AND WHY IT’S SO WORTH IT.
From time to time people ask why Grass Roots meats are so expensive. And why shouldn’t they? Conventional producers are selling whole chickens in grocery stores for $0.99 per pound, and we charge our loyal e-commerce customers about $4.50 per pound. At these prices, our farmers driving around in Mercedes and weekending in Malibu, right? Hardly.
While to many of you this seems laughable, unfortunately, there are a lot of misguided assumptions about food value chains—largely due to the lack of industry transparency. While it’s certainly reasonable to think that a farmer-owned cooperative should be able to sell their foods more inexpensively—since essentially it’s a farm-to-front-door model—unfortunately, food systems in our country are actually set up quite differently. Here’s a little number crunching to shed some light on this issue.
FROM CHICK TO MARKET
Here are Grass Roots costs for a 4-pound, whole chicken that’s ready to take to market.
CO-OP’S TOTAL COST FOR ONE WHOLE CHICKEN
That leaves Grass Roots taking home $0.58 to cover its operational costs and return profit to the farmer-owners.
So, “How in the world do they make a profit?” Sadly, the answer is that right now we don’t. And—as scary as it is to admit that—it’s important for you to know the truth, that building a business that supports small-scale farmers extremely challenging.
Part of the problem is that farming responsibly is not cheap. GMO-free feed is much more expensive than conventional. And paying farmers a living wage for the animals they raise really drives up the cost of that meat. But, largely, it’s an issue of scale.
A Grass Roots Prairie schooner—the portable, open-aired structure that houses our chickens continually access to fresh pasture—is home to about 500 birds. A large chicken house owned by big poultry can hold about 25,000 birds. Each house. So, while the largest Grass Roots farm is raising less than 1500 chickens at a time, the big guys can do upwards of 100,000 birds. On a single farm.
Let’s ignore productions standards and the quality of the final product for just a bit. When you raise hundreds of thousands of chickens a day, your cost per bird is crazy low. Chicks, feed, transportation, processing—we’re talking pennies. And so is the farmer payout. For a four-pound chicken, a farmer growing for an industrial ag company is paid about $0.24–$0.30.
# OF BIRDS IN A FLOCK
500 vs 25,000
# PROCESSED AT A TIME
1,000 vs 100,000
$ PAYMENT TO FARMER
$3.14 vs. $0.30
So, why are we pushing back against large-scale operations and doing things differently? Because we believe farming is a craft and that food shouldn’t be a commodity, that animals aren’t widgets and food shouldn’t be cheap. We believe that—by raising small-batches of animals outdoors—we’re taking better care of those animals and the land they live on. And we believe that conscientious consumers need better food options and that small-scale farmers should have the opportunity to earn a living wage.
Our cooperative was established by farmers who think differently about how food should be raised, distributed, purchased, and consumed. Yes, there are a lot of start-up costs when you build a new value chain. And, yes, right now we’re operating at a loss. But we’re willing to take risks and to grind towards a revitalized food system because we believe we can make this change sustainable. We believe in being better than the status quo—in ridiculously high standards and in accountability. And we believe in your right to eat with confidence.
Thank you for paying $17.60 for a chicken. And thank you for asking why it’s so expensive. When you look at the numbers, the answer is pretty straight forward. So maybe the better question to ask is, “What’s the real cost of cheap chicken?”