Thirteen years ago, I dragged Deus Ex Machina (and our daughters) kicking and screaming down the Locavore path.
Finding local produce, especially during the summer, proved pretty easy. We have always had a garden, and so we are able to provide some food for ourselves, but not everything we wanted. Much to our delight, we discovered, even back in those days, before eating local was what everyone does, there was a thriving local farming community. We had a Farmer's Market, a smattering of PYO farms for fruit and berries, and farm stands were, and still are, on every corner from late June until early October. We could get all of the corn, potatoes, cabbage, strawberries, blueberries, and apples we could carry.
We also found seafood (mostly lobster), and a couple of sources of local milk and cheese. The local dairies also, occasionally, had beef, but it seemed like prices per pound were a lot higher than we were paying at the grocery store.
Which was fine. We adjusted. I got creative. We still ate meat at nearly every meal, but the portion sizes got much smaller, and there's no such thing as waste. Every bit is used, and yes, we do leftovers.
Once we were well and good on the locavore path, we started looking for ways to stretch our growing season so that we could have that locally produced food year round. We have learned many ways to preserve the harvest. My favorite way to preserve vegetables (and eggs) is through pickling/fermenting. I learned how to can everything from strawberry jam to chicken meat and broth. We have a dehydrator and know how to use it!
We also started looking for bulk purchases. Finding a local place to purchase 50 lbs of potatoes all at once was a happy discovery.
And, then, we discovered cow-shares and pig-shares. Basically, we hire a local farmer to raise an animal for us. It takes pre-planning, because we have to agree to the share well in advance of receiving the meat, and we don't know how much we'll get. Sometimes we don't get anything, like the time we ordered a turkey, but all of the birds succumbed to black-head disease. We had lobster for Thanksgiving dinner that year.
Buying a meat-share is a form of Community Supported Agriculture - we give the farmer a down payment to raise the animal, and then, when the animal reaches butchering age, we pay a price per pound of hanging weight. And we pay the butchering fees.
The butcher that most of my meat-share farmers use is the same butcher we have always used for our chickens. After almost thirteen years of seeing me every summer, they know my name, which is kind of cool. They also know that I am a good, solid customer, and the result is that if I say, "Hey, if you hear of anyone who has an extra ____share they'd like to sell," I will get a call and be able to stock my freezer.
This past week, I was out at the butchers a couple of times. Last week, I picked up our cow-share, and a couple of days later, I dropped off and picked up our chickens.
Their facility is a few miles from me down some beautiful, windy, country roads with more trees than traffic. I dislike driving during the summer here in my tourist-y area, because there are just too many cars on the road being driven by too many people who are here on vacation - with all of the entitled attitude that brings, but this drive - being off the tourist path - is kind of nice.
As I was meandering under cool shade of the tree-lined blacktop, I started thinking about the beef and chicken, which started me thinking about the cost.
Above I mention that we had grown accustomed to paying more, but when my mind started wandering and those numbers started adding up, I realized that we are, actually, paying less.
Pound for Pound
To get an idea of what other people pay for "locally raised, sustainably grown" beef, I found this local butcher shop. The butcher I mention as "my butcher" above is not a shop, but a service. They do not sell meat. They process the live animal, which I (or my farmer friend) provide, and I am purchasing their service.
For a chicken, the cost per pound will depend on the size of my chicken. The larger the bird, obviously, the more cost savings, for me. On average, our chickens weigh 6lbs, fully dressed out. When I have my chickens butchered, I get a whole, frozen bird. I also get the hearts, livers, and necks (for soup). Everything included (chicks, feed, and butchering), I pay about $1.50 per pound for the whole chicken.
The above linked butcher shop sells whole chickens for $2.99/lb. The cost for chicken portions, like legs and wings, varies. The breast meat is $9.99/lb.
We're not, necessarily, talking apples to apples, because my birds are raised, by me, in my backyard. I know where they've been and what they've done. I know they haven't been given antibiotics or other questionable pharmaceuticals just to keep them alive long enough to reach butchering age. They spend time outside walking around in the yard, eating grass, and catching bugs, and drinking from the garden hose.
But for a cost analysis, this shop is about as close to what I have in my freezer as I'm going to get. A six pound chicken at this shop is $17.94. I save $8.49, per bird, by raising my own. We raised 27 birds this year. Over the course of the year, by raising my own, I have saved my family $229.23.
What I've found is that sourcing local beef has the same sort of cost savings, just in pounds per meat.
We just purchased a quarter cow. Our portion was 180 lbs, and it worked out to around $6/lb. Most of it is ground beef, which means, yes, I paid $6/lb for ground beef, which seemed like a lot, but the butcher shop linked above advertises their 80/20 beef at $6.99/lb. I don't know what the ratio of beef to fat is in the ground beef in my freezer, but what I do know is that it is so lean that I need to add olive oil to keep it from sticking to the pan, and I NEVER have to drain the grease off my taco meat, because there is none.
But that's not it. I paid $6/lb for beef: ground beef, tenderloin, T-bone steak, filet mignon, sandwich steaks, stew meat, rump roast, chuck roast .... All cuts, from the lowliest of the low to the high brow choices, are $6/lb.
I averaged the price per pound for the different cuts of meat at that butcher shop above, and the average (adding up all of the prices per pound for the different cuts they offer that are also in my freezer) cost per pound is $18.18. So, if we use that number and say that I was going to buy all of the same cuts that I have in my freezer, 180 lbs of meat at that butcher shop would cost $3240. Including butchering fees, I saved over $2000 by purchasing a cow share.
Just by raising our own chickens and by purchasing a cow share, I have saved my family $2229.23 per year.
But that's not all.
We save in cost per pound for the meat, but that's not where the savings ends.
Buying in bulk, like a quarter of a cow at a time, and raising our own allows me to spend less time in the grocery store. This past year, I also started purchasing online and in bulk, which means visits to the store are even fewer. I haven't been to the big grocery store in months. I have visited a locally owned, small boutique grocery store and the small, locally owned town grocery store (mostly catering to tourists, but there are regular groceries there, too) a few times per month over the past year.
According to this article, consumers spend an average of $5400 per year on impluse buys, and 70% of respondents list food as their biggest impulse.
I don't know that we are, exactly, average. I do know that we spent a lot of money on groceries, when I had to shop in store, and I was going to the store every week. Sometimes more often, because we "forgot" something, or we wanted a meal for which I didn't have all of the ingredients, or we wanted some quick food (which I don't normally purchase), and we were just going to run in and get some frozen pizza. The "how's that working for ya?" question is a good one right here.
How that worked, for us, was that we would spend less money eating out, but we spent a LOT on groceries, and even more, because every single time we stepped into that grocery store, there was the potential, and usually the inevitability, that we would spend more than we had intended. A trip for a couple of $9 pizzas could end up costing $80, on top of the $250 to $300 from the previous "weekly" shopping trip.
Buying meat in bulk from a local producer means that I can purchase non-perishables, pet food, and toiletries (like toilet paper) in bulk online, and I can get all of our produce at the farm stand, which means what I need from a grocery store is pretty much, nothing. If I allow for a quarter of the "impulse" buying, because I'm spending only a quarter of the time in the store, I have saved my family $2362.50 so far this year by limiting my visits to the grocery store. At the end of the year, our savings - if we did, indeed spend the average - will be $4050.
In short, between the cost-per-pound savings and the limited impulse buys, we are saving $6250/year.
The average hourly worker in Maine earns $18/hour. That works out to 347 hours or over 8 weeks worth of full time work to earn the equivalent of what we save annually by purchasing in bulk, raising our own, and limiting our shopping trips/impulse purchases.
Wow! Who knew being a carnivore could be frugal?*
*And also, since all of our meat is locally sourced, we are eating more sustainably and eco-friendly than the average American.