I can’t speak for other farmers, but here is why my pastured pork costs as much as it does.
Higher costs to the Farmer
Food: Feed is the biggest cost of raising pigs; each pig eats almost half a ton of grain. I feed my pigs custom milled certified organic rations because I still believe you are what you eat. Organic feed costs roughly double conventional feed; keep reading for why I think it is worth the money.
Pasture: Pasturing animals doesn't scale: you can do a few or a few dozen, but not 20,000 hogs per year like the Perth County hog farmer I chatted with this year. Pastured pigs will root up a paddock to bare dirt in under a month, and each paddock needs to be fenced and supplied with water and shelter. I also have to bring all those tonnes of food to them; feed trucks aren’t designed for off-roading.
Piglets: The cheap industrially-produced piglets are bred for confinement (a lot of them spend their lives in near constant darkness on metal slats or concrete). Heritage breeds or crossbreeds including heritage breeds are harder to find (especially in volume) and cost more, but they won’t sunburn, they know and love foraging, and their immune systems don’t need to be supplemented with antibiotics.
What you are NOT getting for your money
Funny title, eh? Read on.
No pre-emptive medication: as Steve Leech from Chicken Farmers of Canada said in a 2015 Global News article "...you can’t eliminate preventive use of antibiotics entirely. At least, not unless you want to completely change the way you raise livestock, making meat that much pricier to produce and to purchase." Raising pastured livestock is completely different from how livestock is raised industrially, and yes, it makes the meat much pricier. New directives came out in 2016 to reduce or ban a lot of drugs that are also used on human beings. Do you trust that the current industry-funded science goes far enough? Or is it worth spending more to know that what you eat received no pre-emptive medication of any kind?
No forced cannibalism: Remember mad cow disease? That was spread by feeding the flesh of diseased cattle to cattle. At huge cost the industrial food system made changes to ensure that never happens again: they no longer feed cattle to cattle. They still feed pigs to pigs and chickens to chickens. Don’t believe me? Look for “pork meal” in the ingredients list on bags of hog feed at TSC or a feed mill.
No “residual feed streams”: “Residual feed streams” is a euphemism for “what waste can we safely feed meat animals.” It can include waste products from industrial food processing such as faulty Skittles, for example. (I note that this Wisconsin story was only reported outside of North America).
My organic feed costs twice what industrial agriculture feed costs because it excludes all of the above, as well as being free of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Just remember: if you are what you eat then you are what your food eats too.
When you buy our meat, you get only meat from our animals: A 2015 Washington Post article estimated (because no one could say definitively) that an industrially-produced hamburger patty can contain the meat from up to 100 different animals in a one-pound package. Think how problems proliferate if every one of thousands of packages of ground beef sent all across the country contains bits of 100 different animals. This is why health authorities and industrial processors have been pushing for traceability. Instead of the reassurance that authorities can trace any problem after the fact, I give you my personal assurance that every animal I send to slaughter is healthy when I send them, I send them in a way that minimizes their stress and time around other animals, and the meat I sell contains no animals but ours.
What you ARE getting for your money
Near-organic: Everything else we produce on our farm is certified organic. I can't certify my pork because there is no certified organic abattoir within two hours’ drive and I haven’t found a provider of certified organic piglets, but I do my best to raise the pigs according to organic standards while they are in my care.
A better planet: We regularly move livestock to maximize their benefit and minimize their damage to the soil. This builds soil fertility and a healthy soil ecosystem which sequesters greenhouse gasses (see page 12 of “Putting Soil Health First” published by the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario). Moving them to new pasture takes a lot of time out of a farmer’s busy day, but we strongly believe that it is best for the animals and the planet.
Improve our local economy: Money spent in a local store recirculates much more in the local economy than money spent at a chain store. Buy from me and you are paying the local feed mill that mills the hogs' feed from grain supplied by local farmers, among many other local transactions. All of us pay local taxes and most of us believe in buying local too, so every dollar you spend on a local product gets repeatedly circulated in the local economy. In other words it increases local economic activity many times more than buying the same item from a grocery chain store. Multiple US studies have found the difference to be anywhere from 30% more to 300% more positive local impact (Cape Cod Commission research brief, chart page 3).
Food Security: With climate change making harvest yields more and more uncertain, a trade war with the US, which is the source of most of our food, and transportation costs that can only rise as oil becomes more expensive, it’s a good investment in risk management to buy a decent proportion of your food from local producers. You may pay a little extra today but in an increasingly uncertain world it is good to have some locals who retain and have refined the basic skills that keep us alive.
Humane compassionate food: Our animals live their lives as they have evolved to live: in their herd (usually they all come from one or two litters), out of doors (as soon as they learn to respect electric fencing and are big enough to have a fighting chance against coyotes). We minimize their stress by letting them express their natures and by ensuring their needs are met. This makes for visibly happy and content animals. It is the old-school paradigm of choosing animals well-adapted to the environment and empowering them to manage themselves, as opposed to the industrial and regulatory approach of trying to control everything and thereby raising animals in an environment that is not natural to them.
I know our meat is expensive. I know money is tight. But while the government spends money figuring out what waste and antibiotics to feed meat animals to keep prices down, we produce our meat using paradigms that are more resilient and more respectful of the animals.
Thank you to every customer who spends or has spent the extra money to buy some of our pork. I hope you now see it as I do; not just an investment in good eating, but also an investment towards a better community: more healthy, more wealthy, and more resilient.