Where is the most economical place to buy organic meat?

This is the second part of a series I am writing mainly about prices I pay for organic products. Shopping with such standards of food can be difficult to do when you are trying to save as much money as possible.

disclaimer: I am not here to judge anyone on their buying choices. This article is purely about how to save money on organic groceries by illustrating the “How” and “Why”.

There are several ways to interpret this question. Do you want certified organic meat? Then you will be paying upwards of four times the amount of conventional farmed meat. Do you want free-range and organic, or just all natural? Local?

It all makes a difference to me. When I buy meat, I want to be able to go to the farm and see that they’re taken care of. The animals should be fed well and allowed to eat a good diet that was meant for their breed, not just shoved full of corn because it’s cheap, or use practices that are stressful to the animal and bad for the environment (see Animal Feeding Operations on the USDA website). That’s the former vegetarian/vegan speaking against factory farming. I don’t want to tell you that sometimes saving money means you have to sacrifice quality for quantity, but I have to do this often in order to make sure my family is fed. However, with careful planning and patience, you can have both.

But why organic, and not just all-natural? What’s the difference?

“All-natural” basically implies that there is nothing artificial added to the product, and can be misleading. Labels such as “hormone-free” or “no hormones” must be followed by the statement that federal law prohibits the use of hormones in pork and poultry (farmers raising beef that wish to use this label must provide sufficient documentation). For farmers to label their product antibiotic-free, they must provide sufficient documentation supporting their practices as such (see USDA article defining labels on meat and poultry products and this letter regarding why there is a need for definition). I factor this in, and will not pay more for meat labeled “All natural” or “hormone-free”.

USDA Organic labels, in order to be certified, must provide proof of practice in order to maintain certified organic status in accordance to the USDA. Typically, these labels require higher prices to cover the cost of inspection, losses, higher feed prices, etc. What guidelines does the USDA follow? Click here to learn more.

There are many farmers who will practice organic farming, but opt to not pay for the cost of the labeling and certification process. This allows lower retail pricing, and the opportunity to create a relationship between consumer and farmer that’s build on trust.

When it comes to good quality meat, our family is a little spoiled. I have one uncle who raises grass-fed beef in Lansing, NY (like “Crazy Diamond Beef” on Facebook for updates and to sign up for a share):

Prices I would pay for wholesome meat and poultry products in the store are biased because of what I get from my CSA to Crazy Diamond Beef and frequent purchases from Boulderdash Farm. Their prices are very reasonable, and I rarely buy meat from the grocery store anymore. However, if I were, I am a tough person to sell meat to. I have five people to feed. I have to look at price per pound, and how much I have to buy to feed my family – one pound of beef or chicken will not fill my children (who may or may not eat more than the average), so even though it may seem cheap per pound, if I have to buy 3-4 pounds, it’s too much for me to spend on one meal.

Did you know that the USDA actually tracks prices for organic products? And the average price for organic whole fryer chickens in the U.S. for 2014 was less than $2.50/lb? However, the lowest I’ve seen for organic whole chickens in store is $3.49/lb, and that’s at Wegmans.

Putting that aside, and getting back on subject, if you want to know how to save on buying organic or locally raised livestock, you will need to know how to save on buying meat in general. Take into account storage, convenience, and whether or not a CSA or buying in bulk is an option.

If you don’t already have one, investing in a chest freezer is probably the best thing you can do to save on groceries. We got ours for $75 on Craigslist, and it’s the best thing I did to stock up on items that would otherwise go bad. They usually go on sale at Lowes, Home Depot, or Thayer in the winter when people are usually storing their summer garden.  Say you’re renting a place though, or don’t have the space, you can look into the Finger Lakes Meat Locker project, where you can store your bulk meat purchases for a small monthly fee, and access it on specific days.

Prices for meat vary based on time of year (more specifically, holidays), what you are buying, and how much. During Lent and Easter season, fish, ham, and lamb meat are on sale, while during the summer, hot dogs, sausages and ground beef are cheap. St. Patrick’s Day, you will find great deals on corned beef. Whole chickens, split chicken breasts and thighs are cheaper than boneless skinless chicken breast, and chuck roast and ground beef are cheaper than sirloin. Turkey is cheaper than chicken because it’s not as high demand.

When purchasing, to save the most money, you will want to buy the cheaper cuts and learn to prepare them. This goes for both conventional and organic/local meat. For example, the cheapest cuts for chicken are whole roasting chickens, split breasts, and thighs. Generally, the cheapest cuts for beef are ground and chuck roast. Learn to cook them. Organic meat tends to be leaner, so the actual cooking of them can be a little tricky. Split chicken breast has the bone in, so what do you do if you want to make stir fry, or chicken riggies, or stuffed breasts? Learn to cut it off the bone and prepare them. With split breasts, once you cut them off the bone, you actually get two cuts of meat – the breast and the tender which you can save for an easy lunch for the kids, or cut up, cook and throw in pasta. Here is the video I learned to use, and it now takes me a few minutes per breast:

 

Lastly, you need price points and to know where to go. We all know the Farmer’s Market has vendors that sell meat, and is a great place to gather and do your shopping.  But what is a good price for meat?  Do you know that Aldi sometimes carries organic, grass-fed beef? BJ’s offer’s organic meat in bulk, but their prices did not appeal to me. Tops selection for organic meat is not so hot, but Wegmans has quite a bit. The Piggery has everything from homemade sausage and deli meat, to whole chickens and cuts of beef, but only has meat, and though it’s not out of the way, isn’t near my typical grocery route.

Wegmans has the best selection of organic meat products. Commercial brands, like Applegate are sold here, but they also have many options from suppliers selling under the Wegmans Organic brand. Depending on the cut, you can get organic chicken for less than $2.00/lb at Wegmans, and anything less would be a stock up price for me:

 

The lowest I’ve seen for organic grass-fed beef in store is $4.50/lb for ground at Aldi’s, and that was a special buy. They don’t carry it consistently. If you want to know their sources, I’m sure you can call the company and ask them directly, and do research online to find out how the animals are taken care of and where the farm is.

Greenstar has ground turkey as one of their BASICS items:

 

So it will always be a low price of $2.99/lb. Eggs are also the cheapest here to pick your own – just $1.56/doz. for the medium variety free-range eggs.

And lastly, the Piggery – great meat, great sourcing, and friendly, knowledgable butchers. A little out of the way, but they offer a free-choice buying club, where you pay $100, they credit your account with $110, and you can pick out any type of meat at your convenience. A very good choice if you do not own a chest freezer, and buying a CSA is difficult.

Based on researching prices, practices, and location, I would choose Wegmans, Greenstar or the Piggery for my meat buying choices. Wegmans came in first, strictly for their selection, and business practices. The Piggery is great, farmer-owned and operated with great customer service, a buying club, and products available from other suppliers. And if you’re in a pinch, Greenstar for their ground turkey price always being the same.

Meat is hard to price. There are all different cuts, prices and tastes to go by. Because of this, I try to post deals when they come up, and where. I hope you find this information helpful, and stay tuned for more saving tips!