The COVID-19 pandemic that crippled packing plants fueled a spike in demand for local meat processing services. Many locker facilities went from being a few weeks out to get an animal processed to being booked into 2021. Some were booked solid even before slaughter disruptions occurred. Front-counter sales skyrocketed in many cases.
COVID-19 also impacted the other end of the continuum. Farmers markets and farm stands delayed openings and changed operating procedures, which all likely impacted sales. Farm-to-school programs, which provide resources to help schools procure and serve locally produced food, may have been impacted.
A few reasons livestock producers may be interested in selling locally include having:
- an available market
- potential to capture premium prices
- a direct connection with consumers
- recognition for their production practices and products
In late-February, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service began reporting fruit and vegetable, beef, pork, lamb and veal, and dairy advertised prices for products identified as local, organic, or local and organic.
Among meats, beef is by far the most commonly reported. The National Retail Report — Local and Organic (WA_LO100) summarizes advertised prices at major retail supermarkets. These advertised prices provide no indication on sales volume. But by publishing current prices, USDA provides supply chain participants information to evaluate market conditions, identify trends and monitor price patterns.
Producers can compare the local price information with customary prices relayed in USDA’s National Retail Report — Beef. It provides a summary of weighted average prices for beef cuts being promoted or featured in supermarkets. Together the two reports provide a rough, moment in time, comparison. Promoted items change week to week. Thus, not every product has both local and conventional prices advertised each week.
Missing data means prices can only be compared during weeks when conventional and local products are both advertised. These are national, aggregate comparisons. Price difference could vary greatly by region. Seasonality likely exists. Quality grade is not reported but could potentially impact price differences. Many times, a meat product may be local even though it isn’t advertised as such, especially in the Midwest.
Do consumers pay more for local beef?
The simple answer is generally consumers do pay more for local beef. Averaging across all 28 beef products, over the last seven months, the premium for local has been $1.09 per pound. The maximum was $10.22 per pound for one product one week while the minimum was −$2.17: a discount.
The number of beef products advertised as local is relatively low. Over the last seven months, the weekly average of beef products advertised as local ran about 5.2% of all beef advertisements. Not surprisingly, some of the highest weeks with advertisements for local beef were during the height of national beef processing capacity reductions. In April and May, 9% of the advertisements, on average, were for local beef.
Premiums can differ greatly by product. Beef comes in fixed proportions. Individual cuts come from seven primals — rib, chuck, round, loin, brisket, short plate and flank. Garnering local premiums for high-end cuts such as steaks may be easy — less so for low-end cuts. The producer and retailer, if there is one, need to sell the whole carcass. Some lower-priced products, like ground beef, are often in high demand, and local premiums appear to consistently exist.
On the other hand, paying an extra few dollars for locally produced high-end products may not be attractive for some consumers. Advertised prices during Aug. 28 through Sept. 3 for local boneless ribeye steaks were $12.99 per pound. Boneless ribeye steaks, not identified as local, were advertised for $9.44 per pound. That’s a $3.55-per-pound premium for local, if everything else about the boneless ribeye steaks is the same.
That week local boneless sirloin steaks sold for $1.03 per pound lower than their non-local counterparts. Ground beef 80% to 89% lean had a local premium, while local boneless New York strip steak and flank steak had lower advertised prices. Local products can be at a premium one week and at a discount another.
Even though buying local may eliminate the cost of a middleman, local food still often creates sticker-shock for some consumers because local food can be either the same price or more expensive than non-local foods in a grocery store.
Small-scale producers or those selling locally may have higher production and marketing costs, which translates to pricier products for consumers. Larger producers and supply chains have the structure to run more efficient operations and can generally afford to externalize costs that a smaller, local supply chain may not.
On the revenue side, large processors can earn more for byproducts helping to offset costs. They refine different parts into usable products and sell in large enough volumes to access international markets.
System needs to find balance
Packing plants of all sizes, serving all markets, have important roles in the meat industry. Not surprisingly, recent disruptions fuel calls for change. But lawmakers should take care to appreciate the economic forces driving the industry’s development. U.S. beef production is concentrated in the Midwest and Southern Plains. Higher-capacity federally inspected slaughter plants evolved in these states to accommodate large slaughter volumes.
Scale and supply chain capacity likely developed to capture efficiencies. So, any reversal of these trends would have cost implications to the food system. Ultimately, the system must develop a careful balance between efficiency in desired meat production during normal times with greater resiliency during disruptions.
Small meat processors can only process a few animals each day. They cannot pick up the slack if larger counterparts go down. For example, according to USDA’s most recent Livestock Slaughter Annual Summary report, the U.S. has 480 federally inspected cattle slaughter plants with capacity to slaughter 1 to 999 head annually. In 2019, they slaughtered 163,200 head, or 0.5% of the total. Working through the math, on average, each facility slaughtered 340 head per year, or 6.5 head per week, or 1.2 head per day.
Similarly, the 107 plants that slaughter between 1,000 and 9,999 head annually would have average yearly, weekly and daily slaughter levels of 2,444 head, 47 head and nine head, respectively. Some of these small slaughter establishments would have more throughput. Some would have less. Volumes in many state-inspected or custom-exempt plants serving local markets are comparable.
Fewer, but larger ‘local’ marketers
The 2012 Census of Agriculture was the first year USDA gathered detailed data on direct-to-consumer sales. Almost 75,000 livestock farms direct-marketed over $352 million of products.
The next, and most recent, Census of Agriculture in 2017 indicates direct-to-consumer sales had topped $588 million, while the number of farms dipped to about 65,000. Only 6.1% of livestock farms sold directly to consumers, and sales only accounted for 0.3% of the total.
Poultry and egg production had the highest percentage of farms at 18.3%, and sheep and goat had the highest percentage of sales dollars at 3.7%. Beef had 29,155 producers (4.5% of the total beef farms) selling directly. It accrued over $206 million (0.3% of the total beef sales dollars). The average per beef farm was $7,083.
In addition to direct marketing, locally produced food moves to market through other venues. USDA categorizes them as “Retail markets, institutions and food hubs for local or regionally branded products.” The first Census of Agriculture gathering specific data on these venues was in 2017.
While the number of livestock farms participating in this type of marketing was lower at 9,252, or 0.9% of the farms, sales were higher at over $2 billion, or 1.0% of the total sales dollars. There were 2,984 beef farms (0.5% of the total beef farms), which generated over $101 million (0.1% of the total beef sales dollars). The average per beef farm was $33,948.
Schulz is the ISU Extension livestock economist. Email email@example.com.