Why I Can't Raise a $1 Cheeseburger

How can we really know what's 'expensive' or 'cheap' until we recognize that grass-fed and grain-fed beef are distinctly different products? Here, a professional farmer redefines the term 'Value Meal.'
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A professional farmer redefines the term 'Value Meal'

In 1996, I returned from college to my family's farm and found it in complete shambles. My parents had given up on ever making a profit from farming, and had taken jobs in the city to make ends meet. Our crops of corn and cattle barely covered our production costs, and the land didn't generate enough profit for us to even buy our own food. Our family farm, just like thousands of others across the country, was undeniably broken.

Now, nearly 20 years later, we've turned our farm around. We raise grass-finished beef, and sell it directly to customers at farmers' markets. Because I sell my food directly to the public, I'm constantly asked: "Why is organic food so expensive?" This is an understandable question, especially because 'conventional' beef at the grocery stores is so much cheaper by comparison. But in order to understand why one type of beef is more 'expensive,' we should first examine why the other meat is so 'cheap.'

There are two major types of beef available to the American consumer: grain-fed and grass-fed. Although most beef cattle in the United States are born onto pasture, at around six to nine months of age, nearly all these animals are sold at a livestock auction. Once sold, they are shipped to confinement feedlots, primarily in the Midwest, where they are fed corn, soybeans and -- as a result of their nearly pure-grain diet -- antibiotics. It requires an eye-popping six pounds of grain to produce a single pound of beef. These animals live out their days on concrete, in total confinement, with no access to pasture.

In contrast, grass-fed animals usually remain on the farm where they were born. After being weaned from the momma cow, the calves eat pasture for the rest of their lives, gaining an average of two pounds a day. Because a diet of grass doesn't cause the digestion difficulties associated with grain feeding, farmers rarely need to use antibiotics.

Although both systems ultimately produce 'beef,' the differences between the two models is stark. In the grain-fed model, "volume" is king. Efficiencies are captured through 35,000 head feedlots, colossal grain transportation infrastructures, and slaughterhouses geared to handle thousands of cattle per day. And because volume and speed are paramount in this system, transparency is largely unavailable to the consumer. As a recent example, most Americans didn't know that 'Pink Slime' (ammonia protein slurry) was routinely added to ground beef, reducing the fat-to-lean ratio.

In the grass-fed model, "sustainability" trumps all other considerations. The farmer's job is to help transform sunshine and rain into nutritious pasture, creating a closed-loop system that requires no grain or chemical amendments. By grazing grass, the farm is essentially an enormous living solar panel.

But because this type of farming requires oversight in all aspects of production, the farmer must become a jack-of-all-trades, and 'vertically integrate' his operation (for more on this, see my upcoming blog "Why my Farm is like an Episode of 30 Rock"). To illustrate this point, allow me to share some basic production numbers from my own grass farm.

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.

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?

Producing grain-fed beef propelled my family's farm to the brink of bankruptcy. Grass-farming saved it. I learned the hard way that I can't raise a $1 cheeseburger and simultaneously pay my bills. Believe me, I tried.

Though it's technically more expensive, my customers at farmers market find value in the kind of farming I do. They respect our transparent growing practices, and the fact that they can visit the farm whenever they choose. They appreciate that no hidden ingredients are added to our meat. And they're convinced that paying an extra dollar or two is well worth it to keep a family farm in business for yet another generation.

This is precisely the type of 'value meal' that defies economic sensibilities, yet hints at a hopeful, more sustainable future for farming. Now more than ever, consumers have the opportunity to broaden our food conversation, and consciously affect the landscape just beyond the horizon.

Forrest Pritchard is a seventh generation farmer from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. His first book Gaining Ground, A Story of Farmers' Markets, Local Food and Saving the Family Farm was named a Top Ten read for 2013 by Publishers Weekly.

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