Nationwide increase in beef prices hits home

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Courtesy of Metro Creative

Beef prices have risen 12% over the last year, according to U.S. Labor Relations Department data.

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In this 2018 photo, Bob Von Scio, left, and Jared White appear at Heritage Craft Butchers, in Marianna.

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Courtesy of Metro Creative

Local beef farmers have noticed the increase in beef prices at grocery stores.

Americans have a beef with their grocery list.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Labor Department released consumer inflation data showing inflation rose to its highest level in more than a decade in the 12 months ending in August, with a price increase of 5.3% nationwide.

Pork and chicken prices have risen exponentially, and beef prices increased 12% in the last year, making it one of the priciest items on a grocery list.

National inflation is affecting local grocers and farmers alike.

James Cowell, a retired coal miner who has run Frosty Springs Farm in Waynesburg with his wife, Billie, for nearly 60 years, said he’s noticed the increased beef prices.

“We as a family see the price increase at the grocery store,” said Cowell. “The sad thing is, it’s not coming back to the farmers.”

The Cowells raise and sell freezer beef. When a customer purchases a live animal, James has that livestock processed to the customer’s specifications. Cowell said one of the biggest challenges facing farmers today is slaughterhouses. Costs have risen nearly $100 per head, said Cowell, pinching farmers’ pocketbooks ever tighter.

“It’s no fault of the slaughterhouses,” Cowell said, noting most are small, family-owned businesses that need to make a living, too. “Our costs are way up from last year. Farmers now are paying 30% more for their feed, 40 to 50% more for their fuel, you can’t get parts. We’re going to have to adjust somehow.”

In business, “adjust” is synonymous with “increase,” something the Cowells haven’t done – yet.

“I hate to raise prices. You get loyal customers, and you like to keep them, you want to treat them right,” said Cowell. But, “I don’t know how long I can continually take that much of a cut in profits.”

John and Marilyn Lindley who own and operate Heritage Trail Farm in Prosperity, haven’t raised prices yet, either. And like the Cowells, the Lindleys have had difficulty securing slaughterhouse appointments.

“Our biggest problem, we could not get into butchers to get (cattle) processed,” Marilyn Lindley said. “We had animals that were ready to go but we could not get an appointment.”

Lindley said she and her husband have worked for years with the same butcher, but last year they traveled as far as West Virginia and Latrobe for appointments at four different shops.

“The last year seems to have been busier. We’ve had more requests for beef,” said Marilyn Lindley. “When the pandemic started, we got busier. Everybody had the idea that they would stock their freezers because of the pandemic.”

In the past year, Heritage Trail’s waitlist has nearly doubled. But the Lindleys didn’t realize beef prices at the store had skyrocketed until their children, who live out of state, commented recently they’d cut back on beef.

“Of course, I never buy beef,” laughed Lindley. “I guess it’s expensive to buy at the store. But we haven’t changed our prices from a year ago.”

Heritage Craft Butchers, a specialty meats and charcuterie retailer with locations in Marianna and Washington, has raised prices only slightly this year.

“Nobody wants to be the first person to raise prices,” said Bob Von Scio, who co-owns Heritage with Jared White. “Whenever you’re running a retail business, there are rules of thumb for pricing. I don’t like to have prices floating up and down every week.”

Von Scio said his competitors aren’t local butchers but chains like Giant Eagle, Aldi and Sam’s Club, who can sell meat at lower price points than Heritage and make up the difference with sales of other items, like yogurt, snacks and drinks. Last year during the pandemic, Heritage experienced a business boom when those grocers were unable to supply meat, and shoppers turned to local butchers to fill their fridges with ground beef and other staples.

Von Scio said on Friday and Saturday mornings, lines were out the door. The increase in customers was great, but purchasing enough meat to satisfy shoppers proved a challenge, since Heritage’s suppliers are the local farmers who struggled to get appointments at fully booked slaughterhouses.

“At some point they are going to increase costs on us because they have to drive two hours to the middle of nowhere to get that animal processed,” said Von Scio, who noted that his current beef prices just cover costs, so his stores are pushing the sales of higher-margin product.

Von Scio said he encourages shopping local, especially since price differences between his stores and big chains are not “profound.”

“For most people that isn’t make or break, and there are intangible benefits to (buying local), whether it’s customer service, atmosphere, the quality of the product.”

He also said he doesn’t think meat prices are going to fall drastically any time soon.

“Maybe you’re seeing a correction of what meat should actually cost,” Von Scio speculated. “We’re talking about raising live animals that are huge and expensive to maturing and killing them in a humane, hygienic fashion. Pork chops probably shouldn’t be 89 cents a pound. Maybe these prices are just more realistic.”

Cowell said he believes farming in general has become more difficult in recent years, with younger generations showing littler interest in the industry and wages stagnating.

He said he and most other local farmers work more than one job, counting on day jobs or retirement funds to float them through hard farm times.

This latest inflation storm is different, though.

“I don’t think I could survive. I wouldn’t be in business if I was trying to live off my farm. In my lifetime, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Cowell said. “I hope I never do again.”


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