I've been mulling over this post for quite a while now. Whether I should even write it, what the POV should be, is it going to backfire on us, etc. All questions that I've been working through, but after a few recent interactions with folks and some stark realizations after reflecting back on this year's growing season thus far, I felt like I had to write it. Here is a conversation from a farmer's market interaction not too long ago: " Hi there, thanks for coming to the market." " We're so happy you're here, we've been looking for free range, heritage Chicken. " " Oh that's great. While it's not a heritage breed, it's a different breed that raises out much longer than your standard Cornish Cross and is a far better ranger around the pasture. " " That's great, how much is it a pound? " " $6.00 whole, $6.50 cut up. " " Wait, so one chicken will cost me $18.00? That's outrageous! I am happy to pay $2.00 or even $3.00/lb for chicken, but that is crazy. " " I'm sorry you feel that way, but as I explained, they are far better rangers, take longer to grow and have superior flavor. " " I just can't see how you can charge $6.00/lb. " " Ok, well, have a nice day and thanks for coming. "
Kate and I stared at each other and just started laughing after about 30 seconds of silence and awkward smirking. Our booth partners were also chuckling, as they've been doing this a lot longer than we have and face similar comments about their beef, but apparently not nearly to the degree and frequency that we do with regards to chicken. It made me think though, where is this expectation coming from? Why is it that people seem 'ok' with higher prices for pork and beef, but chicken, regardless of rearing method, is still just a cheap commodity to most. What pricing is not "crazy" and how is it that people seem qualified to evaluate the merits of our pricing? So, lets dive in a bit and I'll reveal just how we calculate pricing.
Determining Factors on Pricing
- Growth Time - 14 weeks
- Feed conversion ratio (best case) - 4:1 [yes, 4 lbs of food per every 1 lb of carcass weight gained]
- Average weight after processing [carcass yield] - 3 lbs
- Bird Cost - $3.00 per chick
- USDA Processing - $5.50 per bird
- Processing: $4.00
- Giblets: $1.00
- Neck & Feet: $0.50
- Organic Feed Cost - $0.44/lb [$22.00 for 50 lb. bag]
Summary of costs
- Total Feed Cost per bird: $5.28
- Our Total Bird Cost: $13.78
- Consumer Cost: $18.00
- Profit per bird: $4.22
* All feed is over 75% locally grown by a 4th generation farmer roughly 30 miles from our farm.
This is the basic formula for how we calculate our pricing, however, here is what we're not charging for, but arguably should be:
- Our Time
- Farmer's market fees
- Misc. Expenses
If we were to add in incremental charges for this list, we'd be up in the $7.00/lb - $9.00/lb range easily. Obviously, that's not going to happen, but why shouldn't it? That is the cost of producing chickens after all. The answer is simple— no one gives a shit about chicken, or meat chickens for that matter. They are well below other livestock, such as pigs and cows on the totem pole of "care" and marginally above fish when it comes to the meat we consume. Backyard laying hen keepers name their individual birds and devote swaths of their social media presence to following them around taking pictures, but what about the chicken they eat? There are blogs devoted to candid pictures of egg-laying chickens with cute homemade Pinteresty coops in the background, yet the chickens we eat are relegated to wooden suitcases in the middle of fields at best. I would venture to say that people care more about their vegetable growth practices than they do about how a chicken or fish are raised, caught and processed. If you disagree, look no further than the rabid GMO debates vs. the actual outcry of debate around industrial raised chickens. Anecdotally, a simple search on google reveals far more articles and rhetoric around GMO than it does about industrial chicken production. People will pay $1.00 per lime and $3.00/lb for tomatoes, but a chicken, they want at $2.00.
We decided to humor ourselves with this realization and see if we could drastically change our pricing, and this year we decided to try to get our costs down on birds. We've tried 4 different breeds now, tried different feed amounts and here is what we came up with. If we want to raise a $3.00/lb chicken, you'll be eating Cornish X, raised on Conventional Feed with minimal grazing, as the birds simply don't graze to the same degree. They'll have an abundance of white meat, little flavor and will be the furthest thing from heritage breed chickens you can possibly buy. In short, that won't be happening on our farm, even if it means we don't sell chickens publicly anymore. It's just pointless, lazy and continues to encourage and support Laissez-faire attitudes and inconsiderate behavior by consumers. They will continue to undervalue the life and true cost of a chicken if we change our raising habits and ethics to produce an inferior product simply to compete on price. For us, on our scale, with what we want to do, it's not worth it to change.
If you think this is simply a result of industrial farming, you're flat-out wrong. You need look no further than the god of chicken farming himself, Joel Salatin. (Editors note: That is sarcasm). He will not, and has been very open about it, raise anything other than Cornish X chickens because every other chicken is just not profitable at the per-pound costs his customers are willing to pay. Even more disturbing to us, is that he speaks to the idea of "pastured" and "free range" poultry, however, these chickens never free range. They are confined to 10ft x 10ft boxes, with slightly more than 8" of head clearance, and simply live their entire lives in that box. If you're against confinement farming, tell me how it's ok for 30+ birds to live in a 10ft x 10ft box their entire life, moved or not? I am not delusional, I realize this is a huge level above standard CAFO-raised poultry, but if this is what the community looks to as the standard for small farm chicken production, we're nothing short of fucked. We will never get to a point where heritage birds are on people's plate because people just won't be willing to pay. Even small farmers will continue to encourage and support the behavior of "Chicken should be cheap".
Note, the argument that people should eat less meat but higher quality meat, we fundamentally agree with, but it's also way beyond unrealistic to expect 280 million people to change their eating habits at this point in the game. We fully support the ideal of that, however, we chose to support the practice of getting better meat to people who want to eat meat than to chastise them for their food consumption decisions.
Here's the rub though, there is a huge difference between saying "that's crazy," and "I can't afford that price." We have, and always will continue, to work with people to find a way to get our food in their hands with a payment method and plan that works for them. We've tailored a CSA share to accommodate a lower food budget than we initially offered. We've provided payment plans to folks who needed to spread out costs. We've cut chickens in halves to make the overall end price more affordable. We've even done home deliveries and looked into accepting food stamps for those who need it. This isn't meant as a self righteous sharing, but rather to speak to the flexibility that's possible to support and encourage good relationships and understanding between farmers and consumers.
We always have options. We always have ways to get the quality of food we believe in to customers, but those options don't have to include an inferior product. Work with your community to educate and accommodate positive behaviors. But, Consumers, this goes both ways. Work with your farmer, help them understand what your wants and needs are. I promise you, 9 out of 10 farmers will work with you. It's selfishly to our benefit so that we can continue to do what we do, the way we want to do it.
To those of our customers who have supported us and continue to do so, thank you so much. We look forward to your stories of enjoying the meals, surprising your friends with superior flavor and even just the fact that you're willing pay $6.00 a pound for our chickens. We appreciate it and so do the chickens (well, mostly, until you eat them).