You may have noticed that the price of meat has risen fairly dramatically over the past couple of years. The forecast is that it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, due to a number of factors including prolonged drought in many parts of the country, a new and nasty pig virus, and increasing demand for meat in China and much of the rest of Asia. Here are a few links for the skeptical, from NR and the New York Times:
Even those of you who buy meat by the half animal, as I do, have probably seen major increases. When we bought our first local half-beef, some six years ago, I think we paid $1.75/lb hanging weight. Even two and a half years ago, when we last bought beef, we paid only $2.00/lb. Granted, that was from a neighbor and a friend, who was charging us quite a bit less than the going rate, which if I remember right was about $2.50.
This year, I spent quite a bit of time searching Craigslist for decently priced grass fed beef (our neighbor and friend only raised enough for his extended family) without luck. The best price I could find was $3/lb, and that only applied if you ordered six months ahead of time and didn't include cut and wrap. Figure that in, and by the time you are done you'll be paying about $5/lb for what you actually put in the freezer. It's not that $5/lb is such an outrageous price (though it is pretty high), but that to buy a half you need to get together some $2,000 all at once.
I really hate buying supermarket meat. I hate participating in the CAFO feedlot system (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation - Wikipedia, the free ...); I hate eating animals that lived in misery eating GMO soy and corn; I hate contributing to the destruction of tropical forests and the displacement of indigenous peoples. But I love eating beef. If it came down to a choice between eating CAFO meat or no meat at all, I know what I'd choose. So, to avoid slathering my burgers with guilt sauce, I decided to look further afield for my grass fed beef.
Washington State is divided between the wet west and, on the other side of the Cascade mountains, the wide open rangeland of the drier east. On the eastside, land is cheaper, hay is cheaper, and as a result, beef is cheaper. Marginally. After searching through all the Craigslist listings for beef in all the little towns of Eastern Washington, I struck gold: USDA prime grass fed black angus beef for $2.85/lb, cut and wrap included. A half weighing a little over 500 lbs was available. Problem is, it was a five hour drive, and comparatively cheap as it was, that half would still cost more than $1,500.
Social media to the rescue: on Facebook, I invited all my friends to go in on it with me. In the end, we bought a quarter for ourselves, and the other quarter was split into two eighths for two other families. I didn't charge the other families anything extra per pound, but I did ask them to contribute something toward the price of gas and dry ice. Dry ice, although pricey, is a necessity when transporting a quarter-ton of raw meat in a hot trunk for five hours. I used google maps to find the closest supplier to our destination, and lucked out: there was one in the same town. I collected cash and coolers from my co-purchasers, and Homero and I set off on a road trip.
The ranch was a lovely place, and the beeves on view were beautiful - vast, sleek, shiny black animals, moving slowly through flank-high grass or cooling themselves in a green pond, on which I saw a blue heron standing quietly among the reeds. The ranch owner, a friendly, tall, middle aged woman, was kind: There was a misunderstanding about the weight and we hadn't brought quite enough money. With no bank within a two hour drive, she simply decided to trust me to send a check when I got home.
It may seem like an awfully long way to go, but the math is convincing. On our quarter, we saved about $300 over local prices. Our diesel Jetta gets 45 miles to the gallon, so the gas cost us only about $30. The dry ice was the biggest expense, at $40, but friends kicked in on those costs. Our share of the travel expenses was about $25, which adds only a negligible amount to the price per pound.
If there's a downside, it's that the meat included an unreasonably high percentage of hamburger. At least 2/3 of the total weight was in burger, which is higher than I am used to. It seems like a shame to grind up that much of an animal that graded out to USDA prime, the very highest category. B ut I'm not complaining. The freezer is full of guilt-free meat and I am happy.