with an extensive variety of products and income he feels more financially secure, which helps control price inflation.
There’s a number of ways that the U.S. could rachet up consumption of pastured meat. First, by acknowledging that moving away from CAFO structures would improve the environment, improve public health, and create less of a moral dilemma of treating animals as commodities rather than sentient living beings (de-legitimizing the dignity of animals tends to percolate into a culture of cruelty, which in turn reduces social trust and hence real productivity, IMHO). It could provide low-interest loans to support the creation pasture-oriented farms; create institutional centers of knowledge to create easily-accessed best practices for such farmers (rather than focusing on catering to Cargill); subsidize low-input (less irrigation, no pesticides/herbicides, less fertilizer) high-quality animal-forage agriculture (barley, millet, etc.) that is unsuitable for human consumption in order to make healthy feed for pastured animals more affordable. I’m sure there are dozens of other initiatives that small-scale farmers could come up with.
Unfortunately, given our increasingly dysfunctional national government I find these solutions unlikely in the near future. We are caught in a historical double-bind: our government sponsors cheap industrialized food, which makes it popular compared to the more expensive artisan producers; and thus localism is suppressed and never becomes a credible alternative to the Cargill guys.
Thanks for the good information. Certainly makes sense. It ALWAYS costs more when the government gets involved. Here’s hoping for reduced regulations on small farms.