Shaun and Shannon Cooper of Minneapolis willingly pay more for their meat, sometimes almost 40 percent more. It's the price of buying local, but the Coopers don't mind. "We could buy cheaper meat, but there are hidden costs," he said. "What costs me more now will cost society less in the end."
By purchasing locally raised chicken, pork and beef from animals raised without hormones, medications or animal byproducts, they believe they are eating healthier. Grass-fed animals are often lower in fat and cholesterol and have a higher omega-3 content. The Coopers have been buying meat at the St. Paul farmers markets for a couple of years now. "It's a safety issue for us," said Shaun.
It's a concern that's been highlighted by the Cold Spring, Minn., woman left paralyzed after eating a Cargill-produced hamburger patty contaminated with E. coli. Buyers of locally raised and processed meat feel a sense of control when they buy directly from a farmer who can answer questions about the conditions in which the animals are raised, what they're fed and how they're processed.
Generally, small farms (raising 150 to 300 chickens at a time, for example) are thought to be cleaner and more humane than large-scale feedlots. Some, such as Otis Family Farms in Baldwin, Wis., have an open-door policy for anyone wishing to visit. In addition to the transparency, buyers are minimizing the distance the food travels, helping small- or midsize farms, and keeping money in the local economy.
The interest in locally raised meat is difficult to measure, but the number of farmers selling directly to the public is steadily growing, said Paul Hugunin, coordinator of the Minnesota Grown Program. In 2008, the program included 60 beef producers. There were 69 in 2009. The number of chicken and pork producers increased at a lesser rate. Larger increases have been seen in the number of farmers markets and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) organizations, both of which include farmers selling chicken, beef, pork, lamb, turkey or bison.
Part of the reason the growth is steady but slow is price. For shoppers used to paying $2 per pound or less for ground beef and chicken breasts, prices for meat from small Minnesota farms can be a shock. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are about $7 per pound, whole chickens about $3 per pound. Ground beef is about $3.50 per pound. Whole Foods' prices -- for nonlocal, certified organic meat -- are generally even higher.
In addition to buying directly from farmers, Twin Cities residents can find products from Bar Five, Callister Farms, Kadejan, Otis Family Farms, Prairie Pride and Thousand Hills, for example, at co-ops and some grocery stores (see accompanying story).
Customers might be disappointed that few local meat producers are certified organic. Bob Otis said that his farm has adopted many organic principles: The chickens, cows, pigs, lambs and turkeys roam in pastures, not confined in cages. Many growers refuse to, for example, feed animals hormones, antibiotics or animal byproducts, but they find the paperwork and expense required for organic certification prohibitive, Otis said. The advantage to buying local is that customers can ask the farmer directly about their farming methods.
Still, even some longtime buyers are struggling with the prices. Vicki Potts, owner of Grassroots Gourmet in Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis, said that the recession didn't seem to affect many of her customers until the past three months.
"They're telling me that they really care where their food comes from, but they have to shop at Costco right now," Potts said. "Others say they'll buy clothes at St. Vincent de Paul [thrift store] if they have to, but they won't give up buying local meat."
Farmers are sympathetic. "I don't argue with the customer. I know I'm expensive," said John Wemeier, who owns Bar 5 Meat & Poultry in Arlington, Minn. Wemeier, who sells at the St. Paul Farmers Market, tries to hook customers on the taste and suggests they try a small package of bacon, breakfast sausages or whole chicken.
For other customers, buying smaller packages of meat meshes well with goals to cut back on beef for health and environmental reasons. (The world's livestock alone accounts for 18 percent of all greenhouse gases, according to recent a U.N. study.)
When I compared prices on ground beef, chicken breasts and whole chickens among local, small farmers, the difference was usually less than 5 percent. Even though production costs can vary a great deal, the farmers seem to keep prices consistent.
Dawn Hubmer of Prairie Pride Farms in Mankato said that she tries to keep her prices the same no matter where the items are sold. That means she takes less of a profit when selling to co-ops and more of a profit at farmers markets. Consumers who want to support the farmers in particular can usually do so by buying direct from them at farmers' markets, Hubmer said.
There are ways to save. Some farmers offer discounts for larger quantities. The Coopers buy a package of beef steaks, pork chops, bacon and chicken for $145. Other packages are more than twice that amount for people who want a quarter or half side of beef or pork and have a free-standing freezer.
For those with only a fridge-freezer, some farmers market vendors offer weekly specials or punch cards for frequent buyers. Grocery stores and co-ops run specials occasionally. For example, whole chickens from Kadejan Farms recently were on sale for $1.99 per pound at the Wedge in Minneapolis.
With small farms, economies of scale go out the window, Otis said. A hungry raccoon, dog or weasel can decimate a chicken crop, but prices stay constant. "It's more of a lifestyle than a way to make a living," he said.