Think about the last time you ate a burger. Maybe it was ground beef you bought at the farmer’s market. Maybe it was an elk burger from that shoulder season cow hunt or venison from a deer you shot with your dad. Perhaps you have that animal’s skull mounted on your wall or a picture of it on your phone.
Or maybe it was a cheeseburger at the local bar, in which case it likely contained DNA from more than 100 animals (potentially upwards of 1000). Because at big meat processing plants, where most restaurant and grocery food distributors source their products, the meat from thousands of animals is ground together in large batches to produce the burgers and sausages that most Americans consume. And that’s fine. There is nothing inherently wrong with consuming pieces of one hundred different animals in a single bite, especially given our modern food safety and meat processing practices. But a moral dilemma and a profound cognitive dissonance occur when people first ponder this fact. Why does it feel so peculiar? And what are the larger social, economic, and ethical impacts of our willingness to exist so very far from our food sources?
One remedy, at least for meat eaters, is to seek food from the source: animals from the wild or livestock from local producers. Hunting has its own ecological, emotional, physical, and economic rewards. But so, too, does the purchase of meat from a local source. Buying a quarter, half, or whole animal from a local rancher will benefit not only your tastebuds and pocketbook but also the local economy and ecology. You know where your meat came from. You gave your money to someone in your community so that they could continue to raise animals in fields that might otherwise be paved over for condos or strip malls. You eat a burger that contains the DNA of the one cow you purchased. And for those of us with animal welfare concerns, only one animal died for your food, rather than thousands.
Firstly, animals processed for a specific consumer are less expensive to slaughter and butcher. Removing the middleman allows both the consumer and the producer to benefit when beef, pork, or bison is purchased directly from the source. When a rancher sells an animal as a whole, half, or quarter, they can kill that animal under the Custom Exempt label. Custom Exempt processing happens when an animal has been sold before it goes to the slaughterhouse, and a state or USDA inspector does not need to be present during slaughter or processing. Slaughtering under inspection costs more because the slaughter plant must pay the inspector and fees associated with being state or federally inspected. Custom Exempt slaughter includes field harvesting, which contributes to much lower stress levels for the animal and rancher.
When livestock is slaughtered and butchered at industrial processing facilities such as JBS or Cargill, those companies can manipulate and artificially lower the cost of a live animal. When ranchers bring their cattle to a large meat packing plant, they may be paid less than the cost of raising those animals. Some ranchers make less than 40 cents for every dollar they spend to grow the animal. The processors then turn around and (artificially) raise the price of beef, making a huge profit for themselves—putting ranchers out of business. However, when customers buy halves and quarters of animals directly from producers, ranchers profit on those animals, keeping money in community and allowing those families to stay in business.
For the consumer, the economic benefits are more long-term. The upfront costs may seem intimidating, but with some quick math, the savings start to add up. No matter the size, a chest freezer is a good investment for anyone concerned with food costs and security. Each cubic foot of a freezer can hold approximately 20 to 25 pounds of meat. If you plan to buy a quarter of a beef, you’ll likely get about 100 pounds of meat, which would require about four-cubic-feet of freezer space. That means a standard five cubic foot freezer is more than enough space for a quarter of a beef or half a pig, and it is small enough to fit in a studio apartment.
While a quarter or half an animal costs a hefty upfront fee, the average cost of each pound of meat will be much less than you would pay at a grocery store. The rancher and processor charge a flat fee for the entire animal rather than charging for expensive individual cuts. For instance, the total cost for a quarter of beef after slaughter and processing could be around $1200. That means that each pound of meat off that animal—let’s say about 100 pounds—will cost $12 per pound. While that might be a little more than the $7.99 per pound you pay for ground beef at the farmers market, it’s much less than the $30 per pound you might pay for a ribeye steak. The quarter of beef is a flat rate, it doesn’t matter if you turn it all into burger or take all the best cuts and roasts.
A quarter or half of an animal will also allow you to try cuts of meat you may not have considered purchasing before, such as a shank, flatiron steak, hanger steak, oxtail, or liver. Consumption of these cuts not only reduces waste but also puts a few more dollars in the farmer’s pocket as they can sell cuts that would otherwise end up as burgers or, in the case of organ meats, in the trash. Instead of that extra money going to a retailer, it stays in your pocket, and the money you spend is funding the following year’s cattle production for that rancher.
None of this is to say that the cost of beef, or any meat, should be cheap. But if you want to know the actual price, talk to a rancher, not a retailer or a meat packing plant executive.
There are few things more rewarding in life than knowing exactly where your food comes from and building relationships with the people who grow it. After a few years of procuring your meat, whether through hunting or buying directly from a rancher, it becomes almost impossible to stomach a bite of steak from an unknown source. Through your support of and relationship with local farmers and ranchers, you’ll build connections that foster a robust community food web and ensure that you and your family will be well-fed, no matter the state of global food markets.
And the more you know about your ranchers and food, the more you’ll understand the unique ecology of the place where you live. You might take more notice of the grasses growing in the ditch near your house, pay more attention to weather patterns as you watch cows huddle together in a winter storm, and become more curious about the effects of those animals on the larger landscape. Our food choices create a domino effect on people, animals, the environment, and the economy.
By purchasing meat directly from a rancher, you are choosing to support your community, remove yourself from the industrial food system, ensure food security for yourself and your family, save money, and eat delicious, local meat.
To purchase meat directly from a producer, try reaching out to local ranches. Many of them already have direct-to-consumer programs. Otherwise, a call to your local butcher or meat shop should put you on the right path.