Category Archives: Family Math

Beef Bites Back

Burgers Coming UpSince we’ve begun grinding our own sausage and hamburger, I’ve been paying closer attention to certain cuts of meat that never really caught my eye that much in the past, namely beef chuck roasts and steaks, and pork shoulder or so-called Boston butt. Both the beef and pork cuts come from the animals’ shoulders, and both contain between 20% and 30% fat – perfect for burgers and sausage.

In the past, those cuts also have been known for their low price. However, as I have been learning, that has changed. I’ve been able to find deals on boneless pork shoulder from between $1.89 to $2.39 a pound at various grocers. But boneless chuck roast or chuck steaks are running above $4.50 a pound, with deals going for $3.59 – $3.79. That seems high to me.

And it turns out, it is high (for the feedlot beef you’re stuck with if you buy from grocery stores, and of course grass-fed, custom-slaughtered beef would be much higher).

According to data from the USDA, beef prices now are at or near record high prices, and they are forecast to rise another 3% to 4% over 2014.

This really should’ve been no surprise to me, if only I would have connected the dots from my farm neighbor’s pasture to Kroger’s meat market.

The neighbor behind my little Lavaca County farm runs cattle (as we say) on a main pasture of about 100 acres. But for the past couple years, it’s seemed as if the grass stopped growing, and the fields just look mostly like brownish stubble. It’s the drought. It got so bad last year that a band of his cows managed to break through the fence to get to my hayfield for some good eats for a change.

My neighbor has had to pay a lot of money to supplement his cattle’s feed, including buying hay that he’d be able to provide for himself if the rains were sufficient, which they are not.

As go the cattle fortunes of my neighbors, so go the fortunes of Texas in general, and the beef fortunes of the whole U.S., because Lavaca County is the biggest beef-producing county in the state, and Texas is the biggest beef-producing state in the union. There were about 68,000 head of cattle in Lavaca Cunty in 2012 – 50,000 more bovines than human county residents. But by the end of 2013, the total cattle herd was just 60,000. Ranchers had to sell off part of their herds because there just wasn’t enough forage due to the drought.

That’s been happening to herds across Texas and most of the rest of the large cattle states, to the extend that now, according to The Associated Press, there are fewer cattle on U.S. pastures than at any time since 1951.

So even if it starts raining hard for the next three months and my neighbor is prompted to keep more cows to birth more calves, it’ll be a long while before that translates into beef prices us peasants might consider “reasonable.”

Thus, if you must buy feedlot meat (and at this point, I still do) my advice is to forget the beef and go for the cheap pork shoulder. At half the price of its equivalent in beef, you’d have to consider it a bargain. Plus it’s more versatile than chuck. Not only can you make all manner of sausages out of it, you can toss it in the smoker, and turn it into awesome pulled pork (although granted, this can take 12 hours).

Or, you can make a Mexican version of pulled pork, which is much easier and really tasty:

Easy Yucatan Pork

→ 3-4 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into three or four semi-equal pieces
→ 2-3 tablespoons achiote paste, which can be found at grocery stores all over Texas, or you can make your own
→ 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
→ the juice of two limes
→ 2 cups of orange juice
→ 1 large sweet onion, sliced thin
→ 2 large garlic cloves, minced
→ salt and pepper to taste

→ Place the pork pieces in a large crock-pot
→ Combine the achiote paste, olive oil, lime juice and a little salt in a small bowl. Use the back of a fork to work the achiote paste into the liquid. Watch for splashes, because the red paste can stain.
→ Pour the contents from the bowl over the meat. Turn the meat to make sure all sides are coated with the achiote mixture.
→ Turn the crock-pot on low and cook for 8 hours if you have the time, or on high for 4 hours if you’re in a “hurry.”
→ Sprinkle the garlic over the meat. Pour the orange juice over everything. Lay the onion slices on top. Close the crock-pot lid and wait. When a knife slides through the meat almost like butter, it’s done.

You can shred some up and serve it with chopped tomatoes or sliced hot peppers or avocados or onions marinated in lime juice, all rolled up in warm corn tortillas. Or just ladle some up over rice. Simple, easy, good enough to help wean you away from expensive beef.

Also posted in Farm, Food, Recipes

The New Daily Grind

I am a neophyte sausage maker with much to learn, yet I’m pretty pleased with the first of my meat-grinding adventures.

To warm up, I tried out my new STX grinder on something simple yesterday: turning about 4 pounds of boneless chuck roast into hamburger. I chose the coarsest of my three grinding wheels, sliced the chuck roast into strips, turned the grinder on high and dropped the strips down the tube into the auger. This grinder spit it out like butter.

I formed the results into 10 patties weighing, according to my postage/kitchen scale, a bit over 6 ounces apiece – bigger than I usually make when I’m just eyeballing it. I mixed in no seasoning whatsoever, until late that afternoon when I liberally salted and peppered six of the patties before slapping them on a hot grill.

I hate to sound all gushy, but just reporting factually, Oh! These were among the best burgers I have ingested. For real.

As for the next test, I opted to turn 4.5 pounds of Boston pork butt (actually a shoulder cut, and actually closer to 4 pounds after removing the bone) into spicy breakfast sausage. Last night I cut the butt into about half-inch dice, then loaded the meat into a bowl with kosher salt, pepper and generous portions of fresh sage and fresh grated ginger. This morning I fed the meat through the finest of my grinding wheels, then added about 3/4 of a cup of ice water and stirred that into the ground sausage until it became sticky.

If UPS had delivered my sausage casings by now, I might have stuffed a few. However, breakfast sausage doesn’t require casings, so instead I formed a little of the meat into small patties for near-future breakfasts. The rest I rolled up into a very large sausage log, and then wrapped it in several thicknesses of plastic wrap followed by aluminum foil. When I want to use some, I’ll just slice off a few patties from the end.

I reserved one very large sausage patty for breakfast. It seemed a little too moist, and I’ll cut down on the liquid I add at the end next time. But the moisture wasn’t noticeable at all in the final cooked product, which I found delicious. Also, I was surprised at how little fat was left in the pan, as it seemed to me as I diced it up that the pork butt contained quite a bit of fat. Obviously less than grocery-store sausage.

So now what? Now I’m going to teach myself some new sausage recipes and keep my eyes open for chuck roast and Boston butt on sale.

As far as economics go, I paid $1.89 a pound for the pork, which I think is a pretty good price. You can sometimes get a 12 ounce package of Johnsonville or other branded breakfast sausage for $2. I probably made mine cheaper, even counting the fresh seasonings, but not when you include the labor – slicing, setting up the meat grinder, washing the meat grinder parts and shaping and wrapping the meat. But it’s not just about price and, while it is not my intention to brag, the homemade patties I produced make the Johnsonvilles taste dull and bland. Plus – and this is a big plus – the meat is fresher, and from a single cut, not pig scraps the butcher had on hand.

As for the hamburger economics, that’s tilted more in favor of the guy with the meat grinder. There’s less labor involved – just grind and shape the meat, nothing to mix and no pre-seasoning required. The chuck roast I bought was $3.69 a pound, which I think is probably on the high side; I should be able to get it for less on sale without too much trouble. Ground beef, meanwhile, was $4.99 at the same store, much less fresh, with who knows what additives and cow parts, and with much less taste.

From purely a health and taste standpoint, the next step might be to start buying beef and pork from a farm specializing in pasture-raised animals. From an economic standpoint, that’s still pretty tough on the budget. The chuck roast I found at the grocery for $3.69 a pound would cost me at least $8 a pound and up to $12.50 per, according to price lists on several Texas farmers’ web sites. The same, roughly, goes for pork.

There is no doubt the conscientious farmer raising grass-fed, no-chemical animals has a much superior product than those found at the grocers. But the small farm can’t begin to compete with the factory farm system when it comes to price. So to obtain the safest and healthiest meats for your family, you will have to commit, I would guess, to spending at least three times more than you do now, if you’re shopping at the grocery. And to complicate matters, pasture-raised pork and beef farms are relatively few and far between in my neck of Texas.

I’m working on it. Anyone want to split a half hog?

Also posted in Farm, Food, Self-reliance

Farm Operations on a Meager Budget

After extensive searching for the perfect farm truck at dealerships, online auto sales shops and Craigslist, we wound up buying this bigass cargo van from a guy down the street and around the corner.

Our Big-Ass Polka Farm VehicleI thought I was looking for a pickup truck, however, we’d just paid more than $6,000 for a tractor/mower, a raft of new tools and new beds and a table, and buying a new truck was out of the question, especially since they now cost $15,000 more, approximately, than they did the last time I had a pickup, which was 1999. It turns out finding a good used truck, i.e. one with under 200,000 miles that still had demonstrable life in it, also was out of the question. At least, it was out of the question for less than $10,000.

I started thinking about cargo vans after considering what I could rent to move stuff we needed out from home to the Polka Farm an hour and a half away. All the pickup trucks I could find for rent had extended cabs and short beds. It cost more to rent a cargo van, but they also held a lot more than a short-bed truck.

Then the guy down the street put his old work van up for sale for about the same price as our new tractor. It’s a 2004 Ford E-250 van with 150,000 miles and a 5.4-liter V-8 engine and a 35-gallon tank that I am sure will guzzle down gas like mad. However, he put mostly highway miles on the van driving from his local work office to others in Dallas and Austin, it seems to run really good, the air conditioner is cold, it has the capacity to haul loads up to 3,400 pounds, plus a tow bar to pull a trailer.

I bought it yesterday. Until I can order a back bench seat, only a driver and passenger can ride in it, but we can haul furniture out to the farm, pull down dead trees, haul the logs away, haul posts and patio brick and cement blocks and tools and ladders around the farm to get building projects going with something approaching ease and efficiency. And we can haul our kayak around so we’re not limited to paddling the Brazos.

After we get the Polka Farm all furnished, the van will mostly be used for short-distance hauling around the farm. It doesn’t have the macho good looks of a pickup truck, being what one of my nieces calls a plain white “kidnap van” (and yes, the Guam logo is just a dab of digital art I stuck on the photo for fun). But we think it’ll turn out to be the best vehicle for the money, V-8 engine and all.

Also posted in Farm

Sucker’s Game

The other day I commented on the stinky dog Facebook’s initial public offering smelled like. Fast forward to now. In two days the stock has dropped about 20% in value and federal regulators are investigating whether the stock’s underwriters (Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan – who else?) told some big institutional investors they were going to reduce their revenue forecasts for Facebook – but they somehow neglected to inform the so-called retail investing public. Which is to say you and me or, more accurately, you.

The stock market always has been rigged to an extent. But until those with eyes to read saw what Goldman et al did with mortgage derivatives leading up to the 2008 crash, most of us probably weren’t aware just how completely the market could be rigged by the big investment casino operators at any given moment.

Facebook is just the latest example.

Economist Dean Baker said it best this morning:

In the last two decades, the economy seems to have created many openings for people whose primary skill is lifting money out of other people’s pockets, not in doing anything productive. Wall Street is the center of such practices.

As has been the case for many years in America, no one is looking out for the little guy. The Federal Reserve has essentially frozen interest rates at zero, thus banks are offering no incentive whatsoever for the little guy to save his money and earn any interest. Inflation thus eats away at the value of any savings the little guy is able to amass. It would almost seem that government/Fed policy is currently designed to force the little guy to take his money out of the bank or his mattress and invest it somewhere.

But of course the markets are completely rigged and nothing is safe, because if your money isn’t making 3% a year, it’s being eroded away by inflation.

I don’t have a great answer to this dilemma. In our case, we took money that had been in the markets, and put it into a nice piece of country real estate. Our hope is that we bought at the bottom of the market and that the property will appreciate. We also will put much sweat equity into the task of increasing its value. But of course real estate isn’t exactly liquid.

Then again, you can’t grow tomatoes on a stack of mutual funds.

Also posted in Business