April 1, 2009

The Debate on Meat Prices from Small Farms

Center for a Livable Future

Center for a Livable Future

In a piece published in Ethicurean yesterday, blogger and part-time farmer Bob Comis railed against the common argument that food from local, non-industrialized producers reflects the “true cost”—which includes environmental impacts, government subsidies on commodity crops, etc.

Comis argues that small farmers are making too much profit for meat production because they are “unwilling or unable to scale up to reasonable production levels.” He doesn’t say they are striking it rich—that is hardly the case. He does think they just need to scale up production to make themselves more competitive with the industrial model, who really have cheap production down to a science.

However, the other side to the coin is that increasing production is no magic solution. Rather, increasing production and vertically integrating is a major cause of the problems with our food system. Increasing pig production from two dozen to 300 per year will not make a small farmer an industrial giant. However, not all small farmers have the desire, the capital, the land, or the manpower to grow to this level. Joel Salatin from Polyface Farms in Virginia—interviewed in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and in the upcoming documentary Food, Inc., said he struggles with the prospect of higher demand for his high-quality meat and eggs while still maintaining the integrity and accountability of his small Shenandoah Valley farm. He doesn’t want to scale up– even though some of his customers are willing to drive 150 miles for his chicken or steak.

One reader (a small scale meat producer herself) challenged Comis’ point that small operations mark up prices too high: “Our costs are higher than the mega producers because we don’t own the input streams, such as the grain elevators or feed mills. Should we have to compete on price with companies that have bent or gone around anti-trust legislation to command the entire food chain, from seed to plate (or in the case of animals, from semen to barbecue)?”

What do you think? Is small-scale production, with less output and higher fixed costs, an acceptable model? Are you willing to pay a bit more to support local farmers’ ability to stay small?

-Patti Truant


  1. Pingback: The Debate on Meat Prices from Small Farms | Center for a Livable Future « Courtney’s Blog

  2. Hi Patti,

    I happen to be a subscriber to the Center for a Liveable Future blog, so I saw your post this morning while doing my blog reading. Thank you for making an effort to broaden the discussion.

    I would like to correct one thing about your summary of my argument. Competitiveness with the industrial model has nothing to do with my interest in scaling up. My interest in scaling up has to do with one thing and one thing only, making local food more widely affordable. Industrial prices occasionally serve as a reference of affordability for me (that was my point about 35% of New Yorkers not being able to afford a basic family budget — those people can’t even afford industrial food, let alone the currently exorbitantly [I used “extortionate” in my post) price local food), but never an aspiration.

    Also, I have at this point left a few comments on the Ethicurean post that more fully develop my argument and more fully defend my accounting of the cost to raise a pig.

    What Salatin has done with Polyface Farm far far far exceeds what I am talking about in terms of scaling up. I read somewhere recently that they are going to crack $1,000,000 in gross sales sometime soon. If we were only talking about raising pigs, that would be 3,333 pigs at $2.00 per pound hanging weight, more than ten times what I am the numbers I am talking about. Of course, Salatin sells a lot by the individual cut and for the purposes of my argument I am only using whole/half pig sales, so it is not a direct comparison, but still the production volume on his farm is many many times more than what I am proposing.

    One thing that I have found pretty incredible about the reaction to my “scaling up” argument is that I am talking about scaling up to the level of Amish farmers! People are acting as if I am suggesting we litter the landscape with industrialized behemoths of pasture based farms. I find such a reaction quite amusing on the one hand and quite frustrating on the other.

    Sorry, I thought I was done, but now I think I should add that the question we should be asking is not, “are *you* willing to pay more…?” but, “on what type of farm does a local-regional farm and food system that provides broadly affordable food need to be based?”

    Anyway, thanks again for bringing the post to the attention of your readers.

  3. Patti Truant

    Posted by Patti Truant

    Dear Bob,
    Thank you so much for responding to the post! I’m happy to hear that you follow the CLF blog!

    Making local food more widely available and accessible is certainly the goal, and lower prices would help to do that—as long as quality is not compromised. Simply increasing the supply of local foods in high demand will help lower the price as well.

    I think that the question you pose at the end is a reasonable and smart one—and this point is well summarized in one of your comments on the Ethicurean blog: “The average price of food in this system will be set by the higher volume farms (that are still tiny by industrial standards) that are selling into a mostly non-direct local-regional (small scale) processing and distribution chain that makes local-regional food broadly available at much more affordable prices. And all of this will be, I hope, accomplished without sacrificing environmental, social, cultural, and/or community sustainability.”

    That sounds good—but I guess it remains to be seen if/how small-scale farmers will be able to feasibly address concerns about income, quality, pollution, animal treatment, etc. etc. There certainly are a lot of factors to take into account—each farmer with his or her own unique situation.

    For people who are interested in learning more—I suggest reading the (sometimes heated) comments posted on the Ethicurean blog—quite an interesting debate, with a lot of good points on both sides.

    -Patti Truant

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