It is often said that “buying local is the new green.” Buying food and other goods that are produced locally use fewer resources and less packaging as well as fewer fossil fuels to transport the goods from one place to another. While locally produced food is not always considered organic, it tends to be produced by smaller family farms as opposed to the larger agribusiness establishments, which gives the buyer the chance to meet and know the person who is providing their food and in some cases, even tour the farm where the food is grown.
But buying locally has its drawbacks. Foods are limited to whatever is in season and often, locally produced foods are more expensive than their grocery store counterparts. Here is Arizona, we have wonderful farmers markets and two growing seasons, so it is possible to a great variety of locally grown produce, meat and dairy products nearly year round.
Although we do not buy local food exclusively, we do try to buy as much locally as we can. We recently found a rancher who sells a great line of meats, chickens and other products at our local farmers market. The rancher raises the animals from birth to slaughter. The cows are generally slaughtered at about one and a half years then the meat is cut by a local butcher.
On the other hand, with most store bought beefs, the cows start out on a cow-calf operation. After about six to nine months, calfs are sold to another operation where they spend a few months bulking up on corn feed to get them as fat as possible before slaughter. Often the animals are transferred to another facility for slaughter and another place for butchering. By the time the meat reaches the grocery store shelves, the cow has lived at two ranches and its meat has been processed two facilities. It can travel hundreds of miles before reaching the store. The local rancher we found, however, is involved with his animals from birth to slaughter. The cows graze free-range but are also fed a small amount of corn so that the animal’s meat provides a small amount of marbeling. After slaughter, a local butcher cuts and wraps the meat, and by the time the consumer buys the product, the meat has traveled less than 50 miles.
The farmer has maintained control of his product from the animal’s birth until the meat is sold. But the meat is about double the price of grocery store meat, and in our family, we have debated whether the extra cost is justified, so we did a side-by-side comparison to settle the debate once and for all. Is locally grown food worth the extra cost? Here are the results of our comparison.
Store bought beef: $2.83 per pound
Local farmer’s beef: $6 per pound.
Grocery store ground beef. Purchased in a styrofoam package covered with plastic wrap, the grocery store beef was a deep red color, thanks in part to a red dye that is commonly injected into store bought meats. We purchased a 90-10 blend, with 10 percent fat with quite a bit of marbeling.
Local farmer’s ground beef. This pound of beef was wrapped in white butcher’s paper, so we didn’t actually see the meat until we got it home and unwrapped it. With no dyes injected into the meat, this ground beef was a more subtle shade of dusty pink rather than the deep red of the store bought beef. The amount of marbeling was about on par with it’s store bought counterpart.
3. TextureThese two pounds of ground beef were destined for the barbecue grill so we formed them into burger patties. In forming the beef into balls the pressing them into patties, the store bought beef felt a bit slimier and much more wet. Normally, we would have added breadcrumbs to help them hold their shape, but we wanted the exact same ingredients in each set of burgers, so we kept the breadcrumbs out. As a result, the precooked burgers were slightly wet and had trouble holding their form. The farmer’s market meat on the other hand had a firmer texture which formed nicely into tidy little burgers.
Both groups of burgers cooked up in the same amount of time. The farmer’s market beef did stick slightly to the grill just a bit, while the store bought beef had trouble holding its form on the grill. One burger from the store bought set fell apart when flipped.
Each family member received one of each burger, a burger A (store bought) and a burger B (farmer’s market). I was the only one who knew which was which. Of the five people participating in the taste test, three preferred the farmer’s market meat, saying it tasted better. One person preferred the flavor of the store bought beef and the fifth could not detect a difference between the two.
The flavor of the local beef left our family firmly believing that the extra cost was justified. Knowing that the animal was humanely treated, not injected with antibiotics or steroids and led a good life before being humanely slaughtered made the extra cost more worthwhile. That the beef only traveled a few miles between ranch, butcher and farmers market meant that only a fraction of fossil fuels were used to transport it from farmer to consumer, and that means a lot to the green movement as we all strive to use fewer resources and less energy.