Confession is supposed to be good for the soul: I was once a pig farmer. It was around 1960 that my Vocational Ag teacher persuaded me to buy a Tamworth gilt (he said “lean, bacon-type hogs” were the wave of the future). Beautena (as I christened her) was a prolific sow, producing three litters in one calendar year, and she propelled me to the Lone Star Farmer degree in FFA. But she developed milk fever and died, along with all of the piglets in that third litter. By then it was clear that a career in farming was not for me, so I chose not to reinvest in pig futures.
This reminiscence was prompted by a report in last week’s Wall Street Journal to the effect that our national craving for bacon has pushed U.S. pork-belly prices to record highs. Prices for the part of a hog used to make bacon have risen around 80% this year, while frozen reserves are at a six-decade low. Americans bought around 14% more bacon at stores in 2016 than in 2013.
In the words of one economist, “The consumer has simply waked up to the joy of having bacon on more and more things, such as hamburgers.”
Bacon used to be considered a less healthy pork byproduct compared with favored cuts like pork chops and tenderloin, but it has become our guilty pleasure. In the past decade, bacon ceased to be limited to BLT’s and breakfast specials. The bacon craze has gained increased this year.
For example, Arby’s last month introduced a series of “triple thick” bacon sandwiches, while another chain restaurant now offers maple bacon on a stick. In the perennial quest for new and different summer festivals, some cities have resorted to bacon-themed events.
Pig farmers are delighted to see record prices, but they are struggling to keep up with demand. The national hog herd rose to a seasonal record of 71.7 million head in early June, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, up 3% from a year earlier. But the increase hasn’t been enough to keep up with the rising demand for bacon.
Stocks of pork bellies in commercial freezers fell to 31.6 million pounds in May, down 59% from a year earlier. The shortage pushed the price for a pound of wholesale pork belly to $2.10 recently, the highest since the USDA began regularly tracking the market. Analysts say prices are also at a record high compared with those reported voluntarily before then.
Traditional wisdom holds that our appetite for beef and bacon typically increases ahead of a July 4 and Memorial Day grilling boost. Wholesale beef prices followed that seasonal pattern this year, falling after a mid-June peak. But it appears that bacon, meanwhile, is becoming a yearlong staple that consumers want to keep on hand.
Lean hog futures at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange hit a 2 1/2-year high in early July. Nevertheless, says one expert, “There’s a point where it just gets to be too expensive.” In the past high prices have led some retailers and restaurants to slice bacon more thinly or promote alternatives like sausage. If that happens, the demand for bacon may sizzle away.
Who knows: If this lust for bacon had roiled the markets in the 1960s, maybe I would have become a professional pig farmer.
Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches older adults to write their autobiographies and family histories. Email him at email@example.com.