Tag: Agriculture

Beef prices on the moo-ve – How Austin businesses keep up

An Iron Works Barbeque chef cuts through their brisket.

Thanks in part to the long drought that has engulfed Texas, rising beef prices have left consumers in a state of sticker shock.

But despite the 60 percent price increase for a pound of brisket—from $2.21 to $3.52—some Austin businesses are resisting the temptation to charge their customers more for what is becoming a very valuable morsel of meat.

From farm to plate, raising cattle and selling it has become a less profitable endeavor for almost everyone in the state that is the country’s leading cattle producer each year. Just ask Rob Cunningham, the owner of Coyote Creek Farm, a certified organic farm just east of Austin.

“In 2011, when the drought was at its worst, it affected us in that we had 32 or 35 head [of cattle] at the time, and we sold down to 12,” Cunningham said. “The reason we did that was because we didn’t have the grass. If we had millions and millions of dollars in the bank, we would have just bought hay.”

2015 was the first year in which the overall Texas cattle herd increased after eight straight years of drastic decline. The state finally received a normal amount of rain in 2014, which helped grow more grass for the cattle to feed on. But no one is out of the woods yet. The USDA deemed 156 Texas counties disaster areas last month, thanks to the drought.

The pressure to fall in line with the new business model of charging more for cattle was intense, but Cunningham and his family never really in the cards.

“We haven’t changed our price of beef in three years,” Cunningham said. “Cattle prices are really high right now, but I have been able to maintain my price for our grass-fed beef.”

The loyalty of his customers helped make the decision easier.

“Our customers got a really good deal when they buy grass-fed beef from us,” Cunningham said. “About 80 percent of my business is repeat customers. They know our farm. They know our animals and how they’re raised. They enjoy the taste of our beef.”

But while this behind-the-scenes drama plays out on farms across the state, others are only concerned with how hard it is to put beef on the table.

Aaron Morris, the owner of Iron Works BBQ in downtown Austin, said that his customers have certainly felt the financial food struggle caused by the cattle shortage.

“Well, everybody has to eat, BBQ is a great pastime, and so I don’t see that it has affected our business so much as it’s affected maybe what people are able to eat, unfortunately,” Morris said.

Knowing that his customers’ wallets are straining to cover what they typically enjoy, Morris, like Cunningham, has decided against hiking up prices.

“We haven’t passed the price along too much to our customers,” Morris said. “We’ve seen a doubling in our costs but we can’t really double our price, so it’s affected our business in that it has made our margins tighter.”

Those tighter margins apparently extend into Morris’ very own home.

“In our house and with my family, we have kind of switched ourselves to more pork just because beef prices are not just more expensive for us as a restaurant, but if you go to the store yourself, you’ll see that our beef prices are up dramatically from where they were a couple years ago,” Morris said.

Switching to pork hasn’t been all bad, though. At the very least, it’s given Morris more creative license in his cooking and introduced a new menu item to Iron Works.

“We have been cooking a lot of pork at home, and we decided to introduce that at the restaurant a couple of months ago,” Morris said. “We now do pulled pork, which is a product that has been very well-received, and we added it strictly because the price of beef is so high.”

All it would take to make everything right in this beef-crazy little part of the world is a little more rain.

“For the success of BBQ, we need the drought to let up and we need as many cattle out there in America as possible,” Morris said.

Researchers Buzz About ‘Bee-Friendly’ Plants


J. Tharladson shows a colony of bees pollinating a honeycomb tray at Round Rock Honey hive site in Round Rock, Texas. (Photograph by Alice Kozdemba)

J. Tharladson shows a colony of bees pollinating a honeycomb tray at Round Rock Honey hive site in Round Rock, Texas. (Photograph by Alice Kozdemba)


By Elizabeth Williams, Maria Roque, Katherine Recatto and Alice Kozdemba

Gardeners, beware—plants marketed as “bee-friendly” may be laced with pesticides that have been proven to harm the buzzing pollinators, according to a recent study.

The study, released by Friends of the Earth U.S. and the Pesticide Research Institute reported that 51 percent of plant samples advertised as “bee-friendly” contained harmful neonicotinoids, or neonic pesticides. The plant samples were purchased at major garden retailers like Home Depot and Wal-Mart from 18 cities across the U.S. and Canada, including stores in Austin.

The findings of the report fall in line with a study published by the Harvard School of Public Health in May, which linked the pesticides as a possible cause of colony collapse disorder, or CCD.

CCD is the phenomenon of worker bees disappearing from their hives. It has been reported in North America and Western Europe since 2006 after beekeepers were discovering their hives had been mysteriously emptied, with no trace of dead bees to be found.

“People are purchasing these plants with the idea that they want to attract bees and be helpful to bees, and instead they are unknowingly, in some cases, actually poisoning bees.” Luke Metzger, founder and director of Environment Texas 

The losses reported in 2006 ranged from 30 to 90 percent of beekeepers’ hives, according to the USDA. While some beekeepers are reporting a bounce-back from CCD in the last year, the causes still remain at large.

“We can use alternatives for these plants, and I think it’s especially concerning because, again, people are purchasing these plants with the idea that they want to attract bees and be helpful to bees, and instead they are unknowingly, in some cases, actually poisoning bees,” said Luke Metzger, founder and director of Environment Texas.

Without the bees’ pollination, foods like apples and onions would never make it to the dinner table. According to the study, approximately two-thirds of food crops rely on commercial pollinators, and more than 140 crops are grown with neonic pesticides, including corn, soy and wheat.

“When that happens to an entire hive, or happens to even hundreds or thousands of hives at one time, that causes a problem because that means that plants don’t get pollinated, fruit doesn’t result, and the entire food system can be compromised,” said Konrad Bouffard, owner of Round Rock Honey, a local beekeeper and honey producer.

Agrochemical businesses like Monsanto Co. and DuPont have said that neonic pesticides, which are used to soak seeds before planting, should not be present in levels that affect bees after the plant has flowered. The companies have cited mite infestations as a cause of dwindling bee populations.

While researchers have also noted habitat loss and disease as possible causes of CCD, neonic pesticides are a direct human intervention that has been proven to negatively affect bee behavior.

“It’s a combination of all these things coming together, and the straw that broke the camel’s back, or the one that stressed the environment to the point of breaking, is the neonicotinoids,” Bouffard said. “If you take out the neonicotinoids, then you don’t have the breaking point anymore.”

When crops are treated with neonics, the chemicals travel and are distributed throughout the entire plant, including areas like pollen and nectar. The pesticides can also be present in soil.

The pesticides are neurotoxins that can change the way bees behave, even when the pesticides are not at lethal levels said Nancy Moran, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Ingestion of these pesticides can also make bees more susceptible to disease and less able to fight off mite infestation.

“Bees have very complicated behavior,” Moran said. “They go to a flower, then they go back to the hive and do this special dance that tells the other bees where the flower is, and if they do the dance wrong because their brains are not working right, then the other bees will not find the flower.”

Neonic pesticides are a direct human intervention that has been proven to negatively affect bee behavior. 

Natural diversity provides bees with the healthiest pollinating opportunities.

“We don’t put our bees on the edge of farms, even organic farms,” Bouffard said. “There’s so much seed out there that has been touched by Monsanto and those places.”

In 2013, the European Union banned neonic pesticides until 2015 to see if honeybee populations increase. In the U.S., Congress proposed the Saving America’s Pollinators Act in 2013 and President Barack Obama called on the EPA and other federal agencies to create a strategy that would take steps to protect bee populations.Several states including Minnesota, Oregon, New York, California and New Jersey have also banned certain strains of the neonic pesticides.

Metzger said that the best way to get truly bee-friendly plant options is to talk to the staff of garden stores and let them know that consumers want neonicotinoid-free plants.

“I think that kind of direct consumer pressure, as the stores see the public demand for them to stop using it, they’ll respond to that,” Metzger said.