“It’s time we all rethink how we price our food.” ~ Bev Eggleston
This post was authored by Bev Eggleston, owner of EcoFriendly Foods and “patron-saint” of the local food movement, in response to a recent Washington Post article: “The New Front in the Culture Wars: Food”. Eggleston’s response was originally posted on Roadside Organics. Learn more about Bev Eggleston and a few of the restaurants EcoFriendly Foods sources to in Harvest to Heat!
It’s hard to deny, “The Golden Arches long ago replaced Mom’s apple pie as a symbol of the all-American meal.” Brent Cunningham and Jane Black got that right this past weekend in discussing the resurgent culture war that pits the First Lady against Sarah Palin in a bitter food fight.
All this political grandstanding divides eaters: heritage turkey aficionados vs. loyal Butterballers. But what it all comes down to is price: the heritage turkey costs $8 more per pound than the Butterball.
But how much of that “extra” cost has to do with the turkey itself? Less than you’d think. Commercial turkey producers enjoy government subsidies and exemptions that make industrial poultry production artificially cheap. Huge federal commodity subsidies cut feed costs for industrial producers. Hundreds of millions of dollars a year is granted to concentrated animal feedlot operations so they can clean up the animal waste generated by the hordes of animals crammed into factory farms. All this adds up to dollars off the supermarket price for your Butterball, and relegates heritage turkeys to organic markets and fancy restaurants.
I lead a cooperative of pastured-only livestock producers. For the past 10 years, our farmers have raised heritage turkeys throughout the Shenandoah Valley. Our turkeys do cost more. Not because they’re raised according to some higher moral standard, but because, without the kinds of subsidies my huge competitors enjoy, they simply are more expensive to produce.
Heritage birds take twice as long as commercial breeds grow to harvest weight. I don’t buy birds grown on subsidized GMO grains. I’m still using equipment salvaged from the 1950s. The volume at my processing facility doesn’t earn me tax breaks. I value my hometown employees so I pay them above market rates. And I have always operated with my heels in debt as my bankers dismiss small farms as lose-lose ventures. How could this ever cover the cost of the $1.99 per pound Butterball turkey?
It simply couldn’t. The only way to grow a turkey for profit at this artificially low price is to re-engineer what nature and history has given us – in other words, throw out traditional animal husbandry and apply an industrial production model. Mechanization. Efficiency. Scale. Forget naturally mating birds and breed highly specialized white meat machines. Take them off the pasture and crowd them into the confines of an indoor feedlot. Then harvest 24 hours a day in multimillion dollar processing facilities owned by American food giants.
Just to put this in perspective. Our largest heritage turkey farm will produce 200 birds a season. A large Butterball turkey factory will produce 200,000 birds per house per season. And most of these factories have multiple houses. At least they got scale right.
The moral of the story is clear; how can sustainable livestock producers compete when the deck is stacked in favor of the Butterball? Especially when the government is at the whim of massive political contributions that sway votes at the top of this “gustatory shake up.” It’s time we all rethink how we price our food. We can all agree that $10 a pound is too expensive for turkey — skewering it in “elitism” before it even arrives at the farmers market. But it’s Congress, not farmers, who can make the difference. We all deserve to know the real cost of the Butterball. So let’s be wary of the political rhetoric that echoes from the now infamous Pennsylvania classroom.