What’s some of the most expensive meat in America? At an average of $10-21/lb, would you believe wild-hunted venison, that staple of rural American life? Quietly, behind deeply divided debates over whether food is too cheap or too expensive, over whether farmers markets or factory farms are the best way to feed the country, good old-fashioned hunted venison has become an elite and expensive pursuit behind the veneer of tradition and simpler ways. The average spending per deer for hunters in our home state of Missouri, at ~$1000, works out to a per-pound price that would make pastured ranchers salivate and affordable-food advocates blush, with far-reaching implications for food production, the rural landscape, and the environment.
To produce the flow chart below, I drew on data from a 2001 report on the “Economic Importance of Hunting in America”, various reports from the Missouri Department of Conservation (such as this), and other pro-hunting websites (such as this). While such calculations are only as accurate as the data they’re drawn from, the numbers come from pro-hunting sources and would have to be off by a very large margin to change the basic conclusion. Hunted venison in Missouri is, on average, 2-4 times more expensive than even local specialty grass-finished meats, as judged by prices from two farms near us in central Missouri, Altai Meadows and Green Pastures Farm. This reality has some interesting implications for how our culture values and produces food.
These numbers being averages, one might wonder what the outlying numbers look like? I can’t imagine how much the true high-roller deer cost, but I can make a good estimate of the frugal end of the spectrum based on my own experience. Here’s the total value of deer-hunting-specific equipment I used in the 2014 hunting season to take my maximum-allowed two deer:
$110 – used rifle, purchased at gun show years ago.
~$100 – used deer stand, actually acquired free from friend.
$100 – two used trail cameras for scouting, actually acquired last year and used for other purposes too.
~$25 – 20-round box of ammunition. 16 rounds used to sight in rifle, 2 fired during season to produce 2 dead deer.
$7 – one antlerless permit (first one is free for landowners).
I don’t use any special purchased clothing, scents, or other gear. So my grand total for 2014 comes out to, in theory, $342 if I’d bought all this stuff just this season and for just one deer. In reality, everything but the ammo will last me at least a decade, and can be amortized over multiple deer as well. But even in the worst case, that’s only $3-$7/lb, which is at least comparable to “fancy” grass-finished beef, and much cheaper than the average per-deer spending calculated above.
None of this includes the value of my time, or that of any other hunters, which if added in would quickly escalate the value of venison. In fact, this has been a real factor for us as full-time farmers, because hunting season in Missouri falls during a time when we’re still very busy shutting down the vegetable operations for the winter and more. So taking time to hunt for food really does have an economic value to us, as it likely does for anyone else who takes time off work or otherwise doesn’t do whatever else they might do with that time. For the purposes of a blog post, I didn’t bother calculating down that rabbit hole, but it’s worth remembering that time is an additional hidden cost not reflected in the numbers presented here.
This could all be used to criticize hunting outright, but it shouldn’t be. Plenty of outdoors-people spend piles of cash on non-hunting recreational pursuits, or haven’t you price-checked an outfitter’s shop lately? Even wildlife photography, perhaps the closest pursuit to hunting, will quickly set you back a pretty penny for gear and you don’t even get to eat the photos! Recreation is a legitimate way to spend disposable income.
No, what interests me is how people decide how to value different foods. If any kind of ranched or farmed meat showed up in a grocery store or farmers market at a whole-carcass price of $10-$21/lb (meaning the good cuts would be much higher), they’d be laughed at. Yet what a difference it would make to the agricultural economy, and particularly small local farmers, if the equivalent 15-30 million pounds of meat could be raised and sold by local grass-finished ranchers to their communities at anything close to the value of venison? If only we valued our food as highly as our recreation, the small-farm world might look very different.