Why Does Beef From a Local Farm Cost So Much More Than What's in the Grocery Store?

Q: I would like to try some beef from my local farmers market, but the prices are astronomical. Why does a side of beef from a local farm cost so much more than what’s in the grocery store?

A: After watching yet another salmonella scare, this time involving millions of recalled eggs, it’s time to look at the long and winding path that takes food from farm to table.

In a previous column, I explained the benefits of buying local produce. It’s no secret that locally grown vegetables have better flavor and a smaller carbon footprint. The same principle applies to meat.

After breaking in my new slow cooker with locally produced rump roast from a farmers market near my home, I upgraded to steak. I admit to getting sticker shock when it was time to pay for nearly three pounds of beefy goodness, so I shared your question with Suzanne Welander, coordinator of the meat CSA for Riverview Farms, which is about 70 miles north of Atlanta.

Their CSA membership comprises two, six-month options: 10 pounds of meat delivered monthly for a total of $410 or 16 pounds for $770. The smaller option includes 3.5 pounds of pork sausage, 2.5 pounds of pork or beef roasts, 1.5 pounds of pork chops or steak and 2.5 pounds of ground beef available for monthly pickup at local stores.

“We want to make it easy for families to have sustainably raised local meat in their freezer so that, at any time, they have something they feel comfortable feeding their family,” Welander said. “Every month, we have about 100 subscribers.”

Each membership breaks down to $6.83 per pound and $8.02 per pound, respectively, which is still pretty expensive compared to the cost per pound for ground beef or steak at most grocery chains. Welander offered a few interesting reasons behind the price difference.

Children’s storybooks depict a cow’s life on green pastures that stretch for miles. The reality for commercially raised cows is quite different. Most spend their lives on massive feedlots, raised on a diet that primarily consists of cheap, subsidized corn.

“The cow will eat it, but that will make it sick and cause lesions in the stomach,” Welander said. “That’s a big reason they feed antibiotics.”

Smaller farms let cows take their sweet time reaching maturity. That usually takes about two years — and a lot of grass.

“They spend that out on pasture, so it’s more of a time investment,” Welander said. “During the wintertime, when there is no grass, we feed them hay harvested earlier in the year.”

Most commercial beef producers focus on raising cows that will yield the highest profit margin.

Crossbreeding helps them maximize qualities such as size at maturity, adaptability to a feedlot environment, and degree of marbling (fat to meat ratio).

“Animals have been bred to be conducive to large production — to put on meat rapidly,” said Welander. “Taste has suffered as consequence.”

Riverview sticks with a breed of cattle called South Poll. It’s a smaller, chunkier cow that likes grass and was bred to tolerate heat well. Small farms also prefer to raise heritage breeds, purebred animals such as the British Birkshire pig, which first set hooves on U.S. soil in the 1800s. This hearty pig likes wide-open spaces and is known for its flavorful dark meat — neither quality is favorable to commercial producers. But high-end restaurant chefs have been beating a path to farms like Riverview for this tasty pig.

For those of us who didn’t attend culinary school, it’s important to note that grass-fed beef typically has more muscle tissue and more of an earthy flavor. As a result, cooks need to handle this precious commodity with care. A dash of salt and pepper followed by a date with a hot skillet won’t yield the same results as you get from fattier, corn-fed beef. Unfortunately, I didn’t get that memo before sizzling up my steak.

“I butter the living daylights out of it,” said food blogger and former dining critic Meridith Ford Goldman, who likes to grill her steak or sear it for braising. She added that seasoning and tenderizing grass-fed meat is key to unlocking its rich, earthy flavor.

Welander also notes that it’s best to cook grass-fed meat at a lower temperature, or cut the meat into strips against the grain. When in doubt, ask the farmer for advice based on the cut you select. Serious home cooks may want to check out “The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook: Healthy Cooking & Good Living with Pasture Raised Foods” by Shannon Hayes for more information. Of course, it also pays to ask your farmer or butcher for advice.

I hope this column moves you to try a grass-fed beef during your next trip to the farmers market.

— Morieka Johnson

Got a question? Submit a question to Mother Nature and one of our many experts will track down the answer. Plus: Visit our advice archives to see if your question has already been tackled.