“My kids eat a lot of hot dogs, and the prices just got too high,” said Wagoner, 36. “Finally we said, ‘This is outrageous. What else can we do?’”
He and his wife spent about $2,000 — including $700 on the freezer — and now have enough meat to last a year. Their weekly grocery bill has dropped to about $125.
Inflation has been at or near 40-year highs since the spring, but households have been saddled with two years of high food prices. Meat prices in particular have risen 17 percent since July 2020, prompting households across the country to change their buying patterns and eating habits.
More than 70 percent of Americans have adjusted how they buy meat because of inflation, according to Glynn Tonsor, a professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University who oversees the School Meat Demand Monitor, which surveys 2,000 people around the country about their meat consumption and purchasing habits.
Many are buying less meat or trading in cheaper cuts — bacon instead of pork chops, for example, Tonsor said.
But some, like Wagoner, are taking a more extreme approach: buying whole animals and putting them in the freezer as a way to save money.
“With prices going up at the meat counter, there’s definitely been more direct interest from consumers,” said Jess Peterson, senior policy adviser for the US Cattlemen’s Association and a cattle rancher in southeastern Montana. “Our prices are still lower than what anyone would pay in store.”
Food prices are still rising. Here’s how the Americans are coping.
Meat prices have continued to rise even as other costs have decreased. Overall meat and poultry prices are up 11 percent from a year ago, while the cost of chicken is up nearly 18 percent, according to the latest data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Ham costs 12 percent more than last summer.
The number of Americans buying meat directly from wholesale farms, while still low, is higher than it was before the pandemic, Kansas State’s Tonsor said. Early Covid-related shutdowns and shortages prompted many Americans to seek more direct, local sources of meat. But lately, supermarket sticker shock is driving a specific type of family — with the money and space — to buy and store hundreds of pounds of beef, pork or chicken at once. In interviews, cattle farmers across the country said they were making more requests for direct orders. Some were completely reconfiguring their businesses to accommodate half and quarter cow purchases.
“People are looking more for a deal now,” said Dana Carey, owner of Circle Bar Beef in Fort Bidwell, California. “They’re less concerned about where the meat comes from and more concerned about whether they can afford to get it. on the table.”
Most of the cows from the Carey family farm are put out to pasture or sold to feed lots and eventually make their way to grocery stores across the country. However, at the start of the pandemic, she realized that people were looking to get their meat locally, from sustainable sources. She found a meat processor nearby and began selling beef directly to consumers.
But lately, interest has been through the roof for another reason: everyone wants free range beef.
To that end, Carey has begun shipping 20-pound boxes of beef to customers nationwide. Sales started picking up about eight months ago, she said, just as fuel prices started to rise.
Even in the face of rising food prices, retail beef and pork prices are shocking
At Wilson Dowell Farms in Calvert County, Md., demand for half a whole cow has been so brisk among customers in suburban Washington, D.C., that owner Jason Leavitt is already sold out for the year. He specializes in grass-fed beef and has had to raise prices by $2 a pound to keep up with a sevenfold increase in grass seed prices.
However, he says many customers tell him that buying direct has become cheaper than getting meat at the grocery store. He pays $10 per pound for a quarter cow, though the price per pound drops to $9.50 for a half cow and $9 for a whole.
“There’s all this talk about inflation, and I think a lot of people are piling up at this point because of higher prices and shortages,” said Leavitt, who also has a day job at the county’s public works department. “There’s a certain level of comfort in knowing you have a fridge full of beef.”
The freezer itself, which can cost several hundred dollars and takes up a good deal of space and electricity, is one of the biggest obstacles to buying large slabs of meat, Tonsor said. And buying a year’s worth of beef, pork or poultry often involves hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. There are other reasons such transactions may be impractical.
“It doesn’t work for a lot of people because they don’t like all the cuts, or they don’t know how to cook all the cuts,” Tonsor said. “Or maybe they’re a single person who doesn’t need 200 pounds of meat.”
In latest effort to combat rising prices, White House to offer $1 billion in aid to smaller meat producers
In Montrose, Colo., Katherine and Adam Egloff recently decided that 185 pounds of beef was just right for their family of three. The couple, who own a Jimmy John’s franchise, have seen firsthand how scarce and expensive meat has become: Shipments of sliced turkey and cured meats like capicola at their sandwich shop have been unclear for months.
This summer, they bought a quarter of a cow for $600, and now have T-bone steaks, roasts, stews and a cow’s liver in a freezer in their garage.
“Grass-fed beef has become so expensive that it was like, ‘Why am I spending so much at the store when I can just stock up?'” said Katherine, 37. “We’re definitely saving money. And if the shelves of stores are sometimes empty, we know we have six months of beef in the freezer.”
Meat sold directly to consumers takes a fairer and cheaper route than beef that ends up on grocery store shelves. Most of these cattle originate on family-owned farms, then are sold to feed lots where they are fattened before being sold to a meat processor. The four major meat packers — Cargill, JBS, Tyson Foods and National Beef Packing — process roughly 85 percent of the beef from many U.S. grocers.
That arrangement, industry experts and agricultural economists say, creates a monopoly-like environment that can work to keep prices higher. Even as meat processors are reporting record profits, the amount of money returned to farmers has declined over the past half century. Farmers currently receive 39 cents of every dollar consumers spend on beef, compared with 67 cents on the dollar 50 years ago, according to monthly data from the US Department of Agriculture.
“There’s a big difference between what consumers pay and what farmers get,” said Claire Kelloway, who manages the food and farming systems program at the Open Markets Institute, a nonprofit that advocates against monopolies. “You have the price of beef rising to record levels, and yet the price farmers are getting has fallen. Processors, however, have made astronomical profits.”
Legislators question beef leaders about rising feed prices
Sarah Little, a spokeswoman for the North American Beef Institute, an industry lobbying group, said a number of other factors, such as cattle shortages and rising costs for labor, transportation and energy, have pushed up prices.
Glenn Bloom, a computer specialist in Oklahoma City, says higher food prices prompted him and his wife, Ana, to buy a quarter cow from a nearby farm. The couple ordered a refrigerator for their laundry room and paid $875 for 175 pounds of grass-fed Black Angus beef that will arrive next month.
“Now instead of $15 a pound for steaks, it’s going to be $5 a pound,” Glenn, 61, said. “This way we don’t have to worry about price increases or availability decreases. It just made perfect sense to us.”