Would you pay $26 for a chicken?

What's too much for a single bird? And should we be paying more for our food?

We are a nation in love with poultry. The average American eats about 90 pounds of chicken each year, more than three times what we ate in 1960, and that number continues to grow. And grow and grow.
With that increase in demand has come an increase in alternatives to the plumped up, pumped-up factory-farmed chicken that’s become a staple of our diet. Free-range, organic, hormone-free birds take up increasing amounts of space in the poultry case, commanding up to twice as much as conventional chicken, with most costing significantly more than conventionally grown poultry.
But when the gap grows to five times the cost of  the cheapest bird ($4.99 for a rotisserie-roasted bird at Costco) versus $26 for a free-range, hormone-free bird from a local CSA, you have to start asking some serious questions: What could possibly make a chicken cost $26? And more importantly, why would anyone pay that kind of money for a single bird?
Turns out, a growing group of educated consumers will. Food advocate Michael Pollan has repeatedly suggested that we’re not paying nearly enough money for our food. In 1960, 18 percent of our national income was spent on food, and only 5 percent on healthcare. Today, Pollan says 9 percent of our income is spent on food and a whopping 17 percent on health care. “The less we spend on food, the more we spend on healthcare,” he says.
And when you start talking to farmers and ranchers why their animals cost so much, the answers bear that out.
I talked to Nancy Prebilich of Gleason Ranch who started breaking down the cost differential. A family rancher who uses organic feed, sells locally, used to process locally (until Fulton went out of business), keeps her chickens in outdoor “tractors” and is trying to make a living being sustainable, it’s not a pretty picture. Although she’s the darling of many local chefs, processing about 600 chickens per week  in the “air-chill” method (versus a cold water dunk that saturates the chicken, artificially plumping them up with water), her family ranch is still mostly a labor of love. Her chickens run about $17-$20 at local grocery stores like Oliver’s and at farmer’s markets (she sells at the Saturday farmer’s market in Santa Rosa).
Consider some of her average costs, however…

  • Chick: About $1.30 to $2 each. About 20-40% won’t make it to adulthood.
  • Feed: $1200 a week.
  • Processing: $4 per bird

And that doesn’t take into account other hard costs (shelter, veterinary care, man-hours in cleaning and maintaining the animals). At that point she’s already well beyond what the Costco bird sells for. And like other folks who let their birds have access to fresh air and grass, she gets has a fair amount of birds knocked down from “Grade A’ to Grade B (which are worth less) because of insect bites or blemishes on their skin. It’s not easy money, as she can attest.
“Sustainable agriculture is agriculture that will sustain a living for a farmer,” said Prebilich. “We’re relying on that chicken to pay our PGE bill. This is not a side job.” According to her, about 80 percent of farmers rely on something other than agriculture as their main income. “Sure, a $30 chicken is outrageous, when i can get a gallon of milk for $4. But taxpayers are subsidizing that. We’re not subsidizing our local farmers and we shouldn’t be,” she adds.
What’s your take on $26 chickens? Should we be supporting sustainable agriculture — an ultimately our own health and environment — by paying more? Or is it too much to ask in hard economic times?
Sound off.


21 thoughts on “Would you pay $26 for a chicken?

  1. I have been trying to find out what kind of chickens they roast at costco nj. I can’t seem to get an answer other than they’re great. I know that. Are they hormone free and any of the other good things chickens are and are not supposed to have? Please get me a straight answer. Thanks,….Roz Waldon

  2. While I had a slightly different title to my blog post about a month ago, The Cured Ham Roasts an $18 Chicken!… I tried to focus on what to do not only with the meat, but the leftovers, the carcass, and offal. And indeed I bought my chicken from Tony at Gleason Ranch. Since that time, they’ve had to process the chickens in Stockton, adding to transportation costs. I also made the same comparisons to the Costco chicken.
    I’ll continue to buy local, high quality ingredients, use all of the animal parts I can (I just got some marrow bones last week from my friend’s partial interest in a cow, he doesn’t know what to do with them) and pay a premium for it.
    I just off-set my costs by drinking tap water, brewing my own coffee, and making my own pasta.

  3. Interesting post, though I found the Lucky’s ad for Tyson’s game hens (2 for 1!) at the top of the page somewhat ironic.

  4. Alot of really good points here…and points of view. I shop at Olivers and try to buy more RAW food and little processed foods. It can be a burden, spending 18-25% of our annual income on food alone. I do agree though..that in the long run it will pay off – with better health. A better way of eating = life lesson for my children. Although – $26.00 a chicken? Ouch. I may as well just buy a few chicks and raise my own.

    1. Consider, too, that eating a vegetarian dinner once or twice a week can significantly cut down on grocery costs as well. We’re accidental vegetarians for sure, mostly because i can only afford (good) meat maybe three or four nights a week. Beef once, chicken twice, fish, maybe a pork loin and some bacon…and if we’re eating something like a chicken, I boil the carcass for stock. You can believe that if I’m boiling bones, it better be a very healthy chicken. I’d rather really savor some amazing, sustainable meat than slop a bunch of junk on the table just as cheap protein.

      1. Dear Biteclub,
        I work for Mary’s Chickens out of Sanger CA. near Fresno. Thank you for the plug on quality chicken. People do not bat an eye at spending $30 on steak for 2 but continue to buy cheap out of state chicken. I would love to give you samples of Mary’s Air Chilled chicken and have you compare with any free-range brand. Chef’s get it but we need to educate John Q Public.

    2. I thought about raising my own hens for eggs/meat for a while. In Santa Rosa we are allowed two birds (no roosters). After looking into all the costs and work involved I’ve decided to put it off for now but I may revisit the idea when things are less busy for me.
      I agree, it can be expensive to eat healthily and morally. We do try to support local agriculture but sometimes also have our occasional fast food/mass produced food.

  5. I have bought Gleason chickens from Olivers and the farmers market and its worth it. Buying food that is free of all the crap that’s in the supermarket is an investment in your health and it taste better! It’s a little cheaper to buy Gleason chickens at the farm markets than olivers and while your there try some of the other local foods.

  6. $26 for a chicken? I don’t think so! Two chickens for under $10 at Costco and they are absolutely wonderful. I’m a very cost-conscious and health-conscious consumer. Some things are just a bit “over the top”…

  7. Hey I have a great idea, instead of the government subsidizing the corn syrup industry(corn subsidies) and paying for the drugs to combat the diseases it create (health care) why not spend that money to subsidize the farmers who are growing good whole foods like fruits, vegetables and quality food products. Then provide the schools with quality foods and get rid of the vendors who sell nothing but sugar laden processed foods to our kids. May actually solve the Type II diabetes epidemic we have in this country. Who’d a thunk it

    1. If this country had more citizens with your clear and logical approach to those things that really matter …. well, we would still have problems. BUT It is VERY encouraging to read
      your thoughts. THANKS.

  8. Use of steroidal hormones have been banned from poultry production in the US for decades. So it’s pointless to tout “hormone-free” since it applies to all chickens. Please educate yourself about FDA standards and cut the fear-mongering.

  9. Thank you as we use the Gleason Ranch Chickens and love them~
    If you use all of the chicken, including making stock with the carcass, you can truly understand the value of the $25.00 chicken. Our family can make 2-3 meals from one chicken when it is part of our meal and not the meal. We love the flavors and know we are supporting a true farmer.
    Thank you,

  10. I really love the theme on your blog, I have a WordPress blog too, and I would like to use this theme. Would you mind telling me what the name of it is?

  11. Hey.
    The egg recall has NOTHING to do with sustainable food or chemicals. In fact, smaller farms that are less regulated are more likely to bring salmonella or E. coli to the table. They’re also less likely to be caught or found as the cause of illness. And those chemicals you want to be free of? They just might save your life.
    Sustainable does not mean safe. Regulations may fail from time to time, but more often they’ll protect you.

    1. I would love it if you could supply some examples of when small local farmers have been found directly responsible for a Salmonella or E. coli outbreak. As my memory recollects, all the outbreaks I’ve ever heard of have been traced to processing facilities, however, I would love to know where the foundation of your accusations stem from, assuming that there are actual factual occurrences that you can reference.

  12. Most countries do not consume as much animal flesh as americans. It is better for the environment our health and the farmers way of life if there is not a pressure to raise superfoods that fill out our bellies but are not quality nutrition. I myself do not eat animals but buy grass fed beef and free range chickens for my family members about twice a week and serve them beans or tofu products the rest of the week. I won’t buy animal flesh for my family that comes from animals filled with antibiotics, hormones and stress from their living situation and the means in which they are handled and slaughtered. If we become sick and unhealthy from too much stress then the same must be true about the inhumanely treated farm animals.

  13. Our egg recall is a perfect example why i will always pay more for sustainable grown food. i want to know where my food comes from and i want it free of chemicals. In the long run that 26 dollar chicken will provide a healthier lifestyle

  14. A $26 chicken is a “pastured chicken,” meaning it has mostly eaten grass and bugs — not grain. Free-range does not imply any pasture, and typically, free-range chickens, whether organic or not, are grain fed, such as Rosie chickens. Grain-fed chickens have a different and more undesireable fat profile than pastured chickens. The difference in price goes beyond the issue of subsidies; an expensive pastured chicken is a different type of bird, both in the way it’s raised and what it is fed.
    Personally, I’m willing to buy the $26 chicken as an investment in my health and that of the community. The chronic disease and obesity that results from our factory farmed food and lifestyle costs us all in so many ways. I consider part of the $26 to be political money — supporting what I believe in — and the rest, an investment in my good health. A $26 chicken isn’t even a co-pay.

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