eat the richPosted: January 12, 2011
In West Virginia, I buy my beef by the 1/4 animal, hanging weight, and keep it in the chest freezer. Hanging weight is after slaughter, skinning, cleaning and beheading, but before dry-aging, which evaporates some of the weight. This year, hanging weight of the (tiny) bull we went in on was 472 pounds. So our quarter was 118 pounds, for which we paid $2 a pound, plus a $70 processing fee. This came to $2.60 a pound, call it $2.75 after hanging: bones, chuck, heart and tenderloin. The farmer takes a somewhat better price than he can get from the stock sale, which would otherwise take their de facto organic, grass-fed beef, ship it to Kansas, abuse it, force feed it, pump it full of antibiotics and dump it on the commodities market. So, in West Virginia, my family, we eat a lot of beef.
In Vermont, we wouldn’t. At least not Vermont beef. It’s not beef country: pasture is too precious, what is left of it, land values and taxes too steep and the winters too long. The market, however, the ethical demand, there, will bear silly prices: twice the farmers’ market retail in West Virginia. Thus they have beef.
In fact, Vermont is not farmer country at all, rosy-goggled stereotypes aside. The only thing, that I can see, that a Vermont farmer (barring a dairy producer) has over a West Virginian is proximity to markets that will bear a premium price for premium produce. This is bad politics. If food can’t be produced cheaply, it can’t be sold cheaply, and then poor people can’t afford to eat much local food. I include myself in this category. It’s a shame. It’s a truism: local foodism is an uppermiddleclass phenomenon. The rest of us in a place like Vermont, if we want to eat well, it’s variations on beans and rice. Sometimes it seems like we are the serfs of the second-homers. As I see it, the future of economical farming in places like Vermont only clarifies this relationship: the only land economical enough for economical production will be leased from the rich under the stipulation that production be kept aesthetically pleasing. If that doesn’t make us peasants then I suppose it must make us artists, subsisting one way or another on the patronage of the rich.
Of course, lacking this market, despite all their advantages, West Virginian farmers typically still have to work full-time, outside jobs. And still are broke. But, the market is improving. The quality of their produce is improving. If local foodism escapes the mental clutches of the salesmen to the uppermiddleclass, West Virginia could be a farmer’s, and a poorly funded eater’s paradise.
If I lived in Vermont I’d probably fill a truck bed with coolers and go south every fall for my meat, food miles be damned. Clearly, there are some inefficiencies in the Natural Beef market. Failing that I’d have to pasture my own freaking cow. On borrowed ground. Keep it pretty.