March 25, 2023


The $200 weekly grocery bill ended up benefiting him. With three young children and skyrocketing meat prices, Logan Wagoner decided it was time to go all out.

This spring, the St. Louis attorney bought half a cow and a pig — and a refrigerator, and now has 320 pounds of bacon, sausage, rib-eye, ground beef and soup bones in his basement.

“My kids eat a lot of hot dogs, and the price is too high,” said Wagner, 36. In the end we said, ‘This is crazy. What else can we do? ‘”

He and his wife spent about $2,000 — including $700 on the fridge — and now have enough meat for a year. Their weekly grocery bill has dropped to about $125.

Inflation has been at or near its highest level in 40 years since the spring, but households have been under pressure from rising food prices for two years. Meat prices in particular have soared 17% since July 2020, prompting households across the country to change how they buy and eat.

Glynn Tonsor, a professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University who oversees the school’s meat demand monitoring system, which surveys 2,000 people across the country on their meat consumption and buying habits, said more than 70 percent of Americans have adjusted how they buy meat due to inflation.

Many people are buying less meat or lowering the price of meat, such as ham instead of pork chops, Tonsor said.

But some, like Wagner, are taking a more extreme approach: buying whole animals and storing them in the refrigerator to save money.

“With meat counters getting higher and higher, there’s definitely more direct interest from consumers,” said Jess Peterson, a senior policy advisor for the American Cattlemen’s Association and a rancher in southeastern Montana. “Our price point is still lower than what people are paying in stores.”

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Meat prices continued to rise even as other costs fell. Overall meat and poultry prices are up 11% from a year ago, while the cost of chicken is up nearly 18%, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Bacon prices are 12 percent higher than last summer.

The number of Americans buying large amounts of meat directly from farms, while still low, is higher than it was before the pandemic, Kansas’ Tonso said. Early coronavirus-related shutdowns and shortages prompted many Americans to seek more direct local sources of meat. But lately, supermarket sticker shocks are prompting certain types of households — with the money and space they need — to buy and store hundreds of pounds of beef, pork or chicken at a time. In interviews, cattle farmers across the country said they were processing more direct order requests. Some are completely reconfiguring their businesses to accommodate half and quarter cattle purchases.

“People are looking for more deals right now,” said Dana Carey, owner of Circle Bar Beef in Fort Bidwell, Calif. “They’re less concerned about where the meat comes from and more about being able to afford it. It’s on the table. “

Most of the cows on the Kelly Family Ranch are sent to ranch or sold for feeding and ultimately to grocery stores across the country. Early in the pandemic, though, she realized people wanted to get their meat locally from sustainable sources. She found a nearby meat processor and began selling beef directly to consumers.

But lately, there’s been a surge of interest for a different reason: Everyone wants cheap beef.

To that end, Carey has begun mailing 20-pound boxes of beef to customers across the country. Sales began to soar about eight months ago when fuel prices started to rise, she said.

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At Wilson Dowell Farms in Calvert County, Maryland, the demand for half and whole cows from customers in suburban Washington, D.C., is so high that owner Jason Leavitt’s years are sold out. He specializes in grass-fed beef and has had to raise prices by $2 a pound to keep up with the seven-fold increase in grass seed prices.

Even so, he said many customers told him it was cheaper to buy direct than to buy meat at the grocery store. He charges $10 a pound for a quarter of a cow, but the price drops to $9.50 a pound for a half and $9 for a whole.

“With the inflation rhetoric, I think a lot of people are just stocking up right now because of price hikes and shortages,” said Leavitt, who also works with the county’s public works department. “There’s a certain level of comfort in knowing that you have a refrigerator full of beef.”

Freezers themselves, which can cost hundreds of dollars and take up a lot of space and electricity, are one of the biggest barriers to buying large cuts of meat, Tonsor said. A year’s worth of beef, pork or poultry can often cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars at a time. There are other reasons why such deals may also be impractical.

“It doesn’t work for a lot of people because they don’t like all the cuts or they don’t know how to cook all the cuts,” Tonsor said. “Or maybe they’re one person and not useful for 200 pounds of meat.”

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In Montrose, Colorado, Katherine and Adam Egloff recently decided that 185 pounds of beef was right for their family of three. The couple, who own the Jimmy John’s franchise, have seen firsthand how scarce and expensive meat has become: At their sandwich shop, deliveries of turkey slices and cured meats like capicola have been spotty for months.

This summer, they bought a quarter of a cow for $600 and now have T-bone steaks, rump roasts, stew and a beef liver in the freezer in their garage.

“Grass-fed beef has become so expensive that it’s like, ‘Why can I spend so much money in the store?'” said Katherine, 37. “We’re definitely saving money. If store shelves are empty, we know we have six months’ worth of beef in the fridge.”

Compared to beef that ends up on grocery store shelves, direct-to-consumer meat goes a straighter and cheaper path. Most of the cattle come from family ranches and are then sold to feedlots, where they are fattened and sold to meat processors. The Big Four meat processors—Cargill, JBS, Tyson Foods and National Beef Packaging—process about 85 percent of the beef in U.S. feed batches.

Industry experts and agricultural economists say the arrangement creates a monopoly-like environment that can keep prices high. While meat processors have reported record profits, the amount of money flowing back to ranchers has declined over the past half-century. For every dollar consumers spend on beef today, ranchers earn 39 cents, up from 67 cents 50 years ago, according to monthly USDA data.

“There’s a big difference between what consumers pay and what ranchers receive,” said Claire Kelloway, who manages the Food and Agricultural Systems Program at the Open Markets Institute, an advocacy group. Anti-monopoly non-profit organization. “Beef prices have soared to record levels, but the prices received by ranchers have fallen. Processors have made astronomical profits, though.”

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Sarah Little, a spokeswoman for the North American Meat Institute, an industry lobby group, said a shortage of cattle and a number of other factors, including rising labor, transportation and energy costs, have pushed up prices.

Glenn Bloom, a computer expert in Oklahoma City, said rising grocery prices also prompted him and his wife, Anna, to buy a quarter of a cow from a nearby farm. The couple ordered a cooler for their laundry and paid $875 for 175 pounds of grass-fed Black Angus beef, which will arrive next month.

“Ribeye is $15 a pound now, it’s $5 now,” said Glenn, 61. That way we don’t have to worry about prices going up or supply going down. That makes a lot of sense to us. “

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